Activists, Politics and Farming…Everyone Loses


Example of a Furnished Cage

The battle over animal welfare is coming to a head in the US.  California’s Proposition 2 comes into effect in January 2015, which is almost immediately, in terms of the farms affected.  The story is complicated, the issues are multi-layered, and as far as I can tell, NOBODY is going to win.


A Modern Conventional Cage Barn

Turn the clock back to the halcyon days of 2008.  An animal rights group called the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) champions a ballot initiative in one of the most liberal states in America.  HSUS is an organization that is dedicated to the reduction and elimination of animal use in the world.  They had a budget of $125,763,492 in 2012, but used less than 1% of their funds for shelters.  They claim to want to improve the lives of laying hens and other farmed animals in California….cynics say they are trying to destroy the egg and pork industries.

Proposition 2 stated that “calves raised for veal, egg-laying hens and pregnant pigs be confined only in ways that allow these animals to lie down, stand up, fully extend their limbs and turn around freely.”  It passed with 63% of the vote.  Californians, although reportedly being confused about the implications of the statement, clearly want improved welfare for farmed animals. They also eat almost 9 Billion eggs per year.   After much legal wrangling, it has been decided that furnished cages (cages with a nest box, perches, scratch areas and more space) are an acceptable method of farming hens, as are free-range, free-run and aviaries…..all of which are noticeably more expensive than eggs from hens housed in cages.  Proposition 2 has an implementation date of Jan 1, 2015.

Farmers want to look after animals, produce food and make a living.  Several farmers decided to adopt new technologies and improve the welfare of hens.  Notably JS West Co. has converted several barns to furnished cages at an incredible cost.  They tried to recoup their investment by selling the eggs for a small premium.  Unfortunately, nobody would buy the eggs, and JS West has been forced to sell the eggs as traditional white eggs, at a loss.

Enter the Governator.  Arnold knew that, if the eggs produced in California had to be more expensive, they could not compete with cheaper eggs from Iowa, which has almost 52 million laying hens, well over 90% of which live in cages.  He proposed a law that would require that any egg sold in California would have to be produced by hens held to the new standards required by Prop 2.  Unfortunately, this law seems to be unconstitutional, since agricultural standard in one state cannot be dictated by another state’s rules.  The Governor-General of Missouri is suing California to allow access to California’s egg market, and it looks like he will likely prevail.

So…..where does that leave them?

At the end of the day, rules are rules, and California farmers will have to follow the housing regulations.  California will have to allow free trade of eggs from other states.  The end results will be millions or billions of dollars spent in court (depends who you ask), eggs produced in California will be more expensive to produce, and unless something drastic happens, all but 5-6% of Californians will buy the cheapest eggs in the store.

HSUS will not achieve either of their purported goals….egg consumption will not drop due to higher prices (which is supposed by critics to have been their actual end-game), and the same proportion of California egg consumption will be from caged hens (meaning no improvement of welfare, which is their official goal).

Californians will not get improved animal welfare, since they will continue to buy eggs as they always have….more than 90% of the eggs from hens in cages.

Farmers in California will basically go out of business.  If you are producing a commodity that is purchased on price, and your production costs are higher, you must make less profit.  Eventually, they will go elsewhere.

Hens will not have an improved life.  Actually…just from the fact that they will live in Ohio instead of California, it is arguable that their quality of life will go down……not many people take holidays in Ohio….

This is a case of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing, and nothing getting accomplished.  Except this is more like an octopus, and all the balls dropped are Faberge eggs worth millions.

Here in Canada, we are trying to use a collaborative process to develop a strategy for welfare improvement through the National Farm Animal Care Council.  We have farmers, vets, industry, welfare scientists, humane societies, retail councils and all other players in  egg supply sitting around the table hammering out a policy.  It is excruciatingly slow, but I think it is going to result in some improvement in welfare in Canadian egg production….rather than just a redistribution of the geography of egg production.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Environmental Impact of Professional Farms

In the past decade, many pundits and critics have talked about moving to more extensive farming in order to improve the environmental impact that food production has on the world. They say “support small, diverse farms, like grandpa used to have, so that we can protect the earth”. Or “buy organic, its more environmentally friendly”. I’ve never understood this line of thinking.

Let me put in a couple caveats……I don’t think I have the authority to tell people what to eat. Animal activists will say that we can decrease the environmental impact of egg production by eating no eggs. Duh. They don’t ever tell you how much environmental impact of whatever you replace eggs with in your diet, and I don’t have the background to even guess at those numbers. My point is, if you want to eat eggs, you can EITHER support extensive housing (free run, free-range, organic, etc), OR be environmentally friendly. No matter how many eggs we eat, the more intensive the farm, the more environmentally efficient it is, and the less environmental impact it has. Think of it this way….a hen will only lay so many eggs….if we want to impact the environment less, the more efficient the hen is, the less grain we feed her, the less water we give her to drink, and the less manure we are left to deal with….whether they are on 1 farm of 100,000 hens, 10 farms of 10,000 hens, or 1000 farms of 100 hens. If the hens are less efficient, there is more waste….at both ends.

The most environmentally friendly way of producing eggs

The most environmentally friendly way of producing eggs

I’ve wanted to write about this for a long time, but never had the numbers to back up the argument….I knew it was true, but couldn’t give you a measure of it… I can. A study released by the Egg Industry Center in the United States compares the environmental impact of a 1960’s egg farm vs a 2010 Egg farm.

