Caring for Pet Chickens, Ducks and Geese

Caring for Pet Chickens, Ducks and Geese

These days there are lots of people who appreciate chickens, ducks and geese for the pleasure of them being part of their extended family as much as their egg laying or Sunday roast potential. It is certainly nice to be able to eat eggs that you know are coming from healthy birds who are leading happy lives but there is also pleasure in having older pet poultry who may only lay an occasional egg or none at all but still enjoy a quiet scratch around the garden.

Chickens and ducks are great pets to have with young children as they are unlikely to harm a toddler but are robust enough not be harmed themselves either. Collecting eggs from backyard chickens and using them in cooking is a lovely way to interact with children and nature in our increasingly urbanised world.  Pet poultry are also great for grown-ups who enjoy reaching back to rural roots and quieter lives people used to live as they relax and watch their birds’ social interactions and observe how the ‘pecking order’ plays out.

Services Melbourne Bird Vet Clinic offers to Pet Poultry Owners

All of our veterinarians have had post graduate training in bird care (see About Us) and our services are tailored to ensure pet chickens have excellent health and quality of life. See below for general information about choice, care and common challenges in keeping individual species. Services we offer that are specifically relevant to chicken, duck and geese owners include

  • Well Bird Exams – these include a full physical, advice on care, feeding and husbandry and recommendations for disease prevention, treatment or further diagnostic testing depending on individual circumstances. We look to the welfare of the whole flock as well as the individual bird.
  • In house laboratory testing – including droppings tests for coccidia, worms and other parasites, lead testing and a range of other blood tests.
  • Consultations for sick or injured birds – while we prefer to take a preventive approach there are times when we need to deal with disease problems or injuries. See below for what the common issues are for chickens, ducks and geese 
  • Advanced imaging, radiology (x-rays) and ultrasound – we have equipment specifically designed for birds and training and expertise in interpreting findings
  • Anaesthesia and Surgery – approaches to surgery in birds are different from other species. We only treat birds, our veterinarians are highly trained in operating on birds and our instruments, operating room and anaesthetic equipment are specifically designed for working with avian species.
  • Hospitalisation – we only deal with birds so your pet chicken will not be sharing a hospital ward with dogs or cats. Individual cages are heated for post operative recovery and have the option of oxygen supply if needed
  • External laboratory testing  – in addition to what is offered in-house we routinely send samples off for biochemistry, histopathlogy, cultures etc where this is warranted
  • Female Reproductive Problems – we have a great deal of expertise in dealing with the range of reproductive problems that are commonly seen in older chickens and are ready to help with necessary diagnostic work, implants and other medical therapies and surgery if needed

Post Mortem Examinations – we routinely do necropsies on dead birds with samples being saved of in-house or external pathology testing. This is particularly helpful if trying to establish the cause of a problem that may have implications for the larger flock

Chickens

We do not recommend that broiler chickens are kept as pets as their quality of life is badly compromised by their genetic selection for fast growth and weight gain. Other than this there are enormous variety of chickens to choose from that can make excellent pets. These are just a few of the common ones.

Isa Browns are very popular. They are moderate in size weighing about 2 kg, have quiet temperaments and are excellent egg layers. Rescue groups will sometimes source hundreds of birds from commercial flocks when they are past peak egg laying to try to find pet homes for them. Other good egg layers include Rhode Island Reds and White Leghorns but these birds may not be as placid as the Isa Browns, which, incidentally were developed from crossing the other two varieties.

Larger breeds include Plymouth Rocks, Sussex and Orpingtons. These are all nice if you have the space but they are not as good layers as the Isa Browns and you need to watch their weight as they can develop bumble foot if their diet is poor, they get too fat and are kept on hard surfaces. 

Common, attractive, moderate size varieties include Wyandottes, Barnavelders, spotted Hamburgs and Australorps. These are not generally as good egg layers as the Isa Browns but, their temperaments are generally good, they can look lovely and they may be at somewhat less risk of female reproductive disorders as they get older that the high producing varieties.

Bantams are miniature chickens. Their eggs will be smaller and not as numerous as with Isa Browns but the eggs can still be used as you would any other kind. Silkie Bantams are a fluffy variety noted for ‘going broody’ and are sometimes used to incubate eggs from other types of birds, even parrots.

There are lots of other varieties, including Aracanas (these lay blue eggs), Polish, Cornish Game, Naked Necks, Frizzles, Belgian d’Uccles, Cochins, Minorcas, Faverolles and Sebrights that we see from time to time and can make delightful pets for the right owners. By all means do a Google search and see which type may appeal you.

Health care for Chickens

Health care needs are generally similar for most varieties of pet chickens. Where possible we like to avoid using medications in chickens, especially with those birds that are producing eggs for human consumption. It is much better to prevent disease rather than to have to treat disease outbreaks. We strongly recommend owners bring their birds in for a well bird check as soon as they are acquired so that we can examine the birds, check droppings and review diet and husbandry so that any disease, or potential disease issues, may be identified and preventative measures put in place to avoid common issues. 

