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Culture Clash: Questioning The Consensus On Chicken Care

This is the sixth post from guest contributor, Sara Franklin. As usual, she is able to present on a topic from varying viewpoints with civility, reason and a desire to promote the well-bring of the birds we keep. When I read her article I knew I couldn’t have done a better job and really appreciate our continued partnership.

At first glance, chickens seem like a pretty straightforward animal. They’ve been part of human life for ages, and there’s certainly no shortage of information out there on how to raise and manage a flock. It might come as a surprise just how much disagreement and difference of opinion exists. In fact, if you browse online communities of chicken keepers, you will find heated disagreements, conflicting answers, and arguments at just about every turn.

Typically, this takes the form of 90% of the advice saying one thing, with 10% insisting that’s all wrong and there’s a better way. It seems only logical to trust the information the majority is backing, but does simple popularity actually make it good information? Why isn’t there consensus on a topic that has surely been exhausted by now, and what’s the deal with the minority who insist that the majority has it all wrong?

To answer those questions, it’s worth taking a moment to consider the historical relationship we have had with chickens, and more importantly, how that long-standing relationship has been evolving in recent years. Historically, chickens were viewed strictly as a resource – cheap to replace and not worth the time and financial investment to go to any great lengths to treat maladies. Efficiency was the name of the game, and if a bird got sick the practical livestock keeper would cull, replace and move on.

The consensus on care that exists today is very much a relic of time when there was no diversity in the community. Chickens were kept as a source of meat and eggs, nothing more, and flock management solutions were focused on efficiency and cost savings, not the comfort and longevity of the animal. For many keepers, this still makes rational sense, because the goal for them hasn’t changed. Recently though, particularly in the last few years, the number of people entering the hobby has skyrocketed. What was once limited to those with a strictly farming mindset has been branching out to individuals from all walks of life at an unprecedented rate.

One hatchery, My Pet Chicken, reported that by March of 2022, purchases had already climbed to 500% of the previous year’s total sales. The community is flooded with new keepers, many of whom have no experience raising anything but pet animals, and who wind up quickly bonding with these new backyard companions. Even for the keepers who are coming at things from the livestock mindset, there is still a great deal of ineffective and even dangerous advice that gets tossed around. The sad truth is that much of the information out there is unreliable, but there are things we can do to better identify advice we can trust.

The Internet is a wonderful tool to find information and advice. For most people with a new companion animal or interest, it’s understandably the first resource they turn to in preparation for navigating the journey they are embarking on. Sadly, many new keepers are unprepared for just how much of that advice is biased towards a very different goal than they might have. Chickens are tricky, because viewing them as a companion animal is such a new thing. When you get a new cat or dog and head off to a forum to learn about care, you don’t have to even consider that the person helping you might be viewing them without that same love and attachment you have. It’s simply assumed that you and other guardians are on the same page. This cannot be assumed in the chicken community; the spectrum of goals differs too radically.

Even in the medical field, chickens are frequently placed in a different category than the family dog or cat. The perception persists that they are not worth the time or money to treat. Many vets will recommend euthanasia as the first option for serious injury, rather than detailing a thoughtful treatment plan. The same dismissive advice comes up time and time again in online communities as well, whether in regards to injury, illness, bullying, or disability. It can give the impression that these things have no solution.

In truth, the issue is that many are viewing chicken care with much the same mindset as a mechanic or insurance agent who declares that a car is ‘totalled’. The car could be fixed, but it would make no sense to do so because a new car would be cheaper than repair. In much the same way, chickens are often deemed ‘totalled’, simply because the cost of any medical care at all is very likely to exceed the cost of a replacement bird. It’s rare for a person to have sufficient sentimental reason to opt to repair that ‘totalled’ car, but the population of keepers with sentimental reason to move mountains for their flock is steadily increasing.

The broadening of perspectives has resulted in quite the culture clash, with differing sides labeling the other, ‘wrong’, ‘impractical’, ‘uncaring’ or ‘naïve’. It isn’t that anyone is trying to be negligent or insensitive, there are just such radically different goals now, and the opposite ends of the spectrum often don’t account for each other, or just can’t relate to that other perspective. This doesn’t mean we can’t all engage and help each other when issues arise, but it does mean we need to clearly define where we are coming from when we do.

If we are willing to invest an ‘impractical’ amount of time and money to heal a bird, we need to make that known, or we’re very likely to get advice that doesn’t account for our attachment and commitment to the animal in question. Some methods of treatment might be quick and cheap, but that doesn’t mean they account for the comfort, stress level, or risk of secondary harm to the bird. Many prefer the treatment that’s easiest for the human, so that’s what they advise assuming others feel the same.

We should never just trust that the most common recommendation is the safest and most compassionate one. It’s crucial to confirm that the person providing the advice has the same kind of relationship with their birds as we do. Even if that is verified, there is still more to be done in order to ensure we are choosing the right course of action.

An incredibly harmful trend I have noticed in online groups is the tendency for keepers to advise based on only the most limited information about the questioner’s situation. Questions like “Why is my hen acting lethargic?” should be met with requests for a great deal more information (background, other symptoms, how long she has been in that state, photos or video of condition and behavior), but invariably the comments will be filled with others happily offering treatment advice based on what can only be a guess.

Some ailments, like egg binding, will be fatal if they aren’t remedied in an incredibly narrow window of time. Giving vitamins for a few days to try to treat an egg-bound hen will, without question, cost that bird her life. Wound care often nets the same one-size-fits all types of recommendations, but is really an incredibly nuanced and involved process. Safe treatment of wounds must account for what caused the injury, location or depth. Treatment must be handled differently for a superficial wound that can be sealed, as opposed to a deep one that will need drainage to prevent an abscess from forming. Secondary infection of a wound that was sealed with bacteria present can cost the bird their life as well.

