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Ask Dr. Jenn: My family wants to start raising backyard chickens. What do we need to know?

Regulations and care around raising chickens is different than domesticated pets.

November 8, 2022 3 min read
Ask Dr. Jenn: My family wants to start raising backyard chickens. What do we need to know?

The very first thing you need to do is to check with your local government to find out the regulation regarding raising chickens, especially if you live within city limits. Some cities won’t allow chickens, others require a certain lot size. There may be rules regarding the size of your flock and whether or not roosters are allowed.

Once you have approval for chickens, the next thing to do is to build or purchase a chicken coop. The coop should include both an enclosed inside area for night and bad weather and a fenced in area outside where they can scratch and peck at the grass, eat bugs, and run around for exercise. The hen house should have enough space for each chicken to nest and roost with material that is easy to clean and change as needed. Adequate ventilation is also important to keep the birds from overheating and help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases amongst the birds. The coop needs be secure enough to keep out predators, such as neighborhood dogs, foxes, and raccoons. Depending on where you live, you may also need a top on your outdoor pen to protect the chickens from hawks or owls.

When planning a space for your chickens, make sure you know how big they will be in adulthood and how many chickens you want in your flock. Adult chickens need two to four square feet per bird, depending on the breed and size. Overcrowding can be very stressful leading to diseases and aggression issues.

IF you live within the city limits, you will most likely want to limit your flock to just hens. Roosters don’t just crow at the break of dawn, they cock-a-doodle-doo ALL. DAY. LONG. And if you have more than one rooster, there may be some fighting over territory. Most hens do not need a rooster around to lay eggs. They will produce sterile eggs when the conditions are right. If you purchase your birds as chicks, it can be harder to sex them. But within a few weeks, you will know if there is a male or two in the group. It’s pretty easy to find a place to take your male chicken, especially if you don’t care that they end up in chicken noodle soup.

Your chickens should be fed pelleted rations depending on their stage in life – growing chick, pullet, reproductive maturity, or growth foods for chickens intended for meat. Your local feed store can help pick the best diet for your chickens based on their age and purpose.
Free-range chickens that eat worms, slugs, frogs, and other things found outside should still be provided with a pelleted ration in order to ensure they are getting a well-balanced diet. The chickens should also have access to clean, fresh water at all times.

Backyard chickens do not require regular veterinary visits and vaccinations, like our dog and cat pets do. But it is important to establish with an avian vet in your area in case of any illnesses. It is also very important to wash your hands before and after handling your chickens to prevent the spread of diseases back and forth, such as salmonella and avian influenza. Chickens can also be hosts to intestinal parasites so fecal checks through your veterinarian are recommended. Do not give any medications without your veterinarian’s approval. Your vet will be able to give you guidance on what medications are safe to use in laying hens and withdrawal times necessary for birds intended for food.

This is just a basic idea of things you need to know before you invest in chickens. The good news is that backyard chickens are growing in popularity every year so there is a lot more information available and more vets willing to see your sick chicks. Enjoy your new adventure and send me pictures of some adorable chicks!