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What an Avian Vet Wants You to Know About Backyard Chickens

By Sue Campbell

Oregon

Dr. Marli Lintner’s first chicken was a little Barred Plymouth Rock hen who greeted each visitor in the lobby of her veterinary clinic. "She was a handful, she was hysterical," chuckles Dr. Lintner, who owns the Avian Medical Center in Lake Oswego, a suburb of Portland, Oregon.

Portland is backyard chicken paradise. Walk through almost any neighborhood with a sharp eye and it doesn’t take long to spot a coop tucked next to a garage or behind a swing set.

In addition to being an avian vet since 1986, Dr. Lintner has been keeping chickens of her own for about 15 years. In the decade since urban chickens have become so popular, Dr. Lintner has noticed big changes in the health of small flocks. Here’s what she wants you to know.

Dangers of Obesity

"People love to feed their chickens. It’s fun to watch your chickens eat," says Lintner. "These girls will put on a lot of weight very quickly. They’re designed genetically to be very, very good at converting food to fat or eggs." There are two big problems obese chickens face, both of them deadly. The first is fatty liver syndrome.

"Chickens are surprisingly difficult to gauge when they’re overweight. One of the first places they put their fat down is in their liver," Lintner explains. The liver can become enlarged and spill out below the protective keel bone, making it susceptible to hemorrhage from an external bump. "It will tear, it will start to bleed. They’ll get big blood clots in their abdomen around their liver. One or two small ones they can absorb, they may look tired for a day or two and then the next day they look back to normal," she explains. But a big enough bump can cause a hemorrhage bad enough to kill your chicken within a matter of minutes. "We open them up and sometimes find blood clots bigger than my fist," says Linter.

The second danger for an overweight chicken is heat stroke. "They overheat very, very quickly when they’re overweight," cautions Dr. Lintner. "Let’s say something scares them, the dog runs them across the field and say it’s a hot day and they’re in the sun. They don’t have sweat glands, they have to pant to cool themselves. If their whole abdomen is filled with fat they have very little reserves to take air in and out to cool themselves and they will actually heat stroke within five to 10 minutes and just collapse and be gone."

While many people believe you can tell if a chicken is overweight by feeling the breast bone along either side of the keel, Dr. Lintner says that’s actually one of the last places a chicken will put on fat. The best place to look is near the pelvic bones along the keel bone down around the vent. Part the feathers, if you see what looks like cellulite under the skin, your chicken is too heavy.

There’s no magic formula to calculate the correct amount to feed your chickens, they have different caloric needs based on the time of year and their age. "If my hens are fat, then I figure out how much food they’re eating everyday and I cut that down by about 10%," says Lintner. It’s also a good idea to choose whatever food they like the least, whether its layer or scratch, and offer that as their main source of food, so they aren’t as tempted to over-eat.


Dr. Marli Lintner casts the injured leg of a Barred Plymouth Rock at the Avian Medical Center in Lake Oswego, Oregon. Dr. Lintner has been treating avian patients since 1986, and has kept her own flock of chickens for over 15 years.
Photo courtesy of Kelly Ballance.

Consider the Source

Commercial egg producers use a concept called "all in, all out." A batch of hens will be brought into a sterilized laying house, used for a period of two years, then processed. Then the facility is sterilized again and a new batch of hens is brought in. This is a great method of controlling contagious diseases, but difficult to replicate for the backyard chicken enthusiast looking to replace part of a small flock.

Now that chicken keeping is so popular there are many places to get a hen, some of which can be questionable. "We’re seeing a lot more contagious disease than we ever did," says Linter. "Really, be careful what you bring in. Start with day old chicks if you can. Or, if you have to get them from somewhere else at least have a veterinarian do a fecal exam on them." A fecal exam will check for coccidia and various types of worms. You should also check for external parasites, both lice and mites.

Urban (Chicken) Myths

"There’s a lot of interesting myths about chickens," says Linter. The first one she’d like to dispel is that an egg-bound chicken will benefit from either a warm bath or a slathering of olive oil on her bottom. Lintner says a hen will rarely get egg-bound, if she does "it’s what we call a high egg binding and she actually has an infection in that uterus and you’ve got rotting egg yolks and egg white backed up for inches and inches and nothing you do externally is going to have any effect on that." A hen in that situation needs medical care, including antibiotics. If you can actually see an egg that is stuck in the vent, turn to a water soluble lubricant, such as KY jelly. Oil based products will get stuck in the feathers and turn rancid.

Another misconception is that chickens are stupid. "Chickens are so smart, but they have very few ways they can show that," says Lintner, "They peck at things, so if you use that behavior they can do all sorts of things." The Avian Medical Center offers clicker training classes for pet chickens. "They learn very quickly that if I go up and peck at this thing I get a reward." This behavior can be channeled into tricks such as walking up ramps, knocking objects over or even turning the lights on and off.

Dr. Lintner often hears people say that hens stop laying after two years. "My girls are all at least six years of age. I’ve got seven girls and I get just about five eggs every morning." Chickens can produce eggs and be delightful pets for many years, provided we do our best to keep them healthy.

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