Keeping chickens as pets and egg-layers is a popular pastime, but it's a good idea to know what you're getting into
By Dr. Tony Johnson
About three years ago, my wife and I "happened" upon some chickens. A family friend had gotten caught up in the recent rage of urban chicken acquisition and had obtained six chickens. They had forgotten to obtain any housing for them, so we offered to help out and take three of the birds.
We read up on chicken husbandry, built a coop and drove over to bring home our new flock in cat carriers.
Here's the upside to chicken ownership:
-- Great, fresh eggs, every day (on average, each chicken lays one egg per day).
-- No need to buy eggs anymore -- a cost savings, and we know our chickens are humanely treated.
-- Fun for the kids to watch (us, too -- chickens are hilarious goofballs).
-- Easy disposal of our kitchen waste -- they eat everything (as long as it's not moldy or an avocado; avocados are chicken kryptonite). With two 2-year-olds at home, we have lots of leftover "I won't eat that!" food.
Now, here's the downside:
-- They are noisy: They squabble and fight like junior-high girls at the Filene's Basement shoe sale rack. Sometimes, I have to go out back and shout a loud: "SHHHHHHHH! If you don't shut up, I am calling The Colonel!"
-- Poo. Everywhere. There's no way to potty train a chicken, and there's no such thing as a chicken diaper. We let them out for some fresh air and bug-eating, and they poo. A lot. Everywhere.
-- Although ours have tested negative for salmonella, I do worry about our family's exposure to it, given the large amount of poo around. (More on this below.)
-- We will never, ever have nice landscaping. In their obsessive quest to find the juicy bugs and worms, they dig up everything. Then, for good measure, they poo on it.
Chickens have become a feathery emblem of the "new naturism" -- if you fancy yourself a self-sustaining, eco-minded person, a wee flock is de rigueur these days. And, like many fads, the initial rose-tinted joy soon fades to reality.
Chickens can carry salmonella and a few other bacterial baddies. These can do a number on your GI tract and really put a hurting on you if you're very young, very old or have weakened immunity. If you get it, you'll be hugging the commode for a few days, or worse.
We constantly clean up after them, and even then I feel like we always have some poo lying about. Washing hands after handling them or the eggs is a must. Here is some CDC info on safe home chicken ownership: blogs.cdc.gov/publichealthmatters/2010/10/thinking-about-keeping-live-poultry
Another great source of information and support is the community at Backyard Chickens: www.backyardchickens.com.
Egg handling is important, too. There is a healthy debate about washing the eggs: Some say it removes an invisible slime layer that keeps bacteria out, while some say to wash them. Since we eat them as soon as we collect them, we don't wash our eggs (unless they are really dirty), but just wipe them off. Here is a link to safe egg-handling information: www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09377.pdf.
The life of a chicken owner is easy, delicious and fun. It's a great way to lessen your eco-footprint and teach your kids where their food comes from. But you don't want to get halfway into it and say to yourself, "What the CLUCK were we thinking?"
With a little prep, a little reading and a little precaution you, too, can safely enjoy all the benefits of having your own flock!
Guest columnist Tony Johnson, DVM, is an emergency and critical care specialist and serves as Minister of Happiness/Medical Director at Veterinary Information Network.
Protect your dog before
enjoying fun in the sun
Q: We have a new white bull terrier puppy, and we live in Florida. The breeder said we should put sunscreen on him when he's outdoors, especially if we take him to the beach. Really? -- via email
A: Really. Dogs can get sunburned, and they are susceptible to skin cancer. Your dog's hair gives him some protection from the sun, but light-colored dogs need extra help to prevent a damaging sunburn.
Dogs who are most at risk have thin or light-colored coats, so your bull terrier is doubly in need of protection. Other breeds whose owners should think about applying sunscreen include American pit bull terriers, American Staffordshire terriers, bulldogs, white boxers, Chinese cresteds or any other hairless breeds, Dalmatians, smooth fox terriers, white German shepherds, greyhounds, Jack Russell terriers, rat terriers, Weimaraners, whippets or any dog with light skin and a pink nose.
Apply sunscreen to the ears, muzzle and belly of any shorthaired dog who enjoys sunbathing. If you have a short-coated white dog, apply it all over the body. Wipe it off after your dog comes indoors, so he doesn't get it on the furniture or walls.
Choose a PABA-free sunscreen that's free of zinc oxide. Both substances can be toxic if your dog licks them off. Look for natural sunscreens made for children or sunscreen made specifically for dogs, which you can find at pet-supply stores. Just as you would for yourself, reapply frequently if your dog spends a lot of time outdoors, especially if he enjoys playing in water.
If applying sunscreen isn't your thing, cover your dog's skin with sun-protective dog clothing. Yep, it's out there, made by companies such as Ruffwear, Kong and Playa Pup. If you and your dog will be spending a lot of time at the beach or on a boat, it's also a good idea to protect his eyes from glare with canine eyewear, such as Doggles. -- Dr. Marty Becker
Do you have a pet question? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker.
Bee careful: Dog wears
a honey of a suit
-- An Australian beekeeper trained his black Labrador retriever, Bazz, to sniff out hives infected with a bee-killing bacterium called American foulbrood. But there was just one problem: Bazz kept getting stung. To protect him, owner Josh Kennett designed the ultimate in dogwear: a beekeeping suit. After a long process of trial and error, he came up with a design that covers Bazz from head to tail, including protective sneakers and a covered, conelike headpiece. You might say it's the bee's knees. Getting Bazz to actually wear the gear took some time and training, but now he's back on the job, sniffing out the bees' disease.
-- Hank is in the house! The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that the Brewers' cute new mascot will soon be moving into "Hank House" at Miller Park. The dog's cozy digs? A roomy one-bedroom Cape Cod-style doghouse that will move around the ballpark throughout the season. Hank became a star after wandering into the Brewers' spring training camp in Arizona in February. He now has a line of T-shirts, and a Hank bobblehead debuts in September. A portion of the proceeds of Hank merchandise will benefit the Wisconsin Humane Society.
-- We can all agree that dogs don't live long enough, but by studying how they age, scientists at Cornell University and elsewhere hope to learn how genetic and environmental factors influence aging and what interventions might mitigate age-related diseases. Dogs not only share many genetic characteristics with humans, they also share our environment and many of our health care options. The Canine Longitudinal Aging Study will use not only traditional demographic and epidemiological approaches, but also new techniques, such as comparative genomics, to identify treatments and factors that may help extend healthy life spans in dogs and humans. -- Kim Campbell Thornton
ABOUT PET CONNECTION
Pet Connection is produced by a team of pet-care experts headed by "The Dr. Oz Show" veterinarian Dr. Marty Becker and award-winning journalist Kim Campbell Thornton. They are affiliated with Vetstreet.com and are the authors of many best-selling pet-care books. Joining them is dog trainer and behavior consultant Mikkel Becker. Dr. Becker can be found at Facebook.com/DrMartyBecker or on Twitter at DrMartyBecker. Kim Campbell Thornton is at Facebook.com/KimCampbellThornton and on Twitter at kkcthornton. Mikkel Becker is at Facebook.com/MikkelBecker and on Twitter at MikkelBecker.