By Dr Daisy A. May, Veterinary Surgeon
More and more frequently these days, individuals and families are choosing to keep a flock of backyard chickens, either as pets or in many cases for the fresh and tasty “homegrown” eggs they can provide us with.
If you are considering joining the ranks of proud chicken parents, it’s sensible to do a little research first. After all, taking on a flock of hens is a big commitment, as even ex-battery chickens can live and thrive for many years after being brought home from the farm.
At the end of this article, you’ll find a collection of links to what I consider to be the most helpful and valuable resources in terms of how to keep chickens.
But first, let’s discuss the pros and cons of chicken ownership.
Pros Of Keeping Pet Chickens
An obvious pro, but no pet other than the humble chicken, can provide you with a steady stream of hen’s eggs. Of course, if you wanted to go fancier, and have the appropriate land at your disposal, you could consider keeping quail (require no more space than chickens) or ducks (ideally require a large pond or small lake) instead.
Not to be mistaken with a kid’s sized chocolate egg, quail eggs are dainty, prettily patterned and have a delicate flavor, much beloved by chefs (and Waitrose).
By contrast, duck eggs are at least as large as chicken eggs; in fact, many ducks produce eggs that are noticeably bigger than those of a hen. They have runnier whites when raw, and when cooked offer a meatier texture and more “eggy” egg flavor.
But for me, nothing beats the unassuming hen’s egg. For baking, scrambling, poaching, frying or boiling and chucking on top of a salad. The chicken egg is always a winner.
Chickens are very sociable creatures and if handled regularly and gently can make friendly and calm pets.
The ex-battery farm hens we kept when I was a kid were entirely unbothered at being merrily carted around under the arm of my eleven year old self, and frequently would wander in through the back door of the house, curiosity (and the heavenly promise of scraps) drawing them toward the kitchen.
If you didn’t think it was possible to form a strong bond with a chicken, be prepared to think again. I promise you they’ll change your mind.
3. THAT WARM FEELING OF PROVIDING A RESTFUL RETIREMENT TO EX-BATTS.
Our hens would arrive in the boot of my grandfather’s car, straight from the battery farm.
Battery chickens have a short economic lifespan; that is, as far as the farmer is concerned, they are only worth the money it costs to keep them – cramped, caged and uncomfortable – for the months that they are producing eggs at their maximum natural capacity.
Beyond a relatively young age, once their production slows down to maybe one egg every 2-3 days rather than daily, it is more cost-effective for the farmer to slaughter and replace the entire “batch” of birds; and this may be in excess of 100,000 hens.
My grandfather (and one or twice, me) would arrive at the battery farm the morning that the birds were due for slaughter, and fate would bestow the 5-10 luckiest chickens of the bunch with a second chance. Grabbed at random by the brisk and somewhat rough farmer, they were stuffed into a grain sack (by the farmer, not by us) and then carted home in the boot of the car.
The second time, we were sure to bring a cardboard box.
Watching these hens evolve from scraggly, sparsely feathered little naked dinosaurs afraid of grass (they’d never seen it before) into plump, inquisitive hens with glossy plumage is an experience that sticks with me to this day. I cannot recommend it highly enough; definitely a major pro!
4. CHICKENS CAN ADD NUTRIENTS TO YOUR SOIL AND ENHANCE A WELL ESTABLISHED LAWN.
This one takes a little explaining, especially since you’ll notice that “possible lawn damage” is equally listed as a con of keeping chickens, below!
If you have a well-established lawn and are planning to use a moveable enclosure like the ones shown on the link below, then in fact you will find that after moving the chickens the initially messy and scrappy patch of lawn will likely grow back greener and lusher than ever before.
Chicken manure is a powerful organic fertilizer which can bestow a bountiful dose of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus upon your soil; this is good news when used in moderation, but as mentioned below can prove too strong and scald a lawn if allowed to build up to excess.
The key takeaway? Moveable housing is best, where possible (unless you have a very large space where your chickens can permanently roam), and be sure not to leave ‘em in one place for too long.
