Vet Talk

Old MacDonald Had a Backyard

Researching the needs of urban livestock helps avoid breaking your cardiac organ or pocketbook

April 28, 2014 (published)

Though I’ve spent a lot of time trekking through pastures and pens, I live in the epitome of suburbia – a university town just outside the state capital. Consequently, at 7 p.m., the only involvement with poultry I anticipate is the digestion of a lovely chicken piccatta or roast duck while I sip a glass of wine and catch up on Netflix episodes or read.

Yet a couple of weeks ago, I found myself in my kitchen with five small humans and a distressed, and very much feathered and alive, chicken. Unfortunately, the chicken was developing a cellulitis, which is not something I could fix in my kitchen.

My town, true to its progressive, academic heritage, has embraced the local-foods-let’s-all-raise-chickens-and-turn-the-front-lawn-into-a-farm movement with terrifying fervor. The local bookstore periodically has entire window displays devoted to tomes on subjects such as designer chicken coops.

The VetzInsight crew has written previous posts about chickens, goats, pet pigs, and animal-borne (zoonotic) disease. But my wine-interrupting chicken consultation and a recent public radio discussion of urban livestock got me thinking about how these things tie together.

Urban livestock fall into a Venn diagram convergence of the circles of goat, pig, chicken, disease, idealism, and lack of preparation.

I can’t change your desire to collect eggs, milk a goat, or walk Petunia the pig, but I can help you think through the points to make the disease and lack of preparation circles a bit smaller.

First off, livestock are not funny looking dogs or cats. They have different anatomy, behavior, and needs. And those needs can’t be met everywhere or by everyone. Researching the needs of the critter your heart desires will go a long way to help avoid breaking your cardiac organ or pocketbook. By research, I don’t just mean talk to the breeder or supplier. Many livestock breeders are great, and well-informed, but let’s face it, if someone’s income depends at least in part on your purchasing an animal, there may be a bit of a bias. Read books, talk to friends about their experiences with the animals, read more books, find a veterinarian who treats that animal and talk to them. Ask questions. Many questions.

Such as:

Is the Animal I want Legal?

Not all cities are equally enthusiastic about having small farms pop up blocks from the business district. Portland, OR leans toward the bucolic, allowing up to three chickens, ducks, doves, pigeons, pygmy goats, or rabbits (mix n’ match) within the city limits without a permit. Cows and horses even seem to be possible with a permit.

My city (Davis, California), on the other hand, will allow up to six hens or pigeons or six rabbits, but goats, cows, pigs, sheep, etc. are no-nos.

Now I’m not exactly a mainstream, by-the-book sort myself, but even if one fancies oneself a counter-culture rebel, it might not be the best plan to play roulette with the zoning laws where animals are concerned.

Say you live in Davis, and you have a handful of legal hens in your large backyard. One morning you’re making your favorite scramble from the eggs and you realize you’re out of goat cheese. ‘Wow!’ you think. ‘It sure would be handy if I had a goat and could just make my own cheese. It wouldn’t take much room, and we already have the chickens. We’re totally set up for it.’

A dwarf breed goat might not take much room, but since goats aren’t known for their retiring demeanor, there is a pretty good chance that sooner or later your neighbors will figure out that you have an illicit backyard resident. If your local relations are good, this might not be an issue. But, if the community wind shifts and you find yourself in a localized war, your clandestine goat farm could become a casualty. One phone call to animal control about the 6 a.m. bawling and Daisy the goat is off in the paddy wagon.

Why Don’t my Neighbors Think a Backyard Farm is as Cool as I Do?

Farms are usually in the country for a reason. Our barnyard friends are a noisy, poopy, fly-attracting, smelly bunch. It may take a LOT of eggs or cheese to make your neighbors okay with the feathers that will blow into their yard, the swelling summer fly population, or the early morning crowing or bawling. If your livestock longings run in porcine directions, you’re probably going to have to count on Wilbur’s winning personality to win over your block.

You can minimize the chaos and ill-will (not to mention flies and disease potential) by being meticulous in cleaning pens, coops, and yard. Research your housing options and work on providing not only shelter, but escape-proof enclosures. Goats rival Houdini in daredevil escape skills, and chickens are notorious for flapping to the tops of fences and then going walkabout.

What’s this Salmonella Thing?

