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Chicken Care Sheet

Developed with and approved by a qualified veterinarian.

Chicken

Overview 

Gallus gallus domesticus

Backyard chickens are loved by many, not only for their adorable appearance as baby chicks but also for their ability to lay farm-fresh eggs once they’re adults. There are hundreds of chicken breeds in a variety of colors and sizes, and they differ in temperament, behavior, egg-laying abilities and hardiness against disease.

Typical appearance & behavior 

  • Chickens lay different colored eggs (white, green, blue, brown and "pink") depending on their breed
  • Hens start laying eggs between 18 and 24 weeks of age, depending on their breed 
  • To help maintain egg production, hens need exposure to at least 14 hours of light each day 
  • Shorter periods of light in the fall and winter cause fewer eggs to be produced 
  • Hens peak in egg production at 1 to 2 years of age. After that, egg production wanes 
  • Chickens need time during the day to run outside and forage 
  • All metal objects, such as wires, screws and nails, must be removed from coops and runs so chickens do not eat them 
  • When overcrowded, chickens establish a “pecking order” in which the dominant birds peck on the heads and hindquarters of submissive birds 
  • Chickens may try to eat each other due to stress from overcrowding

Characteristics

Average Life Span Up to 7+ years with proper care
Average Adult Size Varies from a few ounces for bantams, up to 12 pounds for large roosters
Diet Omnivore

Habitat 

Habitat size

Chickens should be housed in coops that help protect them from extreme weather and predators. Coops are commercially available in a variety of sizes or may be self-made. Coops should be well-ventilated, insulated and large enough to provide 8 to 10 square feet per adult chicken.

Building your habitat

Nest boxes - 

  • Coops should have several nest boxes (one box per three to four chickens) placed in quiet, dark areas 

Flooring and bedding - 

  • Coop floors should be solid and made from material that is easy to wash and drain, such as concrete or wood protected with a waterproof coating 
  • Coop floors should be covered with at least 8 inches of pine or aspen shavings or hemp litter (avoid cedar) 
  • While straw or hay can be used in nest boxes, these materials should not be used on the floor as they get moldy when wet 

Accessories & décor - 

  • Coops should contain several off-the-floor perches for roosting and sleeping 

Lighting - 

  • Chickens should have access to a fenced-in outdoor run for exercise and exposure to ultraviolet (UV) light. UV light is crucial for making vitamin D in their skin, which enables them to absorb dietary calcium for egg-laying 
  • During extremely cold weather, when chickens are housed inside for prolonged periods, they need artificial UV light 

Outdoor considerations - 

  • When outdoors, chickens must have access to shady areas to help prevent overheating 
  • Fences around coops and attached outdoor runs should be made from ¾-inch wire mesh to help prevent predators such as raccoons, coyotes and opossums from accessing them 
  • Fences should be at least 6 feet high and buried at least 6 inches underground to help prevent predators from digging under them 
  • Cracks in coop walls should be sealed to help prevent drafts and access by mice and rats

Cleaning your habitat

  • Coop bedding should be kept clean and dry, as wet and soiled bedding can promote the growth of disease-producing organisms 
  • Bedding should be spot-cleaned daily and completely replaced at least once a month, depending on the number of chickens being housed 
  • The coop should be thoroughly washed out at least once a year, typically in the spring 
    • Electrical power for the coop should be shut off, and all bedding and food should be removed 
    • All surfaces, including nest boxes and perches, should be scraped with a brush and scrubbed with hot, soapy water 
    • Coop cleaners are commercially available, or a mixture of equal parts vinegar and water can be used 
    • Thoroughly rinse all soap or other cleaners out of the coop so no residue is left behind for chickens to contact or inhale 
    • After it is thoroughly hosed off, allow the coop to air-dry before bedding is replaced and birds are allowed back in

Feeding 

A healthy diet for a chicken consists of: 

  • Commercially available crumble or pelleted food formulated with different amounts of protein, fat and vitamins for specific life stages (starter/grower, layer and maintenance/non-layer/rooster) 
  • Clean, fresh water 
  • Crushed oyster shell grit to aid digestion and provide a source of calcium 
  • Small amounts of supplemental vegetables (such as corn, tomatoes, kale, spinach and escarole) every day 
  • Treats, including fruit, “scratch” (grains like barley, wheat, oats and seeds) and dried mealworms 
  • No chocolate, avocado, alcohol, caffeine or very salty foods, as these are toxic to birds

Things to remember when feeding your chicken:

