The BC SPCA supports consumers seeking alternatives to eggs produced by caged laying hens. Raising backyard laying hens has become a popular option in both rural and urban areas. However, hens can be a lot of work and bring their own unique challenges, so they aren’t the right fit for everyone.
If you are thinking of keeping hens, it is important to consider if you have the knowledge, time, resources, and commitment needed to care for them. Make sure you are prepared to properly care for hens before buying them – poultry veterinarians or experienced farmers are good sources of information. Often, social media is not a reliable source.
Here are some important questions to ask yourself:
Are there legal obligations to caring for backyard laying hens?
Consult your local bylaws first to know if backyard hens are permitted in your area, and if there are any specific requirements that must be followed. Try searching your municipality’s name and “backyard chickens.” Here are a few commonly asked about locations:
It is very important to the well-being of hens to have at least two hens so they don’t get lonely. However, municipalities may have restrictions on the maximum number of hens permitted on one property. New hens must be carefully introduced to the flock to ensure they get along.
Hens will lay eggs on their own; a rooster is not required. But 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 laying hens often do not allow roosters due to noise. Ensure you have made arrangements in advance with the breeder to return any unexpected roosters to them.
Those caring for backyard laying hens must follow the requirements of the Canadian Code of Practice for laying hens. However, it is recommended to go above and beyond what is required in this Code in order to further improve your hens’ welfare.
Can you provide a suitable environment for laying hens?
Laying hens require a comfortable, clean, well-ventilated, and secure house that provides them enough space to walk around and flap their wings. Hen houses (or coops) can be bought from stores, or you can make your own. Hen houses must have litter for chickens to scratch around in, perches for roosting, and comfortable nest boxes for hens to lay their eggs. They must also protect hens from the weather and predators like wild animals or cats and dogs.
Do you have an outdoor area that hens can explore? Exploring an outdoor environment allows hens to perform many natural behaviours, such as scratching around in the dirt, foraging through the grass, and dustbathing. The outdoor area should be enclosed with secure fencing to keep other animals out, and must be safe to ensure hens cannot become trapped within it or injured by it. Feed should be stored in secure containers and in an enclosed area to prevent attracting wildlife.
Do you have access to veterinary care in your community?
Is there a veterinarian in your community that has experience treating chickens? It is essential you have a relationship with a veterinarian to help keep your hens healthy, and who can assist you if any health concerns come up, including euthanasia.
Do you know how to prevent and detect disease in chickens?
Chickens are susceptible to diseases that can cause serious illness and even death. It is important that you follow guidelines to reduce the risk of disease. These include:
- Preventing contact between your hens and wild birds or other animals
- Regular cleaning of the hens’ environment and equipment (e.g., feed and water dispensers)
- Recognizing common symptoms of health problems, and notifying your veterinarian of concerns. Signs to look for include:
- Lack of energy or appetite
- Coughing, difficulty breathing, or sneezing
- Discharge from nostrils or eyes
- Decreased egg production
- Hunched posture, head tucked under wing, drooping wings or tail
- Lameness (abnormal walk)
- Limit exposure to visitors – people can spread diseases to hens too
- Keep new hens separate when entering your flock until it’s known they are healthy
Are you aware of the risks to human health associated with keeping laying hens?
Chickens can carry various viruses and bacteria that can infect people, including Bird flu (Avian influenza), Campylobacteriosis (Campylobacter bacteria), E. coli (Escherichia coli bacteria), and Salmonellosis (Salmonella bacteria). In most cases, these diseases are spread through the feces (poop) of infected chickens, contaminated food, or the environment.
It is very important that proper hygiene practices are followed to reduce your risk of disease. This includes:
- Always washing your hands after handling hens, or anything in their environment
- Not eating or drinking where your hens live or roam
- Not allowing hens to enter your home
- Wearing a separate pair of shoes for hen care, and keeping these shoes outdoors
- Remaining outdoors when cleaning equipment (e.g., feed and water containers)
Do you know how to feed laying hens a well-balanced diet?
Providing laying hens a proper diet is essential to keeping them happy and healthy. Pet store bird feed may not meet the nutritional needs of your hens. A good quality commercial poultry feed should be the main part of their diet. Always consult with you veterinarian to ensure you are meeting the nutritional requirements of your hens throughout their lives.
To help your hens digest their food, they should have access to grit, such as gravel. It is very important your hens receive enough calcium in their diet, as calcium is used to produce eggs. If not, calcium deficiency can lead to osteoporosis (weak bones), as calcium normally used to form strong bones is instead being used for egg production.
In addition to feed, hens must have constant access to clean drinking water.
Do you know how to provide enrichment to your hens to keep them happy?
Enrichment mentally stimulates chickens and allows them to perform natural behaviours. If your hens are not provided with enrichment, they may become stressed and frustrated. This could lead to the development of harmful behaviours such as feather pecking or bullying of other hens.
Enrichment can come in many different forms, such as providing platforms for hens to explore, toys for hens to play with, or treat dispensers. It is important for enrichment items to be changed regularly, so that the hens do not become bored.
What will you do with hens who have stopped laying eggs?
Hens can live for five to 11 years, yet their egg-laying diminishes significantly after the first year. Hens 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.
How will you dispose of chicken waste?
How will you dispose of used litter, feathers the hens shed, and all that poop in an environmentally conscious way? Chicken waste can make a great garden compost, but do you have the time and space to carefully compost it?
Laying hens can be a great addition to your backyard as a source of eggs. But like any animal, it’s important to ensure you are prepared and equipped to meet their unique needs – leading to happy and healthy hens.
For more information, email the BC SPCA.
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