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Backyard Chicken Recommendations In Sanctuary: A Word Of Caution

Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

There is a plethora of information available online pertaining to the care of chickens. Unfortunately, the vast majority of that information comes from the backyard chicken community where, regardless of how some of the humans may feel about the particular individuals in their care, the overall focus tends to be on the commodification of chickens. While not all backyard chicken recommendations are bad, and you may find useful information on a backyard chicken site, it is important to recognize that, because the focus is rarely on the individual chicken and what they need (outside of what humans can get from them or what they are “worth”), some recommendations commonly found on these sites are absolutely unacceptable in a sanctuary environment. If you are new to caring for chickens, it can be very difficult to navigate backyard chicken sources and to discern between what is helpful and what is problematic (some recommendations are obviously in conflict with compassionate care, but others may not be so apparent without a good understanding of chickens and the care they require).

What’s Wrong With Backyard Chickens?
In this resource, we aren’t going to get into the problems associated with the increased interest in raising backyard chickens or the ethical issues with backyard eggs. For more information on this topic, check out our resource here.

Whenever possible, we recommend getting your information from a compassionate source, though we know all too well that this is not always possible (but for general information about chicken care, we recommend heading over to our Compassionate Care Classroom and checking out our free Basic Chicken Care courses, which cover a wide range of topics in addition to the points below). If you can, it’s helpful to establish relationships with other compassionate caregivers and to check in with experienced caregivers when trying to ascertain if the backyard chicken information you have come across can/ should be applied to sanctuary residents and companion chickens.

While this is not an exhaustive list, and does not call out every unacceptable practice you may come across, below are some general things to keep in mind if you are trying to navigate backyard chicken information. If something on this list surprises you or you want to know more, be sure to check out our recommended resources at the end of this resource.

Chickens Are Not Easier Or Less Expensive To Care For Than Mammals

Many sources suggest that chickens (and sometimes farmed bird species in general) are easier to care for than mammals. This is a difficult comparison to make, and we suspect it is often made without a true understanding of the care chickens need. All animals have their own unique care needs, and whether or not these care needs are “easy” to provide depends a lot on the skills and understanding of the caregiver. We don’t find these comparisons between species very useful because of all the nuance involved, but we’d argue that chickens are actually more challenging to care for than some mammalian species. As a prey species, chickens are very good at masking signs of illness and injury until the condition progresses to the point where they are no longer able to hide it. This means that it takes thoughtful observation, regular health examinations, and a good understanding of potential signs of concern (which may be very subtle) to catch issues before they progress to a serious condition. And because of their small size, some issues that might be less urgent in a larger animal can have devastating consequences in a chicken.

Many sources also suggest that chickens are less expensive to care for than mammals. This idea that chickens should be inexpensive to care for often results in recommendations geared towards supporting this idea, which could manifest as inappropriate housing recommendations (such as a plywood lean-to), an unhealthy diet (such as recommending chickens forage for all of their nutrients or feeding whatever you can get for free), and DIY (read: free or cheap) remedies for health issues rather than recommending a trip to the veterinarian. We’ll talk more about veterinary care next, but in terms of cost, the reality is that proper veterinary care for chickens is often more expensive than what one would pay for a sheep, goat, or cow. While costs will vary by region and individual clinic, in general, you can expect to pay about $100 for a veterinary examination (more if it’s an emergency visit). Often, diagnostics will be necessary to determine the cause of a sick chicken’s symptoms, which could bring the total to over $200, not including the cost of prescribed medications. You’ll be looking at an even larger vet bill if advanced diagnostics or surgery is required.

If you find a source that suggests chickens are easy or inexpensive to care for, you should be highly suspicious of the quality of the information they provide, especially regarding proper care practices. 

Chickens Need Veterinary Care

Few backyard chicken resources stress the importance of veterinary care. In fact, some outright state that chickens do not need veterinary care. Others concede that chickens would benefit from veterinary care, but offer reasoning for why this just isn’t possible- “it’s impossible to find a veterinarian who treats chickens”; “veterinarians don’t know anything about chickens”; “veterinary care is too expensive”. Whatever reason they fall back on, the end result is chicken care informed by a DIY mentality- feedstore antibiotics without diagnostics, herbal remedies for conditions that require conventional medicine, and even DIY surgeries.

Let’s start by breaking down the common myths about veterinary care. First and foremost, chickens, like any other sanctuary resident, need to have access to appropriate veterinary care. Anyone who suggests otherwise either does not understand the care chickens require or does not view chickens as deserving of this level of care. Birds are very different from mammals; therefore, chickens require specialized care from a veterinarian trained in avian medicine. Typically, you will be looking for an exotics veterinarian, and depending on where you live, it may be difficult to find one in your area (or difficult to find one that has experience with chickens, specifically). While farm vets may be willing to work with avian patients, and are often cheaper than an avian veterinarian, that does not necessarily mean they are the best choice. Many with chicken-specific experience only have experience in production settings and are used to treating flocks rather than individuals. Their approach to euthanasia may also be very different from what you would expect for your residents. 

The idea that veterinarians do not know anything about chickens is often based on a kernel of truth- if you bring your chicken to a farm vet or a vet who specializes in dogs and cats, there’s a good chance they don’t know anything about chickens. Even an avian veterinarian may not have experience with chickens, but at least they’ll be able to apply their knowledge of avian anatomy and medicine to your residents. Sadly, even veterinarians who are experienced in working with chickens may be stumped by certain cases. Given the way society views chickens and the fact that the sanctuary movement in its modern iteration is only a few decades old, the idea of treating chicken patients as individuals and as beloved companions is still relatively new, so compassionate chicken care is constantly evolving as veterinarians and caregivers learn more.

