From The Straits Times    |

They may seem relatively low maintenance, but pet poultry owners will tell you that like dogs, cats or any other animal companions, caring for the welfare of chickens, ducks or even quails takes time and real commitment. Before you decide to adopt these birds, check out these tips from Dr Kenneth Tong, founder and veterinarian at the Animal & Avian Veterinary Clinic (AAVC), on the upkeep and temperament of poultry birds.

What do pet poultry birds eat?

“They eat grains and pellets, but we can enrich their diet with fresh chopped vegetables, fruits, and even occasional treats like butter cake, milk biscuit, cooked egg, wholemeal bread, or toasted bread with butter. These treats should be offered only occasionally and form no more than 5 per cent of their diet.

Good, balanced nutrition is essential: Pellets from commercial farms may not match what your bird needs as commercial farm birds are bred for distinct functions like egg or meat production. The genetics and metabolism rate in specially bred birds mean they have different nutritional needs. In any case, too much of any one thing is never a good thing. This includes not giving an excess of supplements and vitamins.

Adequate exposure to unfiltered sunlight (for vitamin D synthesis) helps ensure good calcium absorption and metabolism. Birds living in the wild get hours of sunlight each day. Why should birds in captivity be any different?”

Photo: Phyllicia Wang

What are some common ailments?

“Ectoparasites – feather lice, feather mites – may slowly increase over time if not eradicated when first detected. Reinfection can also occur when your pet comes into contact with stray (infected) birds, or a new addition to the flock.

Egg binding (when a female bird is unable to expel an egg from her body) and egg-related reproductive tract diseases happen when calcium (among others) is deficient, or from overproduction of eggs in an exhausted bird. This is a medical emergency (akin to dystocia in pregnancy), and owners will have to seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.

Rough and abrasive flooring may lead to pododermatitis (bumblefoot), which causes calluses on the feet that are painful and difficult to heal due to constant weight bearing.

Birds (including poultry species) also tend to mask their signs of sickness until they are at death’s door. That’s their natural instinct, to fool the predators that they are okay.”

Photo: Lawrence Teo

Can you tell us about their behaviour?

“These birds can lack mental stimulation if neglected or kept in isolation as an individual, but this is less likely with companionship.

For chickens, the chance of aggression between them is high when the size of the flock increases, especially if there is more than one dominant male. Inadequate hiding or living space exacerbates the situation.

The “system” can get more overwhelmed faster, leading to manure accumulation, decreased air quality if kept in an enclosed area, stress among the birds when a pecking order forms, as well as competition for resources and roosting areas.

This increased intensity increases noise production (and produces unpleasant smells), and may pose a nuisance to neighbours. It could also lead to a higher for potential an outbreak of diseases among the birds. Hence, there’s a limit to the number of poultry species a family can legally own in Singapore.

Their temperament depends on how they were socialised when young.

The bigger the flock, the less likely are they to be socially attached to humans, as they will form their flock hierarchy. Of course, this isn’t always the rule, as individual birds have their own temperament that is shaped through exposure to human interaction and experience in their environment.”

Photo: Lawrence Teo

Should we be worried about the potential of avian to human diseases?

“Fortunately, Singapore’s public health system is very much admired, and government bodies like the Singapore Food Agency (SFA) and NParks-AVS are always monitoring the food- and public health safety here. Zoonotic diseases – animal diseases that are transmitted between species – are effectively contained and treated, while exotic and deadly diseases such as rabies have been kept out of Singapore since 1953. However, complacency should never set in.

It’s for this reason that border control and quarantine measures are in place, stamping out illegal smuggling, which can inadvertently introduce deadly viruses, pathogens and parasites.

In home-kept and home-sourced animals and birds, the risk of zoonotic diseases occurring is a possibility, although it’s very low. If they are home-bred, or bred in a controlled environment, the risk of them harbouring such pathogens are unlikely as long as they are not in contact with visiting stray fowl.

Some families harvest the eggs and meat of their birds for consumption. Always ensure that such products are thoroughly cooked to kill off any pathogens, and be aware of antibiotics/ antimicrobials residue and the withholding periods for such drugs if used in the birds, as these can pose human health risks when entering the food chain.

Finally, always practise good personal and animal hygiene, which includes washing your hands after handling the animal, avoiding the contact of bodily fluids, and sharing your food with them. You will be amazed at what their feathers have touched, and what you’ve touched as well, before you touch your face!”

Dr Kenneth Tong, founder and veterinarian at AAVC. Photo: Phyllicia Wang