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Farm Animal Care

Physiology
The average lifespan for a domestic chicken is 5 to 8 years for "layer" breeds such as Rhode Island Reds, 1 to 4 years for factory layer breeds such as leghorns, and 1 to 3 years for "meat" breeds. Commercial flocks are bred to be either abnormally large (meat breeds) or genetically altered to lay huge quantities of eggs (layer breeds), and are purposefully fed a diet laced with drugs and chemicals. These factors, along with the raising of chickens in intensive confinement systems, can result in later health problems and early death. Mature female layer chickens (hens) weigh between 5 to 13 pounds. Leghorn layers weigh between 3 to 6 pounds. Mature male chickens (roosters) weigh between 10 to 18 pounds. Layers (bred for egg production) are smaller than broilers (bred for meat production). A chicken’s normal body temperature is 107° F, with young chickens ranging between 102° F to 106° F.

Nutritional Needs
Water - Clean, fresh water must be available at all times. The use of a poultry fountain is recommended to avoid spillage and to keep water as clean as possible. In warmer weather, check water often throughout the day. For colder weather, the use of a water heater is recommended if you live in an area that has freezing temperatures. Always keep the water supply clean of feces and bedding materials, even if that requires cleaning your water often throughout the day.
Feed - Chicken feed can be purchased at most farm supply stores. Commercial chicken feed is designed to promote fast growth and/or increase egg production, which is very harmful for an animal that is already bred to be abnormally large or lay unnatural quantities of eggs. Our recommendation is to mix your own feed, using a mixture of equal parts of whole corn, oats and sunflower seeds, with a dash of grit (necessary for digestion). The addition of sunflower seeds to the diet is very important, as it is a chicken's main source of calcium and is necessary for the formation of the eggshell. Non-medicated chicken scratch is also available at most farm feed supply stores, and you can easily add sunflowers to it for a complete feed. Chickens generally self-regulate their food intake; however, if you notice that your chicken is exceeding his/her normal weight, especially in "meat-type" breeds, restrict the amount of feed per day. Greens supply up to 25% of the nutritional needs of your chicken. In addition to fresh pasture, alfalfa, grain sprouts, lettuce, cabbage, and Swiss chard are fine greens for your chicken.
Factory Layer Hen Feed - Since hens from factory situations, especially leghorn layers, have been genetically altered, their bodies produce more eggs than a non-altered hen, and therefore require a diet with higher calcium levels. For information of different diets for layer hens, see our shelter website.
Feeders - Chickens, particularly ones that have been debeaked, do not like to eat food off the ground. Choose a container that is heavy enough to avoid tipping and small enough to prevent your birds from walking or standing in their feed, as this can lead to contamination by feces. Special poultry feeders are available through farm and feed supply stores and catalogs.

Handling
Herd chickens into a small pen (i.e., 10' x 20') to minimize excessive chasing. Then corner birds into as small an area as possible (using straw bales). Place one hand gently but firmly onto the chicken's back, while putting the other hand in front of the bird's chest to prevent forward movement. Then move both hands firmly over the wings to limit wing movement, and lift the bird. If you lose a wing, put the bird down immediately and start over. Allow the chicken to calm down during restraint before starting treatments or grooming. Many chickens will become "hypnotized" and relax if held on their backs for a minute. Never hold chickens upside down by their legs (a common industry procedure), as this is very stressful for the birds and can result in injuries. For heavier and larger chickens, fold your arms and upper body over the wings and back of the chicken, hug firmly, and lift. Do not put larger breed birds on their backs, since this can cause severe stress and lead to heart failure.

Shelter Requirements
Building - A garage or shed makes a fine chicken home. A good size is 10' x 12' as this is high enough for you to be able to walk comfortably inside. The shelter must be waterproof, predator-proof and well ventilated. Plenty of clean, dry straw should always be provided for bedding, and wet and soiled bedding should be removed on a daily basis. Cleaning the entire building on a weekly basis is recommended (i.e., scrub floors, walls, etc.). For protection from predators, chickens must be kept safely in their shelter at night. The shelter should be equipped with a chicken perch, as it will keep your birds healthier and cleaner. Chickens enjoy perching and will generally perch on the highest point possible, including large shelves or feed containers. Broiler chickens will generally have trouble perching as they grow older and heavier. These birds should be given a deep straw bedding area on which to sleep. Layer hens will need to be provided with nest boxes. You should have one box for every four laying hens. Place the nest boxes in a draft-free area in back of the shelter, or wherever they are least likely to be disturbed. The boxes should be 14-inches square, one-foot deep and filled with an adequate amount of straw bedding. Nest boxes may be built from wood, or purchased from your local farm supply store or a catalog (see resource list). If the nest boxes are frequently used, they should be cleaned daily to avoid external parasites on your hens. Laying hens will lay eggs whether or not you have a rooster, but the eggs will not be fertilized in the absence of a rooster. Regardless of whether you choose to eat the eggs or not, they must be collected on a regular basis. Eggs will eventually crack or spoil in the nest box, leading to unhealthy conditions for your chickens.
Fencing - Fencing is necessary to keep predators out and chickens in. A five-foot-high woven fence is recommended, but a four-foot fence will generally keep chickens in. If you are planning on constructing a fence, shop around for the best buy, as prices and styles of fencing vary greatly. You will need a tightly woven fence to keep chickens in, and this can be more expensive. One way to reduce costs is to use cattle fencing, and then secure chicken wire to it. Do not use chicken wire alone as fencing. It is too flimsy, and predators can easily break through it.