5. LESS FOOD WASTE (FOR SOME HOUSEHOLDS)
It may surprise even the seasoned chicken owner to learn that it is in fact illegal (yes really) in the UK to feed chickens kitchen scraps; specifically, “any food item that has passed through a home’s kitchen”. So really, most individuals cannot feed their leftover dinner to your flock, which is a massive shame from a food waste point of view.
There is one notable exception to this law, which is that the feeding of food scraps to backyard poultry is permissible under UK law if you belong to a totally vegan household. If you and your family or housemates maintain a 100% vegan kitchen, then you can legally feed your kitchen scraps to your birds, thus reducing food waste very effectively.
Be aware though, that the rules in terms of what constitutes a vegan household with regards to this law are very strict: even dog food containing animal protein is not allowed to enter the home.
For those who are interested, the reasoning behind the law (which is important in terms of public health) is to help prevent the introduction and spread of potentially serious diseases that may affect livestock and humans alike.
As a single historical example, the UK’s foot and mouth outbreak of 2001 is believed to have occurred due to pigs being fed catering waste (the contents of which originated outside of the UK) which contained the devastating foot and mouth virus.
This catastrophic outbreak resulted in the culling of over 10 million cattle and sheep, and government compensation paid to farmers reached many millions of pounds; not great for the economy or the taxpayer, and worse still for the poor animals.
Cons Of Keeping Pet Chickens
1. SPACE REQUIREMENTS
For those who aren’t aware, the legal requirements in terms of space for caged farmed chickens are frankly disgraceful, coming in at 600 square centimeters per bird in the UK; that’s less than the size of a piece of A4 paper.
This certainly does not mean that you should be even considering providing so little space for your birds (and I’m sure none of you would ever dream of it).
As an absolute minimum, I recommend you allow at least 4 (ideally 6) square feet of indoor floor space per bird, and 10+ square feet of outdoor floor space per bird.
So, for a garden flock of 10 average-sized chickens, you will need at least 40sq ft (indoor) henhouse space, and 100sq ft of outdoor run space, or freerange space (outdoor) space for the hens to spend their days.
If you happen to be short on garden space, then having to dedicate such a large area of otherwise useable space to a flock of birds could certainly be considered a con of keeping chickens as pets.
Chickens are messy creatures; that’s a fact.
They are not particularly litter tray trainable (although I guarantee you someone out there has managed it) and nor are they naturally tidy.
By default, they sh*t wherever they tread, be that your lawn, your patio, your kitchen floor, and of course their own sleeping and laying quarters.
As such, you should be prepared to put up with stepping in the odd poorly placed pile of chicken crap, and be ready to do a reasonable amount of tidying up after them in order to keep things sanitary and visually appealing.
3. POTENTIAL LAWN DAMAGE
As mentioned above, chicken manure is a valuable fertilizer and can be good for your lawn in some instances.
However, if your hens are kept in a relatively small fixed space, or in a moveable run that is not re-situated often enough, raw chicken manure (poop) can scald your lawn and make it appear sparse and patchy in the spots where the hens have lived.
You may also want to consider avoiding letting chickens spend time on newly laid turf. Instead, wait until the lawn has become well-established with solid roots.
Since chickens tend to nip off and eat the young, tender shoots of grass, letting your feathered friends run rampant over a brand new turf too early can result in a lawn that completely fails to ever bounce back.
Every pet comes with responsibilities, and keeping a flock of chickens is no exception.
For the rest of their lives, you’ll need to make sure your birds are fed, watered, kept hygienic and happy. Their welfare is entirely your responsibility, day-in, day-out, both morally and legally.
You’ll also need to consider who is going to look after your chickens on a daily basis, including feeding, watering, and shutting them in at night when you go away on holiday or for any other purpose.
Considering a site such as Trusted Housesitters can be a great way around this (link below), so long as you are comfortable with the notion of somebody staying in your house whilst you are away.
Or perhaps you have a local friend or helpful neighbor who you can rely upon to “hensit” in your absence. But, one way or another, the question of care in your absence is one that will need to be definitively answered before you can commit to taking on chickens.