  • Food and water dishes should be cleaned and replenished every day 
  • Food bowls should be elevated a few inches off the coop floor to help prevent parasites 
  • Water should be offered in untippable bowls or through automatic watering systems that are heated to help prevent freezing in cold winter climates 
  • Crumbles or pellets should always be available for grazing 
  • Oyster shell grit, or digestible grit, is essential for chickens as it provides calcium for successive egg-laying 
  • Insoluble grit helps chickens grind food in their stomachs but should be offered to chickens who have access to grass outside couple of times of month 
  • Treats should make up no more than 5% of their daily diet 
  • Fresh grass, untreated with pesticides or fertilizers, is safe for grazing

Care

  • Eggs should be collected every day to encourage further laying 
  • Chickens enjoy dust baths and should have access to dry dirt, either on the coop floor or in a small sandbox outside 
  • Chickens do not need to be bathed with water; they keep themselves clean by preening their feathers and skin 
  • They wear down their nails during normal activity and typically do not need them cut 
  • Healthy chickens will groom parasites from their skin and feathers 
  • Chickens infested with parasites often have other underlying health conditions 
  • Hens will undergo a gradual molt of all their feathers at about 18 months of age, which lasts for 2–4 months; after that, they molt annually, and older birds may molt less regularly 
  • During molting, chickens stop laying eggs

Chicken supplies

  • Appropriately sized coop 
  • 1/4-inch wire mesh for coop fencing 
  • Untippable, elevated food dishes 
  • Untippable water bowl or automatic watering system 
  • Coop bedding material 
  • Nesting material 
  • High-quality pelleted food appropriate for their age or life stage 
  • Crushed oyster shell grit calcium supplement 
  • Treats 
  • Sand and small sandbox for dust baths 
  • Wire brush, dish soap/vinegar/commercial cleaning solution for coop cleaning 
  • UV light bulb for birds without access to natural sunlight during the day 
  • Hand sanitizer or soap and water for use after handling chickens or objects contaminated with feces

Health 

Signs of a healthy chicken

  • Active, alert and curious 
  • Eating and drinking throughout the day 
  • No discharge from the eyes or nostrils 
  • Smooth, unruffled feathers without patches of feather loss 
  • Clean, dry vent

Red flags (If you notice any of these signs, contact your veterinarian.)

  • Lethargy and inactivity 
  • Discharge from eyes, nostrils or mouth 
  • Lack of appetite 
  • No droppings or watery, poorly formed droppings 
  • Swelling on feet, legs or face 
  • Wing droop or lameness of one leg 
  • Fluffed up feathers or feather loss 
  • Rapid breathing or breathing with increased effort 
  • Sudden cessation of egg-laying or passage of cracked, thin-shelled or shell-less eggs

 

Common chicken health issues

Health Issue Symptoms or Causes Suggested Action
Health Issue Reproductive problems Symptoms or Causes Abnormal-looking eggs, sudden lack of egg-laying, swollen abdomen, decreased appetite Suggested Action Seek veterinary care
Health Issue Respiratory infections Symptoms or Causes Difficulty breathing, discharge from eyes/nose/mouth, decreased appetite Suggested Action Separate from rest of flock and seek veterinary care immediately
Health Issue No droppings or bloody, watery or poorly formed droppings or diarrhea Symptoms or Causes Watery or poorly formed stool, soiled vent Suggested Action Seek veterinary care, feed an appropriate diet, and have stool checked for parasites
Health Issue Skin infections Symptoms or Causes Inflamed red skin, itchiness, feather loss, agitated behavior, obvious skin parasites Suggested Action Consult with an avian veterinarian, clean coop, change bedding, eliminate crowded coop conditions
Health Issue Frostbite Symptoms or Causes Purple to black skin on normally red comb (atop head) and wattles (under chin), red or black skin on toes Suggested Action Soak gently in warm (not hot) water and seek veterinary care

Notes and sources

Ask a Pet Care Center store employee about Petco's selection of products available for the care and happiness of your new pet. All products carry a 100% money-back guarantee.

As chickens naturally carry infectious organisms (such as salmonella bacteria) in their intestinal tract, always wash your hands or use hand sanitizer after handling your chickens or any objects potentially contaminated with their droppings to help prevent the spread of infection. Pregnant women, children under age 5, senior citizens and people with weakened immune systems should consult their physicians before purchasing or caring for chickens.

Go to cdc.gov/healthypets/pets/farm-animals/backyard-poultry.html for more information about chickens.

The information on this Care Sheet is not a substitute for veterinary care. If you need additional information, please contact your veterinarian as appropriate.