A woman is occasionally spotted on a New York City sidewalk, leash in hand, walking a chicken. Ask her if chickens make great pets and you’ll get an enthusiastic, “Yes! They are wonderful.” Her chicken lives with her in her apartment.
Ask the same question of a family that raises batch after batch of Cornish Rock Broilers destined for the barbeque grill and you’ll get a resounding, “No, chickens are food animals.”
Most families that keep a small flock of hens in the backyard fall somewhere in between. Their hens usually live in a coop detached from the house. They produce delicious eggs and are fun to watch as they chase a grasshopper in their run or proudly hop off the nest after laying an egg as precious as a jewel. Bring them a few table scraps and they’ll run toward their owners with enthusiasm. They’re not quite pets the way the family pooch or cat is, but they’re easy animals to take a shine to and not quickly dismiss as the mere raw material for an omelet or soup. Often families name their hens and keep them long after they’ve grown too old to be efficient layers. Pet like, sure, but not cuddled or taken into the house.
Rebecca Mumaw has taught many chicken workshops for families interested in keeping a small flock. “Most people are interested in keeping hens for the eggs and garden fertilizer. Their children tend to think of them more as pets.” She said. “Homesteading type folks usually teach their children that chickens are food. I have a friend whose daughters have a light in the coop and actually do their homework there. I always recommend that everyone wash their hands after being around chickens and keep their mouths away from feathers,” she explained. Kelli Kennon-Lane organizes backyard chicken workshops at the Indian Creek Nature Center and agrees with Mumaw. “Our participants come to learn about chickens for the egg production and sustainability. But most parents recognize that children may view hens with more sentimental value,” she said.
Neither of the women know of anyone who keeps chickens in their house, but It’s not surprising that some people do. After all, people make pets of turtles, snakes, goldfish, even tarantulas and giant Madagascar hissing cockroaches. Years ago, pet rocks were the craze. Unlike the above animals and rocks chickens are warm blooded, colorful, and so intelligent that they soon learn to come for treats and recognize one person from another. They are also relatively long lived. Given good nutrition and safe housing a chicken can live a dozen or more years. It’s a lifespan similar to dogs, cats, and domestic bunnies. So, it is possible to make a pet of a chicken for the person willing to provide care and practice sanitation that is beyond what’s required for most other animals. For example, they need to use special chicken diapers to keep carpets unsoiled.
Like dogs and cats, chickens are diverse and have individual personalities. Some breeds may be more appropriate as pets than others. Cochins, Brahmas, Silkies and Orpingtons, for example, are fluffy birds that tend to be calm unaggressive ground huggers. Sometimes they seem curious and, perhaps affectionate. Unable to fly well they contrast greatly with Leghorns, Minorcas, and other high-strung breeds and hybrids that lay white eggs. Anyone seriously considering making a pet of a chicken should stick with calm breeds.
Although many people keep chickens as pets, there are compelling reasons why other animals are more suitable. Perhaps most telling is the chicken’s inability to be housebroken. Chickens poop a lot and drop a lump of nitrogen rich fertilizer whenever they need to go. That could be on the living room carpet or kitchen counter. Some enterprising companies sell chicken diapers, but changing diapers is no one’s favorite form of recreation, and the contents of that soiled diaper are another serious reason to keep chickens at a respectful distance. It’s salmonella.
Salmonella is a serious disease caused by bacteria found on a host of animals. Reptiles can transmit it to people but chickens, especially baby chicks, sometimes spread it to humans. Dogs, cats, and hamsters can transmit salmonella to people, but birds and reptiles seem to have a higher threat level.
The Hoover’s Hatchery catalog and resource guide includes a full page of information on Salmonella and how to avoid catching this sometimes serious disease. The Center for Disease Control’s website (www.cdc.gov) also includes much information on Salmonella. Among the recommendations to avoid contracting this disease is to never allow chickens in a home and avoid direct contact between birds and children age five and younger, the elderly, and people with a compromised immune system. Kids love to cuddle chicks and chickens, but illness can result.
All experts strongly recommend washing hands after handling animals, eggs, chicken litter, feeders and waterers, and anything else that comes in contact with chickens.
There may be disagreement on whether chickens are suitable pets, but experts agree on one point. Whether people are in contact with pet chickens, a small backyard laying flock, or a massive broiler operation they need to practice careful sanitation and always wash carefully before eating.