The excuse that veterinary care for chickens is too expensive is not so much a myth as much as a matter of perceived value. Veterinary care is expensive, but if you take on the care of chickens, it is your responsibility to provide them with the care they need, just like you would for any other companion animal. We understand that financial resources do factor in, but if you care for chickens, you should be prepared to cover basic veterinary care. Adhering to the backyard chicken philosophy that caregivers can diagnose and treat their chicken residents, regardless of the issue and without the guidance of a veterinarian, suggests chickens are not worthy of veterinary care. Seeking out DIY treatments rather than appropriate veterinary care is unacceptable, and the amount of information available in backyard chicken resources regarding DIY treatments, including surgical procedures, is truly shocking. Procedures such as crop surgery, amputation, and bumblefoot surgery are often touted as at-home procedures by backyard chicken enthusiasts but, in reality, they should be performed by a licensed veterinarian with proper anesthetics and analgesics. Not only is surgery without anesthetics and analgesics cruel, without veterinary assessment and appropriate diagnostics, you will not have the full picture of what is going on and may not implement the appropriate treatment.

Predator Attacks Are Not Inevitable

It’s true that chickens are very vulnerable to attacks from a wide range of predators. However, some backyard chicken resources act as if losing a chicken (or multiple chickens) to predation is an inevitable part of caring for chickens. With proper fencing and housing (and routine maintenance), predator attacks are not inevitable- accidents happen, but a predator attack, if it occurs, should be exceedingly rare and should result in immediate modifications to keep residents safe. Without proper precautions, residents are at risk from predator attacks both during the day and at night. Sources that suggest predator attacks are inevitable either don’t know better (which should call their experience into question) or don’t view chickens as worth the work of protecting (which should make their recommendations suspect). And if they use the logic that predation is a natural part of life, ask yourself why humans accept this “natural part of life” when it comes to caring for some species but not others (most people would protect their dog or cat from a predator attack, why don’t chickens deserve the same consideration?).

Chickens Need Protection From The Cold

Backyard chicken sources often focus more on the risks of hot weather than on the risks of cold weather and typically suggest that “cold hardy” breeds do not need more than a basic shelter (possibly even without insulation) in order to stay warm. While extreme heat is an issue, and precautions should be taken to keep residents cool, cold weather is more of a concern than many backyard chicken resources let on. Some people go as far as to claim that chickens can survive without a heat source in temperatures as low as -30°F. Chickens, whether they are labeled “cold hardy” or not, are vulnerable to frostbite in temperatures below 20°F. Combs, wattles, toes, feet, and even legs can become frostbitten, and severe frostbite can result in disability due to loss of toes, feet, or even portions of their legs. Cold temperatures can also exacerbate certain health conditions. Therefore, chickens need appropriate housing that will protect them from the elements, and depending on your climate, they will also need a safe heat source to maintain a comfortable ambient temperature year round. To provide these heating options, you will need a safe way to power heat sources while keeping fire safety in mind. Many backyard chicken resources use the fire risk heat lamps pose as a reason not to provide supplemental heat. They are right to point out the risks associated with heat lamps- they have been known to cause tragic fires- and these risks are why we do not recommend using them (especially not glass bulb varieties). Ceramic wall heating panels or fully sealed oil-filled portable electric radiators are typically safer options, though a radiator will need to be positioned and secured so that it does not come into contact with bedding, cannot tip, and so that birds cannot come into direct contact with it. You’ll also need to make sure it doesn’t contain polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) which could result in Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis (also known as Teflon Flu and Polymer Fume Fever). To further mitigate any fire risk, you’ll need to check heating sources regularly and make sure your electric is safe, up-to-code, encased in conduit, and able to safely support any device you use, and you’ll need to ensure the devices can be plugged directly into an outlet rather than into an extension cord. 

Cornish Crosses And Other Large Breed Chickens Can Live Long, Happy Lives

While backyard chicken recommendations, in general, can be problematic, when it comes to information and care recommendations for Cornish crosses and other large breed chickens, it’s best to steer clear entirely and consult with experienced caregivers or sanctuaries instead. There is a lot of incorrect information out there suggesting that Cornish crosses cannot live past a few months old or that it is cruel to allow them to live past the age at which they are typically killed (which is about 42 days of age). The truth is, while they do require specialized care, sanctuary Cornish cross residents can live many years, and some have lived close to ten years!

Other Topics That Can Be Especially Problematic
In addition to large breed chickens, when it comes to the care of roosters, elderly chickens, and individuals with disabilities, as well as information on end-of-life care and euthanasia, compassionate resources are going to be your best bet.

Without a thorough understanding of who chickens are and what they need, it can be difficult to evaluate backyard chicken recommendations. Be sure to take time to learn more about chickens as a species, and get to know the individuals in your care. Keep in mind that care decisions should be based on what your residents need to thrive; should honor who they are, both as chickens and as individuals; and should reflect what it means to provide sanctuary.

What Does ‘Unacceptable’ Mean?
At The Open Sanctuary Project, unacceptable means that we cannot condone (or condone through omission) a certain practice, standard, or policy. See a more detailed explanation here.

Infographic

Looking to share this information in an accessible way with other sanctuaries and supporters? Check out and share our infographic below!

Backyard Chicken Recommendations: A Word Of Caution by Tara Hess

Further Reading:

Basic Chicken Care Part 1 (Non-Large Breed or Large Breed version)

Basic Chicken Care Part 2 (must complete Basic Chicken Care Part 1 first)

Creating A Good Home For Chickens

Compassionate Wildlife Practices At Your Animal Sanctuary

How To Find Appropriate Veterinary Care For Your Farmed Animal Sanctuary’s Residents

Large Breed Chicken Special Care Considerations

SOURCES:

Backyard Or Battery? | Chicken Run Rescue

Providing A Good Home For Chickens

Updated on June 25, 2021

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