Health Care
Maintenance - Every three to five weeks, chickens should get a routine, individual health check and have some basic health care procedures done. These include: Checking the vent and cleaning as needed; feeling their belly for excess fluid or large masses; checking their keel for sores or scabs; checking their feet for bumblefoot infection; clipping toenails as needed; checking eyes for swelling or discharge; checking beak for any sores or swelling; and cleaning nostrils as needed. As with all animals, sanitary housing, clean pasture, nutritious food, and plenty of sunshine will reduce health problems. In large flocks, chickens tend to have a low disease tolerance and health problems are greatly reduced in smaller, free-range flocks. During your daily contact with your feathered friends, always be on the lookout for any physical or behavioral changes. In particular, watch for diarrhea, listlessness, pale coloring, loss of appetite, and coughing. If you notice any of these symptoms, consult with your veterinarian. It can be difficult to find a veterinarian who is willing to treat chickens, but they do exist. Your best bet is finding someone who works with "exotic" birds and other non-traditional companion animals.

Common health problems
Coccidiosis - Coccidiosis is a protozoan parasite. Symptoms include bloody diarrhea and listlessness. Keeping the bedding clean and dry will help control this disease, as wet bedding is one of the predisposing factors. Many treatments are available and can be added to water to treat a whole flock, or given to individual birds. If you suspect your chicken has coccidia, have a fecal test done to test for this, and consult your veterinarian for the best treatment according to the size of your flock.
Worms - A fecal test should be done every three months to check for internal parasites in your flock. Worming medication can be purchased at farm supply stores in easy-to-use formulas that are added to water, or in an injectable form, depending on the type of parasite involved. Your vet can prescribe the proper medication necessary. If you are bringing new birds into your flock, it is important to isolate them from your birds until you have established that they do not carry parasites, since they are easily spread through the fecal matter.
Lice and Mites - Lice can generally be controlled by providing your chickens with an area of dirt for "dust baths" (throwing dirt on themselves). Check your chickens regularly for lice (they look like small, moving, clear to yellow dots on the birds' skin). Mites are usually small black or red dots. Older birds, birds who have a compromised immune system due to illness, and birds from unclean environments are more susceptible to both lice and mites, and all should be checked regularly. For more information on parasites and treatments, see our shelter website.
Molting - Chickens will molt (lose feathers) on an annual basis, generally during the spring or fall season. During their molting
period, the birds may lose a large portion of their feathers. This is a natural process, which lasts between four to ten weeks. If your chicken is losing feathers during a non-molting period, consult your veterinarian, since it could be a sign of illness.
Bumblefoot - Bumblefoot is a localized infection in the foot causing bulbous swelling of the footpad and surrounding tissue. It can affect one or both feet, and can affect one or many members of the flock. Bumblefoot is an infection that is caused by an injury to the ball of the foot. As the infection progresses, the lesion enlarges and the ball of the foot and tissue between the toes becomes enlarged and swollen. There is usually a round scab on the base of the foot that, when removed, will allow pus to be drained from the foot. If caught early, the foot can be treated with wraps and antibiotics may not be necessary. For more information on treating bumblefoot, please go to our shelter website.
Heat Exhaustion - Heat exhaustion is common in large breed chickens; watch them closely in hot weather. Signs of heat exhaustion include excessive panting, open mouth breathing, drooping head, and collapse. At the first sign of heat exhaustion, get the chicken inside immediately and put a fan on low, as birds can go into shock and die quickly. Mist the chicken lightly with cool water and contact your veterinarian. Keep your bird quiet and calm and do not handle any more than necessary.
Egg Bound - Laying hens may become egg bound, a serious condition that can be fatal. A fully-formed egg that lodges in the shell gland or vagina because of trauma to the vagina, lack of calcium, or if the egg is too large, can cause this condition. If you see your hen straining, consider this a medical emergency, and take her to a veterinarian immediately.
Soft Shelled or Brittle Eggs - Depletion of calcium in the system of layer hens, especially in those altered to lay more than a normal amount, can lead to serious health problems. Many of these eggs break before leaving the oviduct and can lead to serious bacterial infections and even death. If your hen is laying soft shelled (rubbery) eggs, or thin, brittle-shelled eggs, a calcium supplement is
necessary. This can be accomplished through food or water additives, or calcium injections. Before deciding on a treatment, it is always best to consult your veterinarian.
Impacted Crop - Crop impaction occurs when large amounts of fibrous material such as grass or straw are ingested. The material forms a ball in the crop and will not allow food to pass through the remainder of the digestive tract. The crop often looks pendulous, but many times it is not obvious by sight alone. Chickens who are impacted may survive for days, but gradually they will become emaciated and can die of malnutrition. Early detection can occur by feeling the crop of any bird who seems sick or stops eating. Often, if caught in time, it can be corrected surgically. See our shelter website for more information on crop problems.

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