7 Tips for Pet Sitting Backyard Chickens
In the past decade, it has become increasingly likely that your neighbors who ask you to pet sit for a week don’t want you to walk the dog or change the litter box, but instead keep an eye on their flock of hens in the backyard. Looking after chickens, even for a weekend, is an adventure, but it can also be incredibly daunting to anyone whose primary poultry experience is watching Foghorn Leghorn on Saturday mornings. Fortunately, while setting up for chickens is complicated, looking after them short-term can be mastered relatively easily by talking with the owners about their standards and routines and remembering a few simple principles and behaviors that will maximize well-being for both you and the chickens.
- Get to know the chickens and their routine beforehand. As with any pet-sitting gig, it’s important to know what “normal” looks like for the flock you’re watching – how active are the individual hens? How frequently do they usually lay? Where do they like to hang out? All of this information will be useful not just for maintaining their routine, but also for keeping an eye on them for health issues. Issues like egg binding often present first as a change in behavior – lethargy, eating less, decreased laying – and catching these things sooner will only make them easier to treat. Talk to the owners ahead of time about how they want you to deal with an ill or egg-bound chicken – whether they have a tried-and-true home remedy or want her to go see a professional.
- Practice good hen hygiene. Those used to cats and dogs tend to consider the animals we own as inherently cuddly and cuddlable, but hens are a bit different from Fido and Fluffy. Chickens can be carriers for salmonella, and cuddling and petting is a major vector for transmission. This doesn’t mean physical affection is off the table – some hens love it – but for safety, you should always wash your hands thoroughly before and after interacting with the chickens. Additionally, taking proper precautions with collecting and washing eggs is crucial to preventing the spread of disease.
- Collect eggs frequently, probably twice a day. This may sound counterintuitive, but a chicken coop actually isn’t always a safe place for chicken eggs – they can get batted around, stepped on, and even eaten by the hens if left too long. Frequent egg collection also helps prevent broodiness – when hens are overly possessive of their eggs. A good rule of thumb is to collect once in the morning and once in the evening, although the flock owners might have their own system. When temperatures grow colder, it might be necessary to check more frequently, as the chill can cause eggs to crack, but this is offset by the fact that temperatures below 50 degrees generally cause egg-laying rates to slow.
- Come prepared for a fight. Chickens can be aggressive. Very aggressive. Especially when strange humans come into their space and try to take their eggs. Interacting with the chickens while their owners are present before you take over can help mitigate this, but it’s still good to have a full set of “chicken armor” before going in to collect eggs. The most important piece of armor is gloves, preferably leather or another material too thick for chickens to pierce. Heavy boots or other sturdy shoes are also key, and long pants and long sleeves are ideal. This advice goes double for anyone pet sitting a rooster. Minimizing scratches (and cleaning any you do get immediately and well) will also be crucial to preventing the spread of infections and bacteria.
- Chickens should have food available throughout the day. While humans (and their house pets) have largely adapted to eating lots of food a few set times a day, chickens still live by the “foraging” schedule inherited from their wild junglefowl ancestors. If the birds you’re looking after free range already, you’re in the clear. If they live off feed, though, as most backyard flocks do, you’ll have to work out a schedule and method of feeding that will keep the feeder full throughout the day – whether that’s the owners having an automatic or slow-release feeder or just filling the feeder an appropriate amount every morning or evening. You’ll also want to keep track of their supplements – usually insoluble grit and calcium carbonate – and talk to the owners about making sure the hens are still getting enough of each while they’re gone.
- Cleaning the coop – brace yourself. If the owners are going to be gone for a week or more, there’s a good chance you’ll have to give the chicken coop at least one good scrubbing. This is unpleasant work, plain and simple. Chickens poop a lot, on everything. While every owner will have their own best practices for coop cleaning, based on the size of their flock and the materials and design of the coop, the main objective of any coop cleaning is to remove the poop – a garden hoe is a great tool for scraping it off of hard-to-reach perches and other high places. Other tasks will be to clean out their nesting boxes and replace the bedding, sweep the floors thoroughly, and likely sprinkle the coop with diatomaceous earth, a natural pest and mite repellant.
- Have lifelines in place. When looking out for someone else’s animals, it’s always important to be prepared should an emergency arrive. Obviously, the concerned pet sitter’s first port of call should be the flock’s owners, but you should also prepare resources ahead of time in case the owners can’t be reached. Get the number of their go-to chicken vet or any other resources they might want you to turn to in case of an emergency, and don’t be afraid to call for backup if you need it.
Ultimately, the fundamental principles of chicken sitting aren’t much different from watching any other pet – thoroughly establish ahead of time what the owners want you to do, then do it carefully and assiduously. Who knows? After a week, you might be so attached to these hens that you start dreaming of a flock of your own.