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Caring for urban and backyard chickens

July 25, 2017

The BC SPCA is supportive of urban consumers seeking alternatives to conventional eggs produced by hens housed in battery cages; however, raising hens in an urban, backyard environment is not a suitable practice for individuals with little to no knowledge or experience in chicken care.

Instead, consumers are encouraged to 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 still thinking keeping of urban chickens, here are some important questions to ask yourself:

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

Consult your city bylaws: City of Vancouver rules for backyard chickens.

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

Such care includes:

  • The ability to recognize common symptoms of disease, injury, and parasitic infection in chickens, and knowledge of what to do to treat such problems
  • The ability to humanely euthanize a chicken, or access to someone who can (e.g. a poultry veterinarian or experienced chicken farmer)

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 the proper chicken feed in quantities suitable for a small backyard flock?
  • Will urban small animal veterinarians in your community allow a chicken into their practice?
  • Do you know how to humanely handle and transport chickens to veterinary facilities?

4.) What will you do with birds that have gone beyond their egg-laying time-frame?

  • 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.
  • Did you know 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.

5.) Some aspects of the urban environment are not compatible with keeping backyard hens.

What will you do to prevent:

  • Attraction of rats to chicken feed or to baby chicks
  • Attack from urban wildlife such as mink, coyotes, raccoons, birds of prey and skunks? There is also risk of attack from domesticated dogs or cats roaming in the neighbourhood. This may have the unintended side-effect of encouraging aggressive behaviour in dogs.

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. What are you going to do to dispose of it in an environmentally conscious way?
  • What happens if one of your birds dies? How will you dispose of its body?

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 the cull of all nearby urban and rural chickens

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

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

  • It is ideal to provide a free-range enclosure so hens can go outside, weather permitting; however, indoor free-run environments must also provide adequate space for hens to exercise and should include natural lighting
  • Outdoor enclosures must be predator-proof, including perimeter fencing that extends below ground, and overhead netting to prevent avian predators (i.e. birds of prey)
  • Owners must provide enough private 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 above ground perching and roosting areas for hens to rest. Hens prefer to roost up off the ground at night.
  • Owners must provide protection from temperature and weather extremes (e.g. heat, cold, wind, rain, snow)

9.) How will you transport your birds? Do you know how to humanely catch and handle them?

Any transportation of end-of-lay hens should be carried out with particular care in a manner that minimizes stress and reduces the chance of injury. Birds that appear sick or injured prior to catching must not be transported, and must be humanely euthanized immediately.

Birds being transported are subject to a number of stresses, including:

  • Catching and handling
  • Deprivation of food, water and normal movement
  • Changes in climatic conditions (high or low temperatures, humidity and precipitation)
  • Suffocation due to crowding or piling of birds
  • Unfamiliar surroundings, noises and sensations

Minimum transport requirements for chickens can be found in Canada’s Transport Code of Practice. Read on for a summary of important considerations.

Low-stress Handling

  • Catching and loading of birds should happen under subdued lighting while the birds are at rest. Ideally, catching should be done in full darkness using a head lantern.
  • Ensure low-stress catching of free-run/range hens by:
    1. Reducing the light intensity in the barn or using blue bulbs, which provide illumination for humans but not for birds
    2. Corralling birds into small groups using dividers or screens in order to prevent crowding an piling of large numbers of birds
    3. Placing birds in the transport crates inside the barn as close to the point of catching as possible to minimize the time birds are carried
  • If possible, birds should be held upright with two hands. If birds must be picked up by the legs, they must be held by both legs. Spent hens have very brittle bones, and should be handle with extreme care.
  • When loaded into crates/boxes, birds must be positioned on their feet, and crates must always be carried in a horizontal position.

To avoid unnecessary injuries and discomfort in transit, the transport crates (boxes) must:

  • Be clean and sturdy
  • Be of a design that prevents escape or the protrusion of any part of a bird
  • Have a floor design that prevents birds’ toes from being injured when stacked
  • Be of sufficient height to allow birds to stand up fully
  • Allow for adequate ventilation
  • Not have sharp edges that could cause injuries
  • Provide at least 340 square centimeters per bird, and preferably more

Feed and Water

  • Birds must receive feed during the 24 hours prior to transport and must not be deprived of water prior to loading
  • Birds should not be held in containers for longer than 12 hours unless they have access to feed and water
  • Once the birds arrive at their final destination, they should be provided with feed, water and a place to get used to their new surroundings. Water is particularly critical upon arrival; the transporter should assist the birds in locating the new water source(s) by pouring water into the reservoir.

Climatic Conditions

  • During transit, birds must be protected from the wind, rain, and extreme temperatures

Humane Euthanasia

  • If necessary, euthanasia must be carried out be a trained and proficient individual who can perform the procedure quickly and effectively to minimize experience of pain or stress to the hen

10.) Are you aware that you will be held accountable for the health and welfare of the chickens?

Failure to provide your chickens with a level of care that meets the Canadian Code of Practice for laying hens would be considered an act of cruelty and could result in fines and/or charges.

Please note: Neither the Vancouver Animal Control facility nor the BC SPCA Vancouver Animal Shelter have facilities to house unwanted chickens. Likewise, there are no facilities to accommodate birds seized from individuals who contravene sections of the community bylaw or the BC Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act.

For more information on this issue, please get in contact with your local community council or email the BC SPCA.