There is a very real risk to the bird when keepers are sent off on a wild goose chase, attempting to treat for things that were never the issue to begin with, or treating without accounting for all variables. It’s also incredibly common for keepers to assume that because something worked out for them, it will work out for others in the same way. A question that comes up frequently is whether it’s safe to leave the flock without heat in cold weather. Without fail, there will be an influx of keepers reassuring that their birds did just fine with no heat, chickens are cold tolerant, and nothing needs to be done. So many chime in to share their own experiences, and their intentions are good, but this can easily create a false sense of security that no danger exists.

In reality, the risk cold weather presents is influenced by a wide variety of factors, including age of the bird, housing ventilation, environmental humidity, and even the breed being kept. Just because a person with young and cold hardy breeds had no issues in their well-ventilated coop in a dry climate, does not mean someone with large combed birds in damp cold will have the same outcome.

It’s comforting to assume that another keeper’s experiences are a reliable indicator of what we can expect for ourselves, but so often there are crucial factors that differ and can lead to a very different result. It’s critical to ensure we really are dealing with the same situation, on all fronts, before taking advice at face value.

So what can be done to avoid falling victim to bad advice? One of my favorite sayings is “Trust, but verify.” Nowhere does this apply more than in chicken keeping. Someone recounting what worked for their flock is an excellent start for additional research, but should never be the launch pad into immediate action. From there, we should always do an independent search to confirm that the diagnosis or treatment being suggested lines up fully with the symptoms we are seeing, that it has no concerning side-effects we need to be aware of, and that there is nothing else to take into consideration before proceeding.

Never be afraid to ask follow up questions. If it feels like something in your situation isn’t being taken into account, it likely isn’t. It never hurts to clarify and re-confirm, or ask for more detail on things that weren’t addressed. If they can’t provide that clarification, ask elsewhere and continue searching other resources. Answers that provide supporting detail should be taken more seriously than those one-line answers based only on personal experience or speculation. If additional details weren’t given, and the person offering advice hasn’t asked for them, their input cannot be trusted to be correct.

Look for those keepers who are willing and able to explain how they can be sure what it is you are dealing with, can back up why the response they are recommending is ideal with solid verifiable data, and volunteer a high level of detail for what to be prepared for in navigating treatment or recovery. Reliable help can be a needle in a haystack, but those responsible and knowledgeable keepers do exist. They are best identified by their unwillingness to weigh in without sufficient information, as they recognize the importance of having that data.

If you are a pet chicken keeper, I urge you to enter into any discussion assuming, first, that the person on the other side does not cherish their bird the way you do. Always consider that most options for care and treatment are highly likely to prioritize human concerns over those of the animal. This is an area where skepticism is critical. I have seen so many keepers misled into making decisions that they only learn in hindsight subjected their pet bird to unnecessary stress, suffering or health risks. Their only mistake was failing to consider that others would do something traumatic or harmful to their birds, since they would never dream of doing so themselves.

Loving an animal that has been classified a resource for so long is a difficult position to be in. With the right approach, and an awareness of how much perspectives often differ, we are far better prepared to identify and provide the best care possible for our feathered friends. In choosing which ‘side’ to trust, we simply need to remember which side we are part of. It can be tempting to trust the majority, but the best option will always be to look to those whose goals and values are in line with our own.

Many thanks to Sara Franklin of Roovolution and Rooster Allies for sharing her perspectives on chicken keeping, used with permission.

For further related reading check out the following: Know When To Hold ‘Em, Know When To Fold ‘Em; Best Practices For Chicken Keepers and Online Chicken Groups: When Facts Don’t Matter.

Featured photo credits: Donald Southward and Blake Nutter

6 comments on “Culture Clash: Questioning The Consensus On Chicken Care

  1. Love this! It needs to be said, and in the kindly, detached way you have. I think we as chicken owners exist along a scale from totally family member to meat and eggs production only. I would have classified myself firmly in the middle until my lovely lavender Orpington, Grace, collapsed and died and I felt helpless as a new chicken “mom”. On the other hand, when our large beautiful rooster spurred our 4yo grandson, it was an easy cull. I’m a practical lady in the facade of a chicken mama. My place on that scale has moved as I acquire knowledge and ability. I thank you for all you do to educate us chicken lovers!!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great post. This should be required reading for new chicken keepers; especially ones that go into it as naive as I was. Even as a licensed veterinary nurse, I met my own challenges while tending to my flock.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Elizabeth J

    This is a great article! As someone who has worked on animal rescue for 20 years and just starting out with a small flock it was difficult for me to understand how chickens are viewed very differently. Thanks for this positive read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This is an excellent article! I certainly have been the subject of many jokes in my chicken keeping . I’ve found that it is very important to find your tribe of like minded chicken keepers. Luckily, I’ve been able to find a few Facebook groups that value chickens as pets and members of the family!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. marie nestel

    Hi Claire,

    I am wondering if there is a chance to do a chicken blog regarding the different kinds of mites and their treatments? Specifically feather mites, depluming mites, and quill mites. I know there are the northern fowl mites that are quite common, but I have been seeing/experiencing/hearing from others about these other mites that live in the feathers. These feather mites are easy to miss and misdiagnose as overbreeding from roos and they often go undetected because of that and I find the available documentation meager and not always clear on the different types and treatments. If Dr Bowes could speak to each of the three (that I know of) different feather affecting mites I think there could be some valuable information for people. Latin names and all would be great. I could provide a few pics I have gathered.

    Liked by 1 person

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