Key results of the study found that compared to 1960:

The egg production process releases significantly less polluting emissions, including 71 percent lower greenhouse gas emissions.
Hens now use 32 percent less water per dozen eggs produced.
Today’s hens use a little over half the amount of feed to produce a dozen eggs.
At the same time, today’s hens produce 27 percent more eggs per day and are living longer.

Due to increased feed efficiency, advancements in hen housing and manure management, egg farms now use less water and energy on a daily basis and release less polluting emissions. Every aspect of the egg production process, from cultivating feed to raising the laying hens, has led to a reduced environmental footprint.

Producing US eggs this way will put an extra area equal to 3 PEI's under the plow.

Producing US eggs this way will put an extra area equal to 3 PEI’s under the plow.

Using 1960 technology to produce the 2010 egg supply would have required 78 million more hens, 1.3 million more acres of corn and 1.8 million more acres of soybeans.

The Province of PEI is 1.4 million acres in size. Additionally, it will take more than 2 million liters of diesel fuel to run the tractors to till the land and harvest these crops. Remember, all of this would produce the exact same number of eggs as current housing systems.

Does this mean that current egg farming practices are ideal? No. They have impacts beyond the environment, all of which have to be evaluated when deciding the right way to produce food. But, if you feel strongly about protecting the environment, and wish to have less environmental impact from the eggs (or any other food you eat), efficiency is the key….and the more intensive the farming system, the more efficient it is.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Welfare Impacts of Different Laying Hen Housing

Many people have read and commented on my previous post, where I tried to give some context to an animal activist video that attacked professional egg farmers in Canada. I have had numerous questions regarding housing types, and how “Welfare Friendly” they are. I am convinced that it would be easier to tell you how the colour purple smells. Anyways, here is a VERY BRIEF and superficial description of the welfare impacts of housing. These facts are based on scientific evaluations by some of the leading welfare scientists in the world. If you are “sciency”, I have included references at the bottom of the post, so I don’t get accused of making things up.

First, it is important to realize that animal welfare is generally evaluated under 3 sets of schemes.

1) Biological functioning measures an animal’s response to its environment. Mortality rates, production measures, corticosteroid levels, and any other measurable parameter will fall under this scheme. Welfare is assessed by the ability of the animal to adapt to its environment, and if it can adapt successfully, the welfare is felt to be good. For example, if you have a hen in a barn with a temperature of 15 degrees C, and her cortisol levels are normal, she is not ill, etc, etc, then you would say she is able to adapt to that environment, and her welfare is good. If she is in a 5 degree C barn, and her stress hormones are high, her body temperature is below normal, etc, you would say she cannot adapt to that temperature, and her welfare is poorer.

2) Affective state refers to the feelings of the animal. It is the feeling of hunger that is the problem, not the fact that the animal is hungry. Fear, frustration and boredom are important considerations in this approach, regardless of the physical state the animal is in. One caution with this approach is that affective states are extremely difficult to measure directly. Affective states can only be inferred from the actions the animal takes. For example, a shivering dog may be said to be cold, but she may actually be nervous, or excited.

3) Natural Living. The premise of this approach is that behavior evolves in a method similar to physical characteristics, and that extraneous behaviours will be phased out because they are too costly for the animal to maintain, if it is not important to the survival of the animal. Thus, any behavior, drive or urge that remains must be important to the animal, and for good welfare, the opportunity to perform all natural behaviours is necessary.

The welfare effects of different housing systems for laying hens are complicated and multi-layered. Conventional cages are heavily criticized because they severely restrict behavior and movement. They do provide many welfare advantages as well.

Typical modern conventional cage

Typical modern conventional cage

Cages provide excellent health and environmental benefits for the hen. They also effectively control group size, resulting in less inter-bird aggression and cannibalism. Health advantages provided by cages include less viral and bacterial infections, less parasite infestations, less bumblefoot, lower mortality and less antibiotic usage than loose housed or aviary flocks. Hens in cages also have less competition for feed and water. Environmental benefits delivered by cage systems include the lowest ammonia and respirable dust levels. On the downside, cages predispose hens to metabolic imbalances such as osteoporosis and fatty liver. Osteoporosis increases the risk of fractures during handling at depopulation. It is assumed that fear and boredom are inevitable consequences of barren environments, and natural living is very poorly provided.

Furnished cages are larger cages that contain perches, nest boxes and a scratch pad that has substrate on it to encourage

A Furnished Cage in Ontario

A Furnished Cage in Ontario

dust bathing. Mortality rates and bone strength are improved over conventional cages, and this housing system results in the least fractures overall. Infection rates, aggression and cannibalism are the same as conventional cages. Foot infections are more prevalent in furnished cages than conventional cages. Affective states in furnished cages are improved over conventional cages because of the variety of activities and social interactions that hens can perform, reducing boredom. Natural living aspects are improved due to the ability to perch, dustbathe and lay eggs in a nest, but is still very limited.

