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Helping keep pet chickens healthy
  1. Sandra Sampson


Responding to chicken owners pleas for advice on caring for their pet birds, St David's veterinary practice in Exeter set up ‘The Chicken Vet’. The poultry team's marketing manager, Sandra Sampson, explains

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KEEPING chickens has become very popular. There are no official statistics, but it is estimated that there are now as many as 750,000 hobby chicken owners in Britain, up significantly from just 50,000 a decade ago. It is this demand that led the St David's poultry team to create a website called ‘The Chicken Vet’ ( where owners could get reliable advice about their hens.

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The practice recognised that there is a lot of information on the internet provided by dedicated backyard poultry keepers. Much of this information is extremely good, and there is a wealth of knowledge among the enthusiasts, but some of it is confusing, and there seemed to be a lack of specific, accurate veterinary advice for keepers of domestic poultry, small flocks and fancy fowl. There is also a range of poultry magazines, that have veterinary input, but readers are limited to that month's topic.

Some of the common topics on which owners of chickens want good advice are biosecurity issues, common diseases and ailments (particularly the control of endo- and ectoparasites) and, probably most importantly, clinical identification and treatment of disease. Myth and legend is rife among animal keepers, especially with regard to correct antibiotic usage, and, unfortunately, there are often reports on poultry forums of people advising the sharing of pots of antibiotics with little understanding of their efficacy, withdrawal periods and dose rates.

The typical phone calls received by our poultry team, and the conversations we have with chicken owners at poultry shows, are along the lines of: ‘We cannot find a vet who is experienced in dealing with poultry’. Some keepers report that their vet appears nervous about handling the birds, while others are sometimes asked what they think is wrong and how it should be treated. At the London Vet Show at the end of November, we asked the vets who visited our stand whether they were seeing chickens in practice. Time and time again, the answer was: ‘Yes, unfortunately.’ Of course, we also spoke to vets who obviously enjoy the experience of working with pet chickens, and had done CPD courses to further their knowledge and experience. However, some vets find themselves the practice's nominated ‘chicken vet’ because they keep a few hens at home, but do not feel well equipped to deal with these patients when they are presented quite unwell in the consulting room.

This apparent gap in knowledge and expertise led us to try to address the problem, and in October 2010 we began running a Chicken Vet CPD course. The course has evolved to ensure that the content covers the common ailments and problems that are routinely presented to vets in small animal and mixed practices.

The course also discuss diseases, treatments, vaccination for small flocks and the appropriate poultry medication that is available to small animal practitioners. One extremely popular element of the course is the opportunity to carry out a practical clinical examination of a hen, and observation of and participation (when appropriate) in postmortem examinations. This is another area many vets have little experience of, and the feedback we receive is always positive as it helps enormously towards the understanding of disease diagnosis and subsequent treatment.

Since 2005, over 250,000 ex-battery hens have been rehomed by the British Hen Welfare Trust into back gardens and homes. As these hens are commonly being presented as pets, we felt it necessary and important to cover the basics of the life of the ‘brown hen’, its development, growth, nutritional requirements and vaccination history.

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Our experience from running this course has made us realise that a one-day course is not enough to equip practitioners to become experienced poultry vets. This led us to set up a network of ‘associated practices’. These are veterinary practices across the UK that have a vet who has attended our courses and the practice forms a link with us to offer ‘chicken friendly’ consultations. To support these practices, we have devised a scheme whereby Chicken Vet provides a monthly veterinary article, information and advice to the vets about disease issues and seasonal problems, such as red mite treatments, and so on. This keeps practitioners up to date with what they have learned on the course, and provides an ongoing source of information and advice on a variety of subjects.

Course development

Interestingly, having asked course participants about what else they would like to learn, we had an overwhelming response that a follow-on course could cover surgical procedures, critical and supportive care, diagnostics and disease processes in more depth and detail. Follow-on courses will be offered in addition to the basic courses in 2012.

Keeping chickens is a hobby that is on the increase and many people view their hens as pets, giving them names and wanting veterinary care for them in the same way as is provided for their dog and cat.

Further information is available on the Chicken Vet website,, and dates of veterinary training courses can be requested by e-mail from

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