Some might laugh at the idea of keeping pet chickens but in fact, they can make very entertaining and engaging pets. Not only do they provide companionship and affection – in their own way – and enjoyment watching their antics but they also “earn their keep” by providing you with fresh eggs and natural pest control for your garden.
Before you rush out…
The first thing to consider when thinking of keeping pet chickens is whether they are actually allowed in your area. While they are usually not an issue in more rural areas, if you live in an inner city suburb, there may be restrictions, particularly if you are considering the noisier cocks or wanting to keep a small flock. So it is wise to check with your local council first.
In addition, think carefully about whether your house is suitable for a chicken. Even a single hen will need to be outdoors for at least part of the day, so that it can engage in normal activities like scratching in the dirt, taking dust baths, basking in the sun, feeding on tender shoots and foraging for insects. Therefore, if you live in a small unit or apartment with minimal garden, then a chicken might not be the best choice of pet. They are also notoriously difficult to house train.
Choosing your chicken
Like other pets, chickens come in a variety of sizes, colours and breeds or types. The colours range from brown, gold, red, white, gray and silver to speckled, spotted, checkered and dappled. The feather and body styles also vary, with some chickens being smooth, some fluffy, some silky or grizzled and others bare legged, booted, whiskered, long combed, high tailed, bearded, feathered legged, bushy tailed or rose combed. Some even come with completely bare heads or the other extreme of very fanciful headdresses.
Hens are usually duller, less exaggerated and more subtle whereas cocks and cockerels are much more flashy and colourful. They are also extremely noisy, many crowing loudly and often (not just at sunrise) and are usually not ideal pets for inner city households. Contrary to what people believe, hens do not actually need a cock to lay eggs and are usually less stressed and harassed without a cock running with them.
Other things to consider when deciding what kind of chicken to buy is the importance of fresh eggs. Some types will lay every day but others only a few months each year. In general, hens will start laying from about 5 to 6 months of age and continue until they reach 3 or 4 years old, although some are able to keep producing well into old age. Therefore, if eggs are important to you, it may be worthwhile doing some research to make sure you pick a chicken breed or type that is a more prolific layer.
Lastly think about the space each type of chicken needs. Many of the smaller varieties – such as a small Banty – are happy to sleep in a small dog crate, with a small patch of earth or dirt for outdoor activities but if you choose a larger, laying breed, then you may need to provide some “free range” space for it to wander in and a covered coop up with up to 6 square feet per chicken.
Sourcing your chicken
Like with other pets, if it always best to go to a reputable, experienced breeder. It will be more expensive but it will be worth it in the long run. In particular, if you want a bird of a particular gender, then it’s vital that you consult an experienced breeder who can sex one-day old chicks – otherwise, once the chicks get a bit older, it is almost impossible to tell them apart. Some young hens can behave very aggressively and some young cocks may be very meek and mild before they become influenced by hormones.
Regardless of where your chick or chicken comes from, make sure you take it straight to the vet for a preliminary check-up and ensure that it has had all the required vaccinations for any poultry diseases prevalent in your area, such Marek’s Disease and Newcastle’s Disease, which can be fatal in young chicks. In addition, make sure any pet chicken you buy comes from a salmonella-tested breeding flock.
Food & Shelter
Consult your local pet store for advice and choose a good quality layer’s pellet or layer’s mash in powder form for mornings, followed by pre-mixed grain for the afternoon, which can be scattered on the ground to provide enjoyable foraging. Chickens also enjoy small amounts of table scraps from time to time. Make sure there is always plenty of fresh water available and don’t forget to provide some poultry grit for their gizzards to aid in digestion.
In addition, chickens will eat many things they find in a garden – from the growing tips of grasses to snails, slugs and insects. Note that since they cannot differentiate between weeds and prize horticulture, you may want to limit their access to your garden if you value certain plants. You can use a roving run, also known as a “chicken tractor” which allows them to safely roam in different areas of the garden.
Chickens needs a high perch for night time and ideally somewhere safe to sleep where they can be protected from predators such as feral cats and foxes (and even loose dogs). If such predators are prevalent in your area, you may have to consider keeping them safely fenced and caged all the time. Of course, a household pet may be brought indoors at night although you may need to confine it to a certain area for toileting reasons. Hens will also need a laying box for their eggs.
Not such an odd pet!
Those who have kept chickens are quick to rave about their attributes as pets. Contrary to popular belief, each chicken does have its own distinct and interesting personality and watching a flock establish their hierarchy via the “pecking order” can be fascinating business. Chickens can even be trained using positive reinforcement and hand-reared chicks will often grow into affectionate adults who will seek out your company and follow you around.