Loose housing systems (aka floor barns, or free-run barns) provide hens with a much expanded repertoire of behavioral

A free run barn in Ontario

A free run barn in Ontario

abilities, allowing hens to lay eggs in a nest, dustbathe, and forage. Hens are motivated to perform all of these behaviours, although to differing degrees. The barn in the picture has perches, although not all do. Aggression is higher in this housing system, and bone fracture incidence is around 60%. Ammonia and dust levels are high, with levels that are 3-4 times that of aviaries. Affective states are extremely variable, heavily dependent on the rank of the hen in the social hierarchy. The affective states are generally thought to be better overall than conventional cages. Natural living is improved over cages, due to the ability to nest and perch, but still limited.

Aviary housing is a system in which the hens are free in the barn and can access different levels throughout the barn. This system results in the best bone strength, but perversely the highest number of fractures, with up to 85% of the hens

An Aviary Barn in Ontario

An Aviary Barn in Ontario

getting a broken bone by the end of the lay cycle. Aviaries provide the widest repertoire of behavior, and the various heights allow submissive hens to escape effectively, and thus aggression is reduced from free-run barns. Ammonia and respirable dust are intermediate between cages and free-run, with levels 5-7 times that of cage barns. Affective states are assumed to be better than free-run barns, due to decrease in aggression and the thus fear, but are still dependent on social hierarchy. Natural living is improved over free-run due to the ability to fly, and perch in high sections of the barn.

Free range flocks have the ability to go outside. The range may be associated with a free-run barn, an aviary, or no permanent structure, only a mobile shelter to provide food, water and shelter. In Canada, free ranging can only occur during times of the year when the weather is reasonable. For several months of the year, the flocks are essentially free-run or aviary flocks, since going outside in the winter is not practical. Chickens in this type of housing have the ability to explore, experience weather and natural light and perform all their natural behaviors. These behavior benefits come at the cost of increased mortality, increased infections, predation and poor environmental control, resulting in thermal stress and discomfort from poor environmental condition such as mud and rain. Affective state is very good due to the ability to control her destiny, and make choices. Natural living proponents assess this housing system as far superior due to the range of natural behaviours it enables.

On top of all the considerations inherent in the physical layout of each housing system, the ability of the farmer to manage each barn can overcome many of the welfare differences between the systems. A well-managed cage barn will provide better welfare than a poorly managed aviary. The reverse is also true.

It is obvious that the three paradigms for evaluating animal welfare are often at odds with each other, and that each housing system satisfies each scheme to a greater or lesser extent. The housing system that provides the best welfare depends on the priority you place on each of the ways of measuring welfare. If natural living is the most important priority to you, cage systems will never be considered good providers of animal welfare. If you feel that it is preferable for the hens to be bored, rather than at greater risk for illness and dying, cages provide unparalleled welfare advantages. The relative importance of each area of welfare assessment is a philosophical decision that varies from person to person.

Add to this the impact that different housing systems have on food safety, egg quality, economics and the environment, and it is staggeringly complicated to compare the benefits of each housing system. It is far too simplistic to state that any housing system is inherently better than another, let alone that any of them are unacceptable or ideal. Anyone who can make this type of declaration likely doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the issue.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Tauson, R. Management and housing systems for layers- effects on welfare and production. World Poultry Science Journal 2005;61:477-490.

Lay , D.C., Fulton, R.M., Hester, P.Y., Karcher, D.M., Kjaer, J.B., Mench, J.A., Mullens, B.A., Newberry, R.C., Nicol, C.J., O’Sullivan, N.P., Porter, R.E. Hen welfare in different housing systems. Poultry Science 2011;90, 278-294.

Rodenburg, T.B., Tuyttens, F.A.M., Reu, K.D., Herman, L., Zoons, J., Sonck, B. Welfare assessment of laying hens in furnished cages and non-cage systems: an on-farm comparison. Animal Welfare 2008;17, 363-373.

Sherwin, C.M., Richards, G.H., Nicol, C.J. Comparison of the welfare of layer hens in 4 housing systems in the UK. Brit Poultry Science 2010;51, 488-499.

Wilkins L.J.,McKinstry J.L., Avery N.C., Knowles T.G., Brown S.N.,Tarlton J., Nicol C.J. Influence of housing system and design on bone strength and keel bone fractures in laying hens. Veterinary Record 2011;169:414-421.

Nimmermark, S., V. Lund, G. Gustafsson, W. Eduard. Ammonia, dust, and bacteria in welfare-oriented systems for laying hens. Annals Agricultural Environmental Medicine 2009;16:103-113.

Response to Activist Video

This blog post is one I was hoping not to have to write. In Canada, there was recently an “investigative report” on the commercial egg industry. It developed after an animal activist group took undercover footage and passed an edited video to a television newsmagazine. The resulting 30 minute show was a black eye to the professional farmers, and has caused a stir in the public. I am disappointed in the response from the industry groups to address this attack, so I am writing this blog post in hopes of doing my part. This commentary does not represent any organization, and is entirely my own opinion.

First, let me point out some of the issues that are at play in animal activist videos in general.

1) Modern farms are large. This is daunting to most non-agricultural people. Looking at a barn with 10,000 chickens is as alien to you as me looking at an auto assembly plant, or a brewery, or a company that makes computer components. The shock of seeing the alien environment is leveraged by insinuating that it is impossible to care for large groups of hens. The fact is, there are basically as many laying hens in Canada as there are people. The farms are large because so many people live in cities and towns and don’t have time or interest in raising their own food. 30 Million chickens have to live somewhere in Canada if we want to continue to eat eggs the way we do now. Interestingly, the average flock size in Canada is smaller than anywhere else in the developed world….in the US, farms are between 50 and 100 times as large.

