Updated November 6, 2020
If you are planning on providing lifelong care for chickens, either in a sanctuary or microsanctuary environment, the hands-on training you’ll need and the standard care practices you must develop for your residents are much more rigorous than what non-sanctuary chicken resources may have led you to believe! Taking in chickens without having the appropriate skills and policies in place could threaten their health and well-being, as well as the health of other residents at your sanctuary.
This introductory resource is not intended to dissuade you from rescue, but merely provide a perspective on what a sanctuary must be able to commit to in order to provide the best life for a chicken.
Chicken Care That Should Be Taught By An Expert
Responsible chicken care means being able to fully understand and perform safe handling and healthcare techniques, as well as being able to react rapidly and effectively in the event of an emergency. Anyone who is in charge of regularly providing care to chickens should be taught the following techniques from a compassionate chicken care expert or a qualified veterinarian.
- Performing a chicken health examination: All of the chickens in your care need to be regularly examined from their comb to their toes in order to catch any health problems early on for successful treatment. An expert or veterinarian can give you hands-on training so you can give examinations quickly, efficiently, and with the least stress possible for the chicken.
- Picking up, holding, carrying, and setting down a chicken: Although this technique is relatively simple to learn, there are many nuances that an expert must demonstrate for you in order to prevent potentially serious health consequences from mishandling. Certain individual chickens may require unique handling techniques, due to their breed, personality, or health status.
- Understanding the safe range of joint motions in chickens: When performing health examinations on chickens, it’s important to check their wing, leg, and foot flexibility and check for signs of pain, infection, inflammation, or arthritis. You must have an expert demonstrate for you how to check the range of motion in their bodies without causing injury and teach you what a healthy chicken looks and feels like. This way, you can be the best advocate possible for them if something feels or looks amiss.
- Evaluating a chicken’s crop: Crop problems such as impaction are unfortunately common in chickens and can cause death if left unmanaged. For this reason, you must learn how to evaluate a chicken’s crop, and quickly discern between how a full or empty crop typically feels in order to sound the alarm if something’s wrong.
- Evaluating a chicken’s keel and abdomen: Similarly to their crop, you must be taught where a chicken’s abdomen is and how it normally feels. Abdominal issues such as an impacted oviduct, fluid buildup (especially due to Ovarian or Oviductal Cancer) or Egg Yolk Peritonitis, can be lethal if they go by unnoticed. You must also know what a keel should generally feel like, as keel issues can indicate a chicken’s overall health status. Keel sores must be quickly identified and treated before the infection spreads.
- Evaluating a chicken’s droppings: Abnormal chicken droppings can be a warning sign that something is amiss in them, be it a problem with their nutrition, reproductive system, an illness, or a parasitic infection. It’s important to learn what healthy chicken poop typically looks like for the individual chickens in your care throughout the day so that abnormalities can be caught and evaluated early on. Early intervention for many chicken health issues can be lifesaving.
- Trimming a chicken’s nails, spurs, or beak: Safe trimming is a health essential for chickens that someone at your sanctuary must be able to regularly perform. Improper technique could hurt or permanently injure a chicken.
- Bumblefoot management in chickens: Bumblefoot is a highly common illness in sanctuary birds, especially large breed chickens. If left untreated, it could lead to deeper infection, osteomyelitis, severe mobility issues, and possibly the chicken’s death. Treatment is dependent on the kind of infection and how much it’s progressed into the chicken’s foot. Failure to learn appropriate Bumblefoot treatment techniques (including how to dress and wrap a chicken’s foot) could lead to greater health problems than the infection itself.
- Treating mites, parasites, and lice in chickens: Although it may seem straightforward to treat individuals for these problems, you should have someone demonstrate dosage and technique until you are fully comfortable with treatment. Some birds may become seriously ill or die if they are exposed to too much pesticide or anti-parasitic medication.
- Handling a prolapsed chicken: You must learn exactly what to do if a chicken is prolapsing or has an egg partially stuck in their vent. There are different medical requirements and ways of managing the situation depending on the severity of the prolapse. Failing to have appropriate training for health emergencies such as these could cause additional damage or death in chickens.
- Administering oral and injectable medications to chickens: You must be shown how to safely administer a pill and oral suspension to a chicken without causing them undue stress, accidentally choking them, or causing them to aspirate. While oral medications are often preferred, there are instances when an injection is necessary (or in some cases safer than administering a large volume of a liquid medication), so you must learn how to administer properly.
- Dropper/ syringe feeding and gastric intubation for chickens: If a chicken is in too much pain to peck at food (such as a recently rescued industry bird who has been debeaked), you will need to learn how to feed them using a dropper or syringe. There is a very specific way to place the liquid in their mouth and hold their head. Failing to learn the right technique could cause aspiration and death. In situations where a chicken will not, or cannot, eat on their own and syringe feeding is not appropriate, the chicken will need to be fed with a feeding tube. Gastric intubation absolutely must be taught by an expert. The threshold for lethal mistakes is very high due to their biology.
- Administering subcutaneous fluids: A chicken who does not feel well may become dehydrated which can be quite dangerous. You must be shown how to safely administer subcutaneous fluids to a chicken so that you are able to maintain proper hydration in a chicken who will not drink on their own.
- Draining abdominal fluids in chickens: Abdominal fluid draining, such as in the case of Ovarian Cancer management, must be taught by an expert. If you do not know exactly how, when, and where to make the right insertion, or use the wrong tools, you could potentially cause a chicken’s death.
Necessary Practices For Responsible Chicken Guardianship
In order to provide the best care possible for chickens, you must have the proper policies and practices in place, in addition to providing them with the best environment and nutrition possible.
