Preventing Diseases in Pet Chickens With Client Education

July 6, 2018

Brenna Fitzgerald, DVM, DABVP (Avian Practice), associate veterinarian at the Medical Center for Birds in Oakley, California, gives advice for veterinarians faced with clients who own pet chickens.

Owning backyard poultry has become a trend, with more and more people regarding their chickens as pets. Brenna Fitzgerald, DVM, DABVP (Avian Practice), associate veterinarian at the Medical Center for Birds in Oakley, California, gives advice for veterinarians faced with clients who own pet chickens.

"I think some of the most important things that we should communicate to owners is first of all what the appropriate diet is for laying hens. And that is generally a commercial formulated ration that is designed for producing hens. The nutrition in those diets is absolutely optimum and an enormous amount of research has gone into developing optimum diets for layers, mainly because of the commercial poultry industry and the need for birds to produce good quality eggs for as long as possible. So, if birds are fed almost exclusively a laying ration like that, supplemented with some leafy green vegetables—generally I advise people to avoid spinach and chard because they contain calcium oxalates and may interfere with the absorption of calcium from the GI tract—but other leafy greens and very, very minimal as far as fruits and things from the table, scratch, green things like that, the birds should be allowed to range and forage some if the premises permits that so they can also get some insects naturally, but that's a really optimum diet.

So, going over that with people is important, calcium supplementation with oyster shell is oftentimes a good addition to that diet, so also talking to people about how to monitor their bird's body weight and using a scale to look up breed-standard body weights so that they can maintain their birds in the lean body condition and avoid obesity. That can prevent a lot of the common diseases that we see in pet chickens.

There's also some advice that helps as far as controlling when and how much chickens lay. So, discussions about photoperiod and about how much light birds should be exposed to and for how many hours in the day so that they have periods of rest and are not in constant production through a year or more. Those management strategies can also reduce the risk of reproductive tract disease. I think it's important for people to be aware that when they purchase new birds and add them to the flock that they be Merrick's vaccinated, that wherever they purchase their chicks that they make sure that they do so from hatcheries that have vaccinated the birds. Generally, people don't need to worry about trying to vaccinate their flock for any other pathogens, so that's a common question about, 'Well, do I need to be vaccinating my birds regularly for anything?' and generally the answer to that is no.

Furthermore, I ask people to be very vigilant about watching out for anything unusual about what their birds are doing. Chickens are very good at hiding clinical signs of disease and it's easier, of course, to intervene when something is caught earlier. When people really get to know their birds and what's normal behavior for their birds, if they think that even anything is slightly amiss, it's a good reason to contact us and have their bird evaluated."