2) Activist videos are not what they seem. No, I’m not saying they fake them (although that has happened in some cases). What you need to realize is that the activist takes video for 4-5 months, then edits the video into the worst possible 15 minutes possible. The mandate of animal activists is to stop the use of animals…..all animals. They aren’t interested in showing the truth….if false representation helps them stop a process they see as immoral, that is very acceptable to them. Think about what this means. Imagine someone secretly taping you interacting with your kids or coworkers for months, and then trying to make you look bad. Imagine going through 4 months of footage of baseball games, and clipping out batters getting hit, hard slides, collisions at the plate, then make a 15 minute video of how baseball should be stopped because it is too violent. If the people watching were from the interior of China where people are unfamiliar with baseball, what would their opinion of the sport be?

3) Farmers (and unfortunately, farmer organizations) are petrified to make mistakes in public. If you say something incorrectly and it is misinterpreted at a party, somebody might think you are an ass. Make a clumsy remark to a “gotcha” reporter, and you make an entire farming community look bad. Nobody wants to be the face on TV that makes everyone look bad (it’s interesting that the activists almost never show his/her face on the videos either). Unfortunately, the implication is that the farmers have something to hide, further shaking public confidence (oddly, it is seen as protecting the activist’s identity).

4) The “alternative” methods are always shown as a Walt Disney film. We need to house 30 million hens in Canada. If everyone doesn’t want to house 2 hens on their apartment balcony, we need people to make a living by producing eggs for the city folk to eat. To farm, you need to have enough income to pay your bills and feed yourself. The 5 hens that were shown running around the feet of the cow, on a sunny summer day will a) feed the farmer and maybe 2 other people (we will need 29, 999, 995 more farmers to do this), b) have a much less pleasant time when it is raining or snowing out, and c) have to earn the farmer $10,000 each in order for the bank not to repossess the farm. If you want to promote free-run or free-range, at least understand what a 5,000 bird flock of hens kept in that system looks like (5000 is about the minimum size of flock where a farmer can make a living).

5) It is assumed that the only reason farmers keep hens in cages is to increase profits and sate their greed. In reality, especially in Canada, there is much more profit to be made farming cage free or organic hens (see my blog post There are several reasons why hens are in cages. Cages are the housing system that result in the healthiest hens, the safest eggs, and the least environmental impact. They are the most efficient method of producing eggs, and thus result in the most inexpensive eggs for the consumer. The industry consists of over 95% of the eggs being produced in cages because that is what the consumer has demanded. If people stop preferring cheap eggs, the farmers will respond.

With these ideas in mind, there are things that happened on the activist video that needed to be improved upon. The farm had an unacceptable method of euthanasia. Their training of employees was weak in this area, and the problem was one of ignorance, rather than callousness or laziness. The method of euthanasia was actually more difficult and labour intensive than the approved, proper and effective methods. In this instance, I thank the activists for finding the problem so that it could be fixed. In 15 years as a laying hen vet, I have never seen another farm that euthanized pullets incorrectly….cervical dislocation is a very effective, humane and simple method of euthanasia that is used EVERYWHERE…..I honestly don’t know where the idea came from on this farm.

The unfortunate side effect of having large flocks (at 120,000 hens, this is one of the largest flocks in Canada) is that there is bound to be injured or escaped chicks. This is what the farmer works to prevent and address on a daily basis. I don’t work directly with this farm, but every farm I work with will inspect each of the cages at least daily, and the vast majority will inspect the barn 2-3 times per day, to remove injured or dead chickens, and make sure no birds are trapped or injured. Despite the appearance of the video (again 4-5 months worth of injuries shown in less than a minute), these things don’t happen often, and happen LESS in cages than in other housing systems. The activist stated that she saw ‘a thousand chicks die’. I don’t doubt it. Sounds dramatic. But think about 1000 chicks out of 120,000 chicks. If you have 5 hens in your backyard, that would be the same rate as 1 BIRD DYING EVERY 22 YEARS.

Is this farm perfect? Absolutely not. They need to change some of their practices. In general, they do a good job. The TV show condemns cages as a method of housing laying hens, but makes no mention of the changes that are being undertaken by the industry to implement furnished cages, which have been shown to be a VERY humane and effective way to house hens, maintaining the health and safety benefits of cages, while allowing much better behaviour capabilities and freedom of movement. Are cages acceptable? As someone who just finished my Masters Degree in Animal Welfare, I am very supportive of furnished cages, as are the ethologists I have worked with over the past 15 years. Only you can make that decision for yourself, however. What I can tell you, is that if you ask for the industry to change, it will. The housing situation right now is in place because that is what the consumer and society has demanded.

If you have any questions or comments, I will be interested in hearing them, and will respond as well as I can.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Why aren’t there more Chicken Vets?