 Common problems we tend to see in younger chickens include

  1. Marek’s Disease is caused by a cancer causing virus that affects nerves and results a variety of clinical signs, most commonly leg paralysis. 
  2. Coccidiosis is caused by several different types of a single celled parasites that live in different parts of the intestinal tract, are passed in the droppings and infect other chickens causing bloody diarrhoea, anaemia and death. 
  3. Worm parasites – common ones are round worms, Capillaria and tape worms. They can cause weight loss, diarrhoea and death.
  4. Scaly leg caused by a microscopic burrowing mite.
  5. Feather lice and mites which can be seen with the naked eye.
  6. Respiratory diseases including mycoplasmosis, chlamydiosis, bacterial, fungal and viral infections. Affected birds may show swelling around the eyes, sneezing and nasal discharge
  7. Giardia and other flagellates are motile organisms that are found in the droppings and can cause diarrhoea in chickens, humans

If possible it is best to source birds that have been vaccinated, especially against Marek’s Disease, although vaccination only reduces the risk of this disease, it does not eliminate it. When doing a ‘well bird check’ for pet chickens we routinely check droppings for coccidia, worm parasites and flagellates and implementing suitable treatment and prevention measures as needed. Mites and lice are generally treated with appropriate sprays. 

We also recommend measures to prevent problems we more commonly see in older chickens. These problems often need urgent veterinary care but the chances of them occurring can be reduced by appropriate diets and husbandry. 

  • Female reproductive diseases including infections and cancers of the ovary and oviduct (uterus), egg yolk related peritonitis
  • Egg binding and prolapses associated with egg laying issues
  • Fox and dog attacks Melbourne has the highest urban fox population in the world, fox proofing poultry yards is essential
  • Bumble foot, which is damage to the bottoms of the feet that is seen mainly in fat or heavy breed older chickens that have been on poor diets and kept on hard surfaces.
  •  Crop impaction, often caused by eating long grass or other unsuitable foods
  • Heavy metal toxicity and/or gastrointestinal foreign bodies caused by ingesting metallic objects, contaminated soil or items containing zinc or lead. Soil contamination with lead in pre-World War II housing areas leading to contamination of eggs in backyard chickens is being identified as a far more wide spread problem that previously recognised    

One of the most significant developments in recent years for pet poultry is the increasing use of implants to block female hormone production and dampen or stop reproductive activity and egg laying in birds that have reproductive disease. The use of these implants in conjunction with other medications has extended the lives of many pet chickens and ducks. 

In relation to the heavy metal toxicity issue, our clinic is able to do in-house lead testing which is useful with birds showing signs of possible lead poisoning (generally diarrhoea or neurological signs) but it can also put minds to rest for pre-WW2 home owners concerned about the possibility of low level lead causing contamination of eggs.

Ducks, geese and other waterfowl

All our domestic ducks, except for Muscovies, were all derived from wild Mallards. Pekins, Aylesbury, Khaki Campbells, Indian Runners, Orpingtons and Welsh Harlequins are some of the pure varieties we see but ‘moggie’ ducks far outnumber these. Muscovy Ducks are from South America and have naked, carunculated faces. The drakes weigh up to 7 kg and tend to be more aggressive than other domestic ducks. The females are half this size and more placid.

Geese are more suitable for larger holdings rather than suburban yards, Toulouse Geese are brown and Emden Geese are white. The males can sometimes be aggressive towards children.

As with any bird we recommend a health check with an avian vet as soon as you acquire a new duck that would include a physical exam, droppings test and review of diet and husbandry.

There is some overlap in common health problems we see in domestic ducks, geese and waterfowl vs chickens, but there are differences as well. Marek’s Disease and scaly leg aren’t seen in ducks; lice, mites, coccidia and worm parasites are less common but do occur. At our clinic some common problems seen are

  • Fox or dog attack injuries
    1. Respiratory disease caused by Chlamydia, mycoplasma or bacterial infections
    2. Female reproductive disease problems – as for chickens, infections and cancers of the ovary and oviduct and egg yolk related peritonitis occur
  • Egg binding and prolapses
    1. ‘Pack rape’ injuries – ducks can get bite wounds on heads and back injuries. The males can get damaged phalluses when multiple drakes are attempting to mate the same female. Muscovy drakes are often the culprits
    2. Bumble foot, especially in large Muscovy drakes and geese
  • Giardia or other flagellate parasites –  because of the aquatic environment waterfowl live in
  • Foreign body ingestion
  • Botulism – especially in late summer when ponds dry and decaying organic matter is exposed
  • Heavy metal toxicity – from ingesting hardware or lead shots from the bottom of ponds
  • Arthritis – in leg joints

Well bird checks and careful attention to diet and husbandry will reduce the risk of some of these problems but others will require veterinary intervention. Please feel free to call our clinic if you have any questions or would like to make an appointment.

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