Year after year, the pet market sees extraordinary growth in consumer spending. While traditional pets, such as dogs, cats, fish and reptiles, enjoy most of this market share, a growing number of pet parents are choosing to welcome less-common animals into their families in the form of chickens, turkeys, geese and ducks.
The rise in domesticating these primarily outdoor animals stems from shoppers placing more value on the traceability of their own food sources. As more folks become self-reliant through produce gardening, baking at home and creating a home flock of poultry birds to source eggs, they’re inadvertently gaining a greater awareness in the similarities between these working animals and conventional pets, says Tobi Kosanke, founder of Crazy K Farm Pet and Poultry Products.
“Most people who buy backyard flocks for their eggs find out that they are intelligent birds who very much enjoy attention from and interaction with their human family members,” she explains. “We are finding that many people are choosing to bring their chickens inside the house, for both short periodic visits and as full-time indoor pets.”
Of course, there’s still a challenge when it comes to domesticating poultry birds. These creatures are not as easily trainable as dogs or cats, which means pet parents need products to maintain a healthy space for all family members.
“Chickens are very difficult to potty train—it is practically impossible because chickens do not have the necessary level of physical control,” says Kosanke. “To have pet chickens indoors without soiling floors and furniture requires them to wear a diaper.”
Planning to welcome poultry birds into a family requires a lot of thought in the beginning, yet once a secure living space is established, the appropriate food is bought and products to optimize quality of life are part of a daily routine, caring for these animals becomes more of a hobby than a job.
Boosting the Roost
The first step of proper planning for poultry birds revolves around creating a comfortable, safe area, which is especially crucial for young animals, such as chicks.
“People come in and they need a starter kit,” says Janna Graham, assistant manager at Kahoots’ Ramona location, one of the Southern California chain’s 21 regional stores. “They need a heat lamp, they need some shavings to put in their brooder, they need some chick starter food. Sometimes they’ll get some little treats and stuff for them, but you want to wait until they are properly developed at 3-4 months old.”
For families that include different species of poultry birds, affording a space for each type of bird is extremely important, adds Kosanke, who reveals that large animals require more space, which can also promote a safe environment. Seclusion is critical because there are concerns about the animals transferring potentially harmful organisms to other species if all animals are living in a single space.
“Chickens commonly harbor protozoa that cause histomoniasis, a disease that is deadly to turkeys and that can only be avoided by prohibiting all contact with chickens,” says Kosanke. “The perfect living space for a turkey, therefore, is one that has no chicken in or near it.”
In addition to noting that chickens should not spend most of their time in confinement, Kosanke says the coop where they roost during the night should be large enough to allow all the chickens to be comfortable. Pet parents should be certain that the coop will withstand predatory attempts by other animals, which can be accomplished by using welded—not chicken—wire.
“For chickens, regardless of breed, there are several characteristics of the ideal living space: it is secure against predators, it is clean to keep the chickens healthy, it is comfortable so that the chicken is not cold in winter and hot in summer, and it is large enough that the entire flock can run around and exercise,” says Kosanke.
To optimize health for poultry birds, monitoring the flock is crucial to ensure that the animals are not hurting each other. If injured, a bird’s wounds could become infected, potentially leading to grave illness or death with a staph infection known as bumblefoot, which carries a 60 percent mortality rate, Kosanke explains.
“Backyard flock members commonly experience issues that can significantly decrease their quality of life, if not shorten their lifespan drastically, such as hens being treaded on and wounded by roosters, foot wounds that lead to a staph infection called bumblefoot and crop stasis or pendulous crop,” explains Kosanke, whose Birdy Bootie shoe aids in healing bumblefoot through its antibacterial, antifungal bamboo cloth.
Feeding the Need
For some retailers, the growing popularity of poultry birds as pets has led to expansion of their offerings into product areas that aren’t necessary but can contribute to raising a happy bird. To that end, Graham notes that her store’s selection of treats has grown.
“People have fun giving them treats,” she explains. “We have broadened our section of treats. Now we carry something like surf and turf with little shrimp in it and different little freeze-dried treats that they like.”
Another poultry-bird favorite is the mealworm, which quickly becomes a preference. According to John Mann, a partner of single-shop Side Saddle Tack Shop in Portland, Ore., mealworms can serve as a welcome treat for poultry birds, but also aid in crowd control to manage a flock.
“All you need to do is shake the bag and they come running,” says Mann. “The whole flock comes to you. If you need to get them into a coop or something, if you’ve been feeding them mealworms and they are familiar with them, they’ll come running to get those mealworms.”
While the consensus regarding food products is that scratch—a mixture of seeds and grains—is useful as a treat product, poultry birds require food with the appropriate nutrition. These formulas will vary according to age, as with any other animal.
“Usually, they start out with a medicated feed, then they progress into non-medicated and then they progress into layering feed with a hen-scratch type supplement,” Mann said. “They also need to make sure the bird is supplied with some grit [to aid with digestion].”
For a layer feed, a high-protein formula is best when birds reach maturity, but there is a misconception that scratch will provide sufficient nutrition, according to Graham. A diet lacking in nutrition can cause brittle eggs and sickly animals.
“The grain food we sell is 16 percent protein, [which] is the layer feed,” explains Graham. “The scratch typically has only 8 percent. You want to make sure they have enough protein to keep up their production. Also, you can add calcium with oyster shells if you notice their eggs are a little more brittle than normal.”
Moving forward, there will continue to be a shift toward treating poultry birds as beloved pets that deserve quality products bought by consumers who are genuinely concerned about the animals’ wellness and happiness.
“The trend is twofold: products to keep the flock safe and healthy, and products to keep them entertained, particularly products that enable human interaction with the flock,” Kosanke said. “Whereas organic feeds used to be fed to chickens solely because owners wanted organic eggs for breakfast, more often than not, they are feeding organic food to their flock because they want the best for their chickens.” PB