Urban Chickens

AVMA Welfare Focus Newsletter - Featured Article - April 2011

Jose Linares, DVM, DACPV and J. Bruce Nixon, DVM
Members, AVMA Animal Welfare Committee

From Baltimore to Los Angeles and from Austin to Seattle, chicken ownership has become the rage in urban and suburban centers. Offering easy access through the Internet, a cottage industry made up of hatcheries, feed stores and medication and equipment suppliers caters to novice and experienced poultry owners alike. Many owners keep chickens primarily for their eggs, but others develop strong human-chicken bonds and view and care for them as pets. Some people keep chickens as a solitary or family activity, while others rear their hens in community coops (a corollary to the community garden). These (sub)urban farmers form poultry interest groups to share experiences and expand their knowledge base.

Why do those in the cities and 'burbs keep chickens? There are a number of possibilities including:

  • Chickens are likeable,
  • Eggs are a nutritious and versatile food,
  • They desire to have more control over the food they eat,
  • They are part of the 'local-vore' movement (eating food produced close to home), and/or
  • They see self-sufficiency as a safeguard against difficult economic times.

Sounds (mostly) reasonable, right? From the veterinary perspective, however, there are two important challenges associated with the urban chicken movement:

  • Increased close contact between people and chickens increases the risk of zoonotic diseases (especially when people are uninformed), and
  • Poor husbandry and poor biosecurity due to owner inexperience could lead to poor animal welfare (e.g., infectious diseases, malnutrition, behavioral issues, exposure to predators and adverse environmental conditions).

Ensuring the welfare of urban chickens and the health of those who care for them requires attention to these challenges.


Zoonoses account for more than 60 percent of recognized infectious diseases and 75 percent of emerging diseases.1,2 Two of the most important zoonotic diseases of poultry in the United States are salmonellosis and campylobacteriosis.

New diseases can also emerge from interactions between wild animals, domestic animals and people. Highly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 (HPAI H5N1) is one example. Although not yet diagnosed in poultry in the United States, most cases of HPAI H5N1 occurred in countries where people live in close contact with poultry.

While it posed limited zoonotic risk, in 2002 and 2003 an Exotic Newcastle Disease outbreak in California affected backyard and commercial poultry. A massive effort was put forth to quarantine areas affected by the virus and more than 2 million birds were euthanized before the disease was controlled.


While not a zoonotic disease, infectious laryngotracheitis can also be devastating disease for chickens. The regulatory response for infectious laryngotracheitis could result in quarantines and depopulation as was seen with the Exotic Newcastle outbreak. The regulatory response to infectious laryngotracheitis varies from state to state.

In addition to the diseases already discussed, the novice poultry owner needs to understand the consequences of more common poultry diseases such as mycoplasmosis, fowl cholera, fowl pox and coccidiosis. A critical piece of information for flock owners is that chickens that recover from diseases like mycoplasmosis, fowl cholera and infectious laryngotracheitis become carriers. Unsuspecting people who acquire these birds may bring a serious disease problem into their established healthy flock.


Chickens can also suffer from behavioral problems (e.g., pecking, cannibalism) that may have dire consequences for the birds and be unnerving for novice owners. Potential solutions to injurious pecking include confinement and/or beak trimming, which may be unacceptable for owners based on personal ethics.


Novice chicken owners often have questions about breed selection, housing, disease prevention and nutrition.

Housing—Basic needs of chickens include:

  • Appropriate floor space
  • Proper ventilation to prevent buildup of bacteria and moisture
  • Good quality litter
    • Wood shavings are an excellent choice
    • Straw should be checked for mold or contamination prior to use
    • Hay is inappropriate due to harmful mold spores and dust
  • Weekly cleaning of the house
  • Nest boxes for laying hens located in the lowest, darkest part of the house
  • Perches of an appropriate height that are adequately spaced

Nutrition—Nutritionally balanced feeds provide essential nutrients at critical stages in chickens' lives. Starter, developer and maintenance diets are recommended based on the age and growth rate of the birds. Maintenance feeds for egg layers are formulated to support egg production and contain extra calcium. Layer feeds should not be fed to immature chickens because the extra calcium is harmful for their kidneys. Many nutritional problems stem from vitamin and mineral deficiencies and often occur when novice owners attempt to mix their own feed, or feed their chickens mostly table scraps or just grain. Some feeds contain medication for the prevention of coccidiosis in young poultry.

Veterinarians looking for information to assist their clients may wish to visit the following links:


Veterinarians counting urban chickens among their patients may stumble when trying to identify sources for practical advice. While most veterinarians are comfortable seeking help from a surgeon, internist or dermatologist, where does one find a poultry expert? They're rarely in the phone book. The largest veterinary avian community is the Association of Avian Veterinarians (AAV); however, its members are primarily companion bird-oriented (e.g., cockatiels, parrots). While some AAV members may be willing to see chickens, few would consider themselves experts on the subject. Many poultry experts are members of the American Association of Avian Pathologists (AAAP). This group includes many of the members of the American College of Poultry Veterinarians (ACPV), the boarded specialists who spend their careers managing poultry flocks. They work in academia, government, industry and the private sector.

So how does one go about locating an advisor for poultry concerns? AVMA members can use the AVMA electronic Member Resource Directory. This directory allows one to identify poultry veterinarians who are AVMA members by state. The directory also provides contact information for those veterinarians (as long as the veterinarian has agreed to let the AVMA provide it). Another option is to contact a veterinary diagnostic laboratory, school/college of veterinary medicine, or an agricultural extension service. In cases of high morbidity and mortality it is advisable to call the office of the state veterinarian for assistance.a

Veterinarians have an important role to play in caring for urban chickens. Veterinarians promote good welfare through preventive medicine and client education, while helping to safeguard the food supply and public health. Achieving these goals gives everyone the opportunity to enjoy chickens and ensure chickens will enjoy city life.

aSome diseases are classified as notifiable. If chickens are sick or dying, contact your state veterinarian or call USDA's Veterinary Services toll-free number 1-866-536-7593.

1Taylor LH, Latham SM, Woolhouse MEJ. Risk factors for human disease emergence. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B 2001;356:983-989.
2Gibbs EPJ. Emerging zoonotic epidemics in the interconnected global community.Vet Rec 2005;157:673.

Related Publications

Backyard Poultry, A Growing Trend Throughout US – USDA Offers Pointers on Keeping Them Safe
The USDA/APHIS Biosecurity for Birds campaign is renewing efforts to provide concise and helpful tips to prevent the spread of infectious diseases such as avian influenza.
Full text: http://www.prweb.com/releases/USDA/Backyard_Poultry/prweb4075174.htm
See also: http://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_health/birdbiosecurity

LaBadie, KT. Residential Urban Chicken Keeping: An Examination of 25 Cities. CRP 580 Spring 2008, University of New Mexico, May 7th 2008.
Summarizes key features of ordinances regulating chicken keeping in urban areas.
Full text: http://hstrial-chickensinthe.intuitwebsites.com/Univ_of_New_Mexico_Research.pdf

Squier SM. Liminal Livestock. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 2010;35:477-502.
As liminal livestock, chickens play a central role in our gendered agricultural imaginary. This article analyzes several children's stories, a novel, and a documentary to discover some factors that help to shape the role of women in agriculture and the role of agriculture in women's lives.
Full text available for purchase at http://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/605521

Other Resources
Backyard Poultry Magazine: http://www.backyardpoultrymag.com/

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