I have been asked numerous times why there are no vets around who work on backyard chickens.  It’s been suggested that I should specialize in backyard health and make my millions.  There has been an article in the Wall Street Journal no less, decrying the lack of vets with chicken experience ( 

I will try to tell you why there is a lack of vet care available for your chickens.  Like most real-life problems, it is complicated, involves money, attitudes, history and inertia.  Some ways to approach providing backyarders access to vet care include a backyard poultry only practice, professional poultry vets branching out into backyard flocks, or small animal vets branching out into backyard flocks.  All of these have challenges.  I will give you my top 10 reasons why there is a lack of veterinary care for backyard flocks;

     10) Money

I have worked exclusively with poultry for 15 years now.  I’m happy with my income (unless you happen to be my boss, in which case, I’d like a raise), and I like working with the birds.  I visit about 2 – 3 flocks per day, and I earn hundreds of dollars from each visit (sue me, but I’d like to earn more than a plumber….10 years of post-secondary education left me with a small mortgage, and it should be worth SOMETHING).  Since the flocks I visit have thousands of birds, each visit costs pennies per hen.  Many backyarders won’t be willing to pay $50+ per visit, which is about the minimum I’d need to keep my doors open.

      9) Biosecurity

 I know activists would have you believe that biosecurity is just an excuse to keep professional farms out of the public’s eye, but it is a crucial component of the health programs on all commercial sized farms.   This year alone, I am aware of backyard flocks who have been diagnosed with Avian Influenza, Mycoplasma, Salmonella enteritidis, Infectious Laryingotracheitis, Fowl Cholera and Blackhead…..all of which would be devastating in a professional flock… in, people losing their livelihood and home, level of devastation.  Believe it or not, the amount and variety of diseases in backyard flocks dwarf the infections on professional farms, and the risk of carrying diseases is very real.

    8) Liability

I have been asked to do things like prescribe medications or sign export certificates on backyard flocks.  The reality is that, as a professional, every time I sign my name to a certificate, it is on me to make SURE it is true.  So, if you want to move a flock across state lines, and I sign a form saying your flock has shown no signs of disease X in the past 3 months, I need to be SURE that they haven’t.  This means that I need to know you and your flock well, and have multiple visits (costing you $$ multiple times).  If the hens are carrying the disease I stated they were free of, it is ME who is charged with negligence or malpractice.  This is not as big an issue for small animal vets, because the impact of a missed case of kennel cough or FELV isn’t the same as moving the hens that are the start of an agricultural disease (the Avian Influenza outbreak in British Columbia cost an estimated $380 million, and almost definitely started in a backyard duck flock). 

     7) Different type of Medicine

For me, as a commercial vet, I concentrate on keeping flocks healthy.  To do that I do what is called “population medicine”, and am more focussed on the health of the group as opposed to each individual hen.  Sick hens will often be euthanized to be examined and samples taken so the rest of the flock can be appropriately treated.  That model does not work for backyard flocks.  Techniques like exploratory surgery, intravenous fluids, severe wound repair or life support therapy are necessary, even crucial when dealing with backyard hens, but I am not used to performing them, and it is an entirely different mindset.

    6) Interest

Very few small animal vets have any experience or interest in chickens.  They like dogs and cats, and think guinea pigs and hedgehogs are cute, but chickens are alien to almost all of them.  Chickens are so different than the mammalian patients my classmates see that they are very uncomfortable in even attempting to deal with them.  This is a wide generalization, but holds true in most cases.  I know of an injured hen that was flatly refused at a vet clinic because the vet said she “wouldn’t even know where to start”.

     5) Lack of tools

Chickens are no longer expected to be in small groups in North America.  Vaccines come in bottles of 1000, 5000, 10,000 or 25,000 doses, and once opened, need to be used within 2 hours or they don’t work.  (One of the vaccines I use can only be bought in a 25,000 dose bottle).  Even though I want to recommend vaccination of backyard flocks, it is difficult to justify buying 5000 doses of Newcastle Disease vaccine for your 5 hens.  Antibiotics are the same….most come in a pouch that treats 100 gallons of water….once opened, the antibiotic starts to lose efficacy, and should not be stored for later use.

     4) Lack of Numbers

Even if there was a way to provide decent care in a metropolis like Toronto, or New York, that would still only help a very small percentage of the backyard hens…..what about the smaller cities, towns, and even rural flocks (cow and horse vets don’t really have any comfort with chickens either, as a rule).  Unless there is a critical mass of hens, it is very difficult to provide care, regardless of the location.

     3) Chickens are weird

Face it…chickens are weird.  They have an odd social structure that can seriously impact their health, they have a wildly different biology that other pet animals (respiratory, digestive, reproductive, cardiovascular, immune, bone and skin systems are all vastly different than other pets).  It means that a small animal vet cannot apply what he/she knows in other areas to the chicken.  A chinchilla is not that different that a dog or cat, and you can logically adapt treatments if one is brought into your clinic, but a chicken does not fit the model.  At all.

     2) Chickens are food

Another aspect of treating chickens that makes small animal vets uncomfortable is that you don’t (usually) eat your pets.  I am very aware of the human health implications of everything I do on a farm.  I only use antibiotics that I am confident will not contaminate the eggs or meat, or else I know how long that contamination will persist for, and advise against eating the eggs for a period of time.  Small animal vets don’t have this background, and are (rightly) worried about causing residues that make people sick.