- Establishing regular record keeping policies for chickens: Keeping detailed records of chicken residents from intake until they leave your sanctuary is a crucial part of giving them the best healthcare as well as providing an extra layer of legal protection to your sanctuary in certain circumstances.
- Creating and following a new chicken arrival protocol: Flock safety means following practical biosecurity and quarantine guidelines when you bring a new resident chicken onto your sanctuary grounds. Failing to have an appropriate intake process could pose a serious risk to your residents.
- Daily checkups for each individual: Although it does not have to be as rigorous as a health examination, each of the individual chickens you take in must be visually looked over at least once a day (such as during feeding time) to watch out for early signs of illness or other health concerns. It is not responsible to take in chickens and not be able to provide this minimum standard of care for each of them.
- Creating an egg policy: If you’re caring for chickens who lay eggs, you must create and abide by an egg policy for your sanctuary. Would you consider implanting the chickens to potentially protect them from reproductive health challenges? If not, what will you do with the eggs to benefit the chickens who lay them?
- Talk to your veterinarian about vaccine protocols: Most of the sanctuaries we spoke to do not regularly vaccinate their chicken residents, but in cases where a sanctuary dealt with an outbreak of a specific disease, they may opt to vaccinate going forward. Be sure to talk with your veterinarian before implementing a vaccine protocol, and make sure they fully understand your mission and how the sanctuary functions. There may be vaccines they recommend for most of their clients that either aren’t appropriate or aren’t necessary in a sanctuary setting.
- Regular fecal testing of chickens: Chickens can fall victim to a host of dangerous ailments and diseases that may not present symptoms visibly until they’re too late to treat. You must create a fecal testing schedule and follow it for all chickens in order to head off health challenges early on.
- Creating a plan for isolation or quarantine: If a chicken becomes ill or injured and needs time away from the rest of your residents to heal or prevent the spread of disease, you will need an appropriate area reserved to isolate them. Without space to isolate an ill or injured resident, you risk the spread of disease or further injury to the individual.
What You Must Provide For Chickens
Responsible chicken care means making sure that their food, water, and shelter is provided and maintained to a high standard. Many commercial “backyard” chicken setups are not designed with the chicken’s best interest in mind and cannot be assumed to be an ideal living space for them. Similarly, the nutrition you provide for them should be considered in terms of what works best for them, rather than what’s easiest!
- Providing appropriate living spaces for chickens: You must give chickens an appropriate living space, with sunlight, clean air, appropriate temperature and humidity control, fencing, perches, and individual nesting areas. They should have a safe place to roam, dust bathe, and enjoy enriching activities. Forcing chickens to live in cramped, dark, muddy, dirty, icy, or dangerous conditions is unacceptable. You should never take in so many chickens that they lack adequate personal space!
- Providing appropriate food, water, and supplementation for chickens: You must feed chickens a healthy diet suited to their individual needs. They need clean water that doesn’t freeze over in the winter, nutritional supplementation as recommended by a veterinarian, and grit to aid in healthy digestion. It’s unacceptable to knowingly feed them food that causes health problems or excessive weight gain. You must be willing to adjust their food and supplementation if a chicken needs their diet modified to rectify health challenges as well. Large breed chickens must be fed a managed portion diet at all times. A sanctuary must never feed a chicken with food designed to make them larger for human consumption.
- Regular cleaning and maintenance of chicken living spaces: You must establish and follow a regular cleaning schedule for the spaces where chickens live and sleep. Ignoring regular cleaning and bedding replacement can cause chickens to develop a host of easily avoidable illnesses such as scald, parasites, or social challenges like bullying. Chickens who break eggs on themselves must have the material cleaned thoroughly off their body and nesting area to prevent parasitic infection.
- Protecting residents from predators: It is unacceptable to create living spaces that do not offer responsible protection from regional predators. You must implement strategies to prevent predators from entering their living space and regularly review the effectiveness of your efforts. Because they are especially vulnerable overnight, residents must have a predator-proof living space that they are closed in each evening. In addition to the typical predators that may come to mind, rats can also kill or mortally injure chickens, especially overnight. Therefore, the space chickens are closed in overnight must be designed and maintained to protect residents from this threat.
- Creating and maintaining indoor living spaces with rodent-proofing in mind: Just as you must protect your residents from predators, it is important to create indoor living spaces that discourage or make it difficult for rodents to take up residence in them. In addition to the danger rats pose to chicken residents, mice and rats can potentially spread disease to residents. Rodents can also cause safety issues by damaging electrical wires (which could result in a fire) or getting into insulation (and creating opportunities for residents to ingest insulation). Be sure to design the space so that any insulation and electrical wires are contained in such a way that rodents cannot access them, avoid (or regularly check) gaps that could easily be turned into a cozy nest, and make sure any supplies that may attract rodents are sealed in metal bins (especially food).
- Regular hardware disease mitigation: You need to keep chickens safe from hardware disease by regularly checking their areas for potentially dangerous materials that they may ingest.
- Honoring the needs of young chickens, older chickens, and large breed chickens: Chickens who are very young or older have unique care needs that must be accommodated in order to thrive. Cornish Cross and other large breed chickens have very specific healthcare requirements that must be carefully managed in order to provide them with the best life possible. You should not take in birds with special care requirements until you understand what they need and have an environment and policies in place for them!
- Providing appropriate veterinary care and medication for chickens: When you give sanctuary to a chicken, you are committing to providing them a high quality of life and individual care. Part of this means having a qualified avian veterinarian who understands chicken care and is willing to treat health problems, manage pain, and provide compassionate end of life care when necessary. It is unacceptable to take in chickens and deny them medical attention or withhold pain management.
This is not an exhaustive list of everything you must know and provide for chickens in a sanctuary environment. Individual chickens may have their own needs and challenges that require additional training and policies to give them the best life possible!