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National Report - Most urban- and suburban-based DVMs expect to see plenty of dogs and cats, but the increasing number of cities allowing backyard chickens could mean more birds will be flocking to local veterinarians' offices.
NATIONAL REPORT — Most urban- and suburban-based DVMs expect to see plenty of dogs and cats, but the increasing number of cities allowing backyard chickens could mean more birds will be flocking to local veterinarians' offices.
New York City, Seattle and Chicago were the first major cities to allow such practices, and now Springfield, Mo., has joined their ranks. A 4-5 vote by City Council there effectively approved backyard farming, though the dissenting voice was strong.
Opponents cited public health concerns and extra financial pressure on the city's animal control department, which already has limited resources. But, proponents won the day, saying citizens have the right to use their property as they wish, including raising chickens. "Who are we as a government body to tell somebody what they can or can't do on their own property?" asked Councilman Nick Ibarra during the City Council meeting. He also acknowledged health issues saying there was little evidence to support a public health concern related to chickens' proximity to humans.
Under the new ordinance, similar to others across the United States, Springfield residents may keep up to six hens per backyard, and no roosters are allowed. Owners are responsible for maintaining the chickens' enclosures to ensure cleanliness and safe conditions for the animals. In addition, the backyard birds must be kept out back, behind any dwelling. A large part of the rules is keeping the chickens healthy, which may require a trip to the veterinarian.
Greg Chapman, DVM, has been seeing chickens in his Colombia, Mo., practice for years, and now that a city ordinance has passed allowing backyard farming there, he expects the numbers to rise. "In the clinic, I probably see one or two [chickens] a month," he says, adding that often issues can be resolved over the phone and the "calls are two or three times that many."
Typically, birds Chapman sees suffer from nutrition issues or problems related to housing, such as inadequate cleaning or not enough space.
However, chickens are hardy, and backyard broods in particular should have few problems, says Danny Thornton, extension instructor in Mississippi State University's poultry science department.
The main thing owners have to look out for, Thornton adds, is coccidiosis, an intestinal protozoan.
"There are four kinds of cocci that will affect birds," Thornton says. "There is one in particular that will cause the gut to hemorrhage and has a high mortality rate. If it's this kind, you'll see blood in the droppings."
Cocci affects young birds more often than older birds, which are typically more immune, but infected animals most often present with lethargy, a drooping head and weight loss despite continuing to eat.
"That infection in their intestine is depleting all their food supply," Thornton adds. To combat cocci, Thornton says birds should be treated with a regular sulfa drug or a coccidiostat, given to them in their water supply. If the infection is in its infancy, the birds should be back to normal within 48 hours.
Other potential threats include worms and bronchial issues, such as bronchitis and Newcastle disease. Vaccines are available to deter bronchial concerns, though Thornton says birds should only be vaccinated if the risk is high or one animal in a flock has already presented with the disease.
"You really need to know that you have a problem before you start vaccinating," he says,"Because you're seeding the farm down because you're using a live virus."
In addition, cleanliness and space in the house is not only important for birds' health, but also for residents to stay in compliance with local laws. In Springfield, for example, "Enclosures must provide adequate ventilation and adequate sun and shade and must be impermeable to rodents, wild birds and predators, including dogs and cats," according to the city's statement on the ordinance.
But, should a veterinarian be confronted with an unfamiliar disease issue in a chicken, Chapman recommends contacting university avian practitioners and pathologists, which he considers excellent resources. "If you do have a disease problem," he says, "you can figure it out pretty quickly."