    1) Inertia

The number one reason that vet care isn’t more available for backyard chickens is inertia.  “It just isn’t done”.  Like giving women the vote, this is unheard of, and might be the end of civilization as we know it.  Keep asking your vet (and other vets) to look after your hens.  Be willing to pay a little, in order to make him/her think about making it a part of the clinic’s business model.  Be patient if they are slow, or unsure.  Keep trying to make it happen, and in the near future, someone will figure out that treating chickens is not scary or dangerous, and a model for this type of medicine will emerge and become commonplace. 


Mike the Chicken Vet

Coming Out Party

I’d like to say hello to all the people who have just discovered my blog.  For some reason, I have been “discovered”, and my hit-rate has gone through the roof.  I’m not sure the source of my new-found popularity, but I’m glad you have stopped by.

Anyone who has toured the blog has noticed that this is not a “cute pictures and caption” type of site.  I don’t post as often as I’d like, but my posts are usually pretty full of information that the general public may not be privy to.  I have a unique position in that I am a full-time practicing veterinarian for professional egg farmers in Canada and know intimately what happens on the farms that produce the eggs that you find in your grocery store.  I also have an interest in backyard flocks and have an idea of the types of people who keep small flocks, and try to help them be successful in their small farming operations.  I also have recently finished my Masters degree in Animal Welfare.  This is pretty unique because I am very aware and interested in the animal welfare issues surrounding both professional and backyard flocks (yes…there are significant welfare concerns for extensive flocks as well….).

I have been building this blog for about a year and a half, and have enough content now that I think it will be of value and interest to quite a few people.  As I said, I’m not sure why the sudden uptick in traffic, but if you are new here, welcome.  I hope you find something of value, and thanks for visiting!

Salmonella in Backyard Flocks

This came across my inbox a little while ago, and I thought I would share it with you.  It is a news article on the uptick in Salmonella infections and illnesses associated with backyard hens.

DENVER – As the urban farming movement continues to grow in Colorado, health officials are raising a red flag about Salmonella outbreaks linked to backyard flocks.

There is particular concern about people bringing chickens into their homes and treating them as pets or “lap chickens,” complete with chicken diapers.

Mary, a Denver resident who did not want to reveal her last name, has even launched a business selling the diapers.

“They’re just really, really tame, and they want to be near humans,” said Mary, petting her two chickens, Henny and Penny. “I wouldn’t have them in the house all the time, but once in a while it’s nice to let them in.”

But in a CDC warning, health officials said they are investigating two large, multistate outbreaks of Salmonella tied to backyard flocks.

One strain sickened people in 37 states, including 31 people in Colorado. One person died from that strain.

Some people were reportedly “kissing or cuddling with” the birds, according to CDC investigators.

The CDC said even poultry that appears healthy and clean can still be shedding germs that make people sick, and chickens should not be allowed inside people’s homes.

Candice Burns Hoffman, a spokeswoman for the National Center for Emergening and Zoonotic Infectious Diseases with the CDC, said in an email to 23ABC’s affiliate, 7NEWS: “Just like you wouldn’t walk around your house and touch surfaces with raw, uncooked chicken, you also shouldn’t allow your live poultry to have contact with surfaces in your home.”

In 2012 alone, public health officials uncovered eight outbreaks in which people got sick with germs spread from contact with poultry in backyard flocks.  These outbreaks caused at least 517 illnesses, 93 hospitalizations and fours deaths, according to the CDC.

Health officials said that for every case of Salmonella illness reported to the CDC, there are about 30 more that don’t get reported.

The people most at risk for getting a serious illness from contact with live poultry include young children, people with weakened immune systems and adults older than 65 years.

People become infected with Salmonella germs when they put their hands or other things that have been in contact with animal droppings in or around their mouth.

Young children are especially at risk for illness because their immune systems are still developing and because they are more likely than others to put their fingers or other items into their mouths.

“I never had a problem, and I don’t think most people would,” said Mary.

She said there is no difference between her chickens and other bird pets, except her chickens give something back.

“See, there you go,” she said, lifting up a brown egg. “I love fresh eggs.”

Chickens and Salmonella go together like, well my kid’s fingerprints and the iPad.  You can sometimes clean them out, but they will always come back.  Not to mention the E. coli, Pseudemonas, Campylobacter and Clostridium that are often carried silently by apparently healthy hens.  This doesn’t mean your chickens are “dirty bombs” that need to be approached only with a hazmat suit (if you’re bored, google the bacteria that are found in your own mouth…..blech).  The point is, you need to assume that anything the hens have contact with MIGHT be contaminated with potentially sickening bacteria.

Healthy? No.  Child abuse? Maybe. Don't let your chicken lick you, either.

Healthy? No. Child abuse? Maybe. Don’t let your chicken lick you, either.

DON’T lick your chickens…’s not healthy, and people will think you’re weird.  You will be swapping bacteria with your hens in any case, but there’s no need to be that direct.  Remember, we become immune to what we are in contact with…this means that the bacteria in your backyard will set up an accommodation with you, and you will usually cope with it fine.  This is not necessarily true of visitors.


Most cleaners are effective.  Most contamination is missed, rather than being able to survive cleaning.

Most cleaners are effective. Most contamination is missed, rather than being able to survive cleaning.