5. TIME SPENT ON DAILY CHORES
Contrary to popular belief (and what the internet might have you believe), chickens do need very fresh and clean water in order to stay at their healthiest. It’s not really adequate to fill a drip drinker bucket weekly unless you’re also thoroughly scrubbing it out and using a safe, disinfecting cleaning agent each time.
Allowing a thriving green layer of algae to amass on the inside of the drinker bucket is not adding extra nutrients to their diet; on the contrary, unclean drinking water is a risk factor for various respiratory and gastrointestinal diseases.
As well as providing a hygienic and constant source of drinking water, you’ll also need to factor in time spent mucking out the henhouse weekly, feeding, collecting eggs, and checking your birds over daily for signs of ill health such as watery eyes or nostrils, a fluffed up and hunched appearance, or flakey, thickened leg scales.
Should you notice something amiss, you’ll equally need to factor in time spent taking your chickens to the vet. Chickens also need worming on a regular basis with a product such as flubenvet.
Finally, with most living set-ups, you’ll need to make sure you let your chickens out of their enclosed henhouse every morning once the sun has risen, and that you shut them back away again in the henhouse at night. This provides a crucial safety barrier between your hens and any local predators such as foxes or pine martens.
These days, automated electronic henhouse door systems are available for the would-be hands off hen owner, but of course these come at a price.
In addition, being mechanical such devices intrinsically come with the risk of breaking down, which at worst could leave your chickens exposed and vulnerable overnight if the fault is not immediately noticed.
6. VET BILLS
Like any pet, chickens get sick sometimes.
Common conditions include scaly leg mite, worms, various respiratory diseases, and becoming egg-bound or developing egg peritonitis.
Even if experience and/or research has led you to believe you know what affliction your chicken is suffering from, it is still best to see a vet to agree upon a plan of treatment before plunging ahead with this yourself.
This is because a (good) vet will conduct a full, thorough clinical examination of your chicken to pick up on any factors that might mean they need an adapted treatment plan, as well as checking for signs of any co-existing conditions that could be contributing for example to a weakened immune system.
With a typical vet consult costing £40-60 in the UK (before tests and treatment), vet bills for a poorly chicken can easily add up; understandably this can represent one of the largest cons of keeping pet chickens for many would-be poultry owners.
And as the chicken’s owner, even when times are tight you are responsible both morally and legally for ensuring your hen receives timely and appropriate vet care if they become poorly. Definitely worth thinking about before setting up a flock of your own hens.
7. CHANCE OF FOOD POISONING FROM EGGS
Catching food poisoning due to Salmonella, Campylobacter or other pathogens is most likely to occur if you ignore the rules regarding feeding kitchen scraps to your backyard poultry flock.
However, even if these rules are followed, it is still entirely possible to get food poisoning from your hen’s eggs.
Beware in particular eating eggs that are raw or undercooked, and be warned that the majority of hens who are carrying Salmonella or Campylobacter appear visually clean, healthy and show no symptoms of either disease.
Having personally suffered a bout of rather nasty food poisoning from backyard eggs, I can vouch first hand for the fact that backyard eggs are not safer than supermarket eggs. The main reason that home produced eggs are less safe is the lack of rigorous, routine testing such as is carried out to detect Salmonella in particular in farmed eggs in the UK.
Ever wondered what the British Lion Mark means on shop-bought eggs? It’s a sure sign that the egg has been laid by a chicken who has been vaccinated against Salmonella, and that the farm which produced the egg follows a strict set of testing and safety regulations.
In fact, the safety record of the Lion Mark scheme indicates that even babies, pregnant ladies and other vulnerable groups can safely consume runny eggs which bear the Lion Mark. These groups of individuals should not consume eggs which do not bear this mark, including those from backyard birds.
Helpful Resources Relating To Keeping Chickens
Animal Welfare Foundation’s Guide For Prospective Chicken Owners:
A Rather Helpful Beginner’s Guide By An Experienced Poultry Keeper:
Common Diseases Of Small Poultry Flocks:
Symptom Checker For Your Chickens (Well Worth Bookmarking!):
Database Guide To Finding Your Nearest Chicken Vet (United Kingdom):
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