You’ve seen the little warnings on restaurant menus: RAW OR UNDERCOOKED MEAT OR EGGS MAY CAUSE FOODBORNE ILLNESS. Most folks mentally link raw eggs or meat to Salmonella. Yet I’ve noticed that the same people who cook their hamburgers to the consistency of hockey pucks and won’t let their kids eat the raw cookie dough are strangely blasé about permitting those same children to cuddle chickens or pet goats while eating the well-done hamburger.

Salmonella is one of many bacteria living happily in the intestinal tract of apparently healthy livestock (including chickens and goats). As an intestinal inhabitant, Salmonella periodically makes its exit in poop. Humans, especially young, old, or immune-compromised humans, don’t have the Salmonella tolerance of our hooved or feathered friends. The bacteria can cause all sorts of nastiness in people including vomiting, diarrhea, and even sepsis leading to hospitalization or in some cases death.

I’m not saying “Chickens will kill you.” (Though killer poultry would make an awesome movie plot.) However, I am saying to use caution and common sense.

The Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) has a great section detailing ways to avoid Salmonella infection, but here are some of the high points:

  • Wash hands – after handling poultry or animals or things on which they may have pooped or rubbed their poop. With chickens in particular, that pretty much includes anything a chicken may have touched with any part of its chickenness.
  • Don’t wash animal or bird feeders, or water dishes, where you prepare human food.
  • Don’t eat or drink in animal enclosures – if your chickens and/or goat or pig live in the back yard, figure out a way to separate their habitat from your BBQ and picnic area.
  • Young critters of any species are more susceptible to disease. This means that baby (or toddler) humans and baby chicks, kids, piglets, ducklings, etc., while adorable photo ops aren’t the best combination health-wise. Baby animals are more likely to be carrying and shedding disease-causing bacteria or parasites, and young humans are much more likely to get severely ill from those bacteria or parasites. Young humans are also pretty non-selective about what they stick in their mouths.

What Happens when my Critter gets Sick?

It’s best -- for your family, your friendships, and your animals -- to avoid the evening chicken-in-the-kitchen scenario. I happen to adore my poultry-owning friend and her (non-feathered) brood, but this is the ONLY reason I even agreed to look at her chicken, let alone in the evening. I’ve spent most of my career treating animals with hooves. Chickens, in case you wondered, do not have hooves. If I’m your best resource for chicken medicine, things have gone seriously awry in the planning stages of your livestock husbandry scheme. I’m much more adept at coming up with a good marinade than I am at treating the common, or uncommon, ailments of poultry. And I’m not alone.

Before you start to stock your yard with livestock, find a local vet who will treat the species in question. Find out the practice’s hours and whether they make house calls or if you’re going to need to transport The Little Red Hen, Billy the Goat, or Porky to the clinic. Find out what sorts of fees you can expect for common exams and emergencies. Decide ahead of time if the chicken is a member of the family or dinner and what you will do when (not if) medical care is needed. Even if you aren’t willing to spend hundreds on a sick chick or thousands having a shoulder fracture plated on your goat (yes, this has happened), you’ve still taken on the responsibility for a living creature that deserves a life free of suffering.

What sort of Food/Housing/Care is Needed?
There is no excuse in this day and age for not knowing the answer to this question before bringing an animal home. But things happen and sometimes people put not only the cart before the horse but the critter before the pen. Most urban and suburban yards aren’t livestock compatible as is. Fences may need reinforcement, wires, hoses, and other external fixtures need protection, and many common landscaping plants are toxic to herbivores. Also, if you host backyard gatherings, it’s a good idea to physically separate the “barnyard” from the picnic area. (See the human disease section above.)

Research, design, and construct the housing before you bring your animals home. Learn what is needed for vaccination, parasite control, and general wellness. Research the dietary needs and quirks of the animal – just tossing the leftover veggies in the pen isn’t going to be a viable nutritional plan. Decide among your family members who is responsible for what job and write it down.

How much Money am I Willing/Able to Spend on this Venture?

Animals become expensive quickly. Budget not only initial housing but pen and shelter maintenance, monthly feed costs, routine medical costs (wellness exams, deworming, vaccination), emergency medical costs, and equipment you need for handling your animals or processing their products.

Once you’ve covered all of these bases, feel free to don your overalls, gather your eggs, make your cheese, and enjoy your farm.

1 Comment

May 13, 2014

And unfortunately, when chickens get sick, they can progress to fatal VERY minutes, if stressed (like when  you bring your sick hen to the vet)


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