So, keep it in mind….chickens, like all animals are a source for bacteria.  Take reasonable precautions, and don’t become blasé about it.   Mention to your doctor that you have chickens if you have a gut infection.  Wash your hands.  Clean any surface your chickens aren’t supposed to be on (ie, the sink, if you give one a bath). Only eat un-cracked eggs.  Handle soiled eggs appropriately.  Inform people who eat your eggs that they are from your flock, and not from a store.

Simple things.  Hopefully a waste of time, but if not, it may save you some unpleasantness.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Major US Study on Backyard Flocks

Through my many associations, I become aware of studies and surveys on all things chicken.  Recently, I had a study passed on to me that dealt with the demographics of backyard poultry owners.  It was performed by the National Animal Health Monitoring System, an arm of the US Department of Agriculture.  They talked about the need to know about the location and number of backyard flocks in terms of disease control (they ARE an animal health monitoring system….it’s what they do) but what interested me most was the demographic of the typical American Backyarder.  Surveys were performed in Miami, Denver, LA and New York.

Here are a few highlights from the study:

 Overall, 0.8 percent of all households (0.6 percent of all households excluding single-family homes on 1 acre or more) owned chickens. Chickens were owned on 4.3 percent of single-family homes on 1 acre or more. Excluding single-family homes on 1 acre or more, the percentage of households with chickens ranged from 0.1 percent in New York City to 1.3 percent in Miami.

 While less than 1 percent of households had chickens, nearly 4 percent of households without chickens planned to have chickens within the next 5 years, illustrating the growing acceptance of urban farming (range: 2.0 percent of households in New York City to 7.4 percent in Denver).

 Overall, about 4 of 10 respondents were in favor of allowing chickens in their communities and would not mind if their neighbors owned chickens (44.4 and 39.3 percent, respectively). These percentages were inversely related to the age of the respondent. Denver had the highest percentage of respondents in favor of allowing chickens in the community (62.5 percent).

 Although over half of respondents (55.6 percent) believed that chickens in urban areas will lead to more illnesses in humans, about two-thirds of respondents in Los Angeles, Miami, and New York City and three-fourths of respondents in Denver believed that eggs from home-raised chickens are better for you than eggs purchased at a grocery store. Denver respondents were the least likely to believe that chickens in urban areas will lead to more illnesses in humans.

Like any research paper on statistics, this one was dry reading, and some of the inferences could be questioned, but I found it fascinating that a) backyard chickens are a large enough sector to attract the interest of a national agency b) that the projected increase in backyard flocks is over 400% in the next 5 years, and c) that it is younger people that are driving the trend of having urban chickens.  All these factors point to a strong future for the backyard chicken movement in the future.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Lungs

Anyone who knows me knows of my hate-hate relationship with running.  I have started running in the past year, and have decided that it is the most ridiculous activity known to man.  You can’t score goals, you can’t look cool, and you will NEVER make it to Sportcenter (Usain Bolt excluded….I mean….he IS Usain Bolt).

The main reason I hate running is because I suck at it.  I’m strong, but my aerobic capacity is lousy.  I wish I was a bird.  If I was a bird, my trachea (windpipe) would be 2.7 times as large, reducing air resistance.  My rate of breathing would be about 1/3 of what it is currently, and I would take much bigger breaths.  This is the first part of the system that makes the bird respiratory system much more efficient at gas exchange than mammals (especially this particular mammal).

chicken airsacs

Location of Air Sacs in a hen

Chickens also have structures called air sacs.  The way to think of them are a bit like bagpipes…..they act as reservoirs for air so that there is constantly fresh air passing through the hens lungs.  A bird’s respiratory cycle is much more complicated than ours….we inhale into a big, complicated balloon, pause, and then push the air out.  As the air sits in the tiny air sacs (called alveoli), oxygen diffuses into the blood, and CO2 diffuses out.   Our alveoli are like a bunch of grapes….blind ended sacs that expand and contract as air comes in and out.  During the pause between breaths, the oxygen concentrations of the gasses change, and diffusion becomes slower. In hens, it goes like this….INHALE – air goes into the lungs and the abdominal air sacs.  EXHALE – air leaves the cranial, clavicular and cervical air sacs.  PAUSE – air goes from lungs to front air sacs while air is travelling from abdominal air sacs to the lungs.  Repeat as necessary.The result of these airbags is that there is a constant, one way flow through the lungs, and every part of the lung is constantly filled with fresh, fully oxygenated air.  Chickens have no alveoli…they have a network of tiny tubes where the air never stops flowing.

Diagram of airflow....not simple, but effecive

Diagram of airflow….not simple, but effecive

Hens have other adaptations too.  Birds have hollow bones, and the front air sacs communicate with the wing bones and the clavicles.  Thus, chickens even use their bones to breathe!  At the microscopic level, the point at which the oxygen enters the blood (and CO2 leaves it) is different too.  Cross current exchange where blood travels at 90 degrees to the airflow in the tiny lung tubes….makes for much more efficient exchange because the same air crosses blood vessels several times, instead of just once as in us mammals.  Also, the thickness of the tissues between the blood and the air is less than half that in mammals of similar sizes.Chickens have no diaphragm, which is the muscle we use to expand our chest cavity downwards.  This has major implications if you are handling chickens, especially small ones.  Their keel bone (Breast bone) MUST be able to move, or they can’t inhale.  Holding or wrapping a chicken  too tightly will stop her from breathing.  This is really important when children are around the hens, since a hug that would work for Fido will not work for chickens.So, in summary…birds breathe slower, deeper and more efficiently.  They have one way flow of air through their lungs through the adaptation of air sacs that act as bellows to constantly supply fresh air to the blood, even when the hen is not inhaling.This is why birds have such an efficient respiratory system, and why aerobic exercise is so much easier for them.When I am about 2 miles into a run, I really hate chickens. Mike the Chicken Vet

Chicken Guts

As promised, I am starting a description of the different systems inside the modern chicken.  I thought I’d start with a description of the intestinal tract of a hen. From beak to butt, there are a lot of specializations that allow chickens to magically convert grubs, worms, corn, grains and calcium into eggs…one of the most nutritionally dense foodstuffs in nature.

