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Caring for backyard chickens

July 25, 2017

The BC SPCA is supports consumers seeking alternatives to eggs produced by hens housed in battery cages.  However, backyard chickens can be a lot of work and bring their own unique challenges, so they aren’t the right fit for everyone.

If raising hens isn’t for you, purchase eggs produced on SPCA Certified farms and from other certified cage-free farmers who have professional expertise in the humane raising of chickens.

If you are thinking keeping of backyard chickens, here are some important questions to ask yourself:

1.) Does your municipality allow the keeping of backyard hens?

First, consult your local bylaws. Try searching your municipality’s name and “backyard chickens.” Here are a few commonly asked about locations:

2.) Do you have the knowledge or skills necessary to provide care for chickens?

This includes:

  • The ability to recognize common symptoms of health problems in chickens
  • The ability to humanely euthanize a chicken, or access to someone who can (e.g. a poultry veterinarian)
  • Finding a knowledgeable hen sitter when you leave town
  • Having at least two hens so your hen isn’t lonely

A mentor who has experience raising chickens can help you make decisions such as what type of housing you will use, where you will buy humanely raised chicks,  and how to care for the chickens on a daily basis. Poultry veterinarians or experienced farmers are good sources of information. Often, social media is not a good source of reliable information.

3.) Do you have access to suitable nutrition and veterinary care in your community?

  • Pet store bird feed may not meet the nutritional needs of chickens. Where will you purchase chicken feed?
  • Will veterinarians in your community treat chickens? It is essential you have a relationship with a veterinarian who can assist you with any health concerns that come up.

4.) What will you do with hens who have stopped laying eggs?

  • Hens can live for 5-11 years, yet their productive egg-laying diminishes significantly after the first year. Chickens may stop laying eggs well before they reach the end of their natural life.
  • Like any senior pet, older hens need special care to keep them healthy.
  • Egg-laying chickens and broiler chickens (i.e. those raised for meat) are different breeds of chicken. Layers are thinner and less muscular, and therefore do not produce a lot of meat.
  • What happens if you accidentally get a rooster? Hens and roosters look very similar as chicks and even experienced breeders sometimes mistake a rooster for a hen. Municipalities who allow backyard hens often do not allow roosters. What will you do with him?

5.) How will you protect your flock?

What will you do to prevent:

  • Attraction of animals to chicken feed or to baby chicks?
  • Attack from wildlife such as mink, coyotes, raccoons, birds of prey and skunks?
  • Attacks from loose dogs or cats?

Housing must keep your flock safe at night and during the day.

6.) How will you dispose of chicken waste, feathers that have been shed and carcasses?

  • Used litter, feathers the birds shed, and all that poo. How will you dispose of it in an environmentally conscious way? Do you have the time and space to carefully compost it?
  • What happens if one of your birds dies? How will you dispose of its body? Your municipality may have restrictions on animal burials.

7.) Are you aware that there are risks associated with chickens contracting avian flu?

  • If there is an outbreak, pet birds are at risk of being included in a government-mandated cull of all nearby chickens.

8.) Backyard chicken coops must, at minimum, abide by the requirements of the Canadian Code of Practice for egg-laying hens

To further ensure chickens’ behavioural needs are met, the SPCA Certified program requires the following standards be met:

  • Provide an outdoor enclosure so hens can go outside, weather permitting.
  • Indoor environments must provide space for hens to exercise and should have natural lighting
  • Outdoor enclosures must be predator-proof, including fencing that extends below ground, and overhead netting to protect from birds of prey.
  • Owners must provide enough nest boxes to accommodate the whole flock.
  • Owners must provide dust-bathing material so hens can keep their skin and feathers healthy.
  • Owners must provide  perching and roosting areas for hens to rest.
  • Owners must provide protection from temperature and weather extremes (e.g. heat, cold, wind, rain, snow)

For more information, email the BC SPCA.