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 chickens normal body temperature
is 107° F, with young chickens ranging between 102°
F to 106° F.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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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