Not a pretty picture, but shows the tongue and choanal slit well

First off, it is always amazing to me that people are surprised to find that chickens have triangular tongues. What other shape could it be? There is also a slit (called a choanal slit) in the roof of the top beak. It is here that many substances that are eaten and drank are exposed to the immune system. The triangular tongue is very poor at sensing taste. The human tongue has about 10,000 taste buds, cows have about 20,000, and chickens have 25. Not 25,000….25. Chickens, like most birds, rely heavily on their eyes to locate food, and don’t invest a lot of brain space to taste. It explains some of the things they are willing to eat!!  You will also notice the scarcity of teeth. (Yes, your grandmother was right….hens teeth ARE rare).   More on this later.

After the food passes through the beak mostly untasted, it passes through the esophagus, a 3″ muscular tube, until it is deposited into the crop.  The crop is basically a holding tank for food and water.  It is muscular, but weak.  If a Anatomy-of-the-chicken-with-text

chicken eats things that are difficult to pass through the crop (like long blades of grass or hay), or the stuff in the crop gets too dried out, you get impacted crops.  If the contents stay there too long and start to rot, sour crop can result.  To help with either of these problems, it is important first to get the offending material out of the crop, and allow the muscles to relax, and the interior of the crop to become normal.

I know, its gross, but I’m a vet…this is what I do. Plus it gives you a good idea how things really look.

The the food is now the consistency of gruel and enters the proventriculus.  This stomach is similar to ours.  It secretes acids and enzymes and starts actively breaking down the food.  The food now enters the gizzard, which is a very muscular organ that is lined with a tough substance called koilin.  Inside the gizzard, the hen stores small pebbles.  These pebbles get rolled around inside the gizzard through the muscular contractions, and the action is like a grist mill.  Remember the part about the lack of teeth?  This is the compensation.  Stones are lighter than teeth, because you don’t need too many of them, since the feed is already pre-softened by soaking in the crop.  In professional farms, the stones are provided as pieces of oyster shell or limestone, both of which also act as a source of calcium for egg-shell and bone strength.

Once through the gizzard, the gut contents are like a very moist paste, very uniform, and still smelling like chicken feed.  It enters the small intestine, where the pancreas and the gall bladder add their contributions of enzymes and bile acids respectively.  The food is now basically reduced into its components.  For the next 30 cm or so, the protein, fats, sugars and other nutrients are absorbed into the bloodstream.  This is the function of the small intestine.  You can imagine, if there is some problem with the intestine, absorption will be reduced, and the volume of manure will increase…..this is the root cause of many cases of diarrhea.  The gut contents are now a darker brown, and more dense and pasty…pretty much half-way between feed and poo.

The food now enters the two cecums (called cecae when plura….great word to remember for Scrabble).  The primary functions of the cecae are to absorb

Normal Cecal Dropping
Normal Cecal Dropping
normal dropping

Normal Dropping

water and to act as an immune organ.   The contents of these are fairly light….lighter than normal chicken poo.  Every couple of days, the cecae empty themselves, resulting in a cecal dropping, which is sticky, somewhat foamy, and lighter in colour.  These droppings are very distinct, and completely normal.  It also explains why anything that stimulates the immune system can result in diarrhea, since the same organ is responsible for water resorption from the gut contents.The final step in this process is the ejection of the manure (sometimes with a fair bit of velocity!).  The interesting part of this is that birds have “vents”.  That means that the urinary tract, reproductive tract and gastrointestinal tract all leave the body through the same orifice.  Meaning, everything comes out of the same hole…..sometimes at the same time.  That is why the normal manure has the white, uric acid cap on it…that is the bird’s version of urine.  Importantly, it is also a source of manure contamination of eggs, especially if the hens are sick and have loose manure.  I have talked about safe egg handling previously, but I would like to re-emphasize the importance of this.

All in all, it takes around 3 hours for a piece of chicken feed to become chicken manure.  For humans, gut passage time is around 2 days. This speedy transit time is important for….wait for it…..flight.  Birds will actually spend a fair bit of time with almost nothing in their guts….thus lighter and more able to fly.  But, this short passage time means that diets that are high in indigestible components will seriously increase the fecal volume, since there isn’t time to break down the more fibrous bits.

So, that is the story of  chicken feed becoming raw materials for eggs and the necessary body processes that support the chicken in everything she does.  Remember that bird digestion is quite different from mammalian digestion, and some of the gut problems you might see in a small (or large) flock will show certain symptoms because of the way the gut works.

Mike the Chicken Vet