The five chickens that live behind Mark Verschell's stately Takoma Park Victorian have an enviable existence, for birds. Their accommodations are a heated, trailer-style coop. Their enclosure protects them from predators and is adorned with shiny compact discs to deter feed-stealing sparrows. They snack on dried mealworms and fresh grapes. Their water contains a bit of apple cider vinegar to help balance pH levels and smooth digestion.
But even hens leading comfortable lives can have health issues, a fact Verschell confronted when he spotted a bright red protrusion on the nether regions of Ethel, the largest and blondest of his family’s flock. Verschell, 56, grew up in northern California’s Castro Valley, once home to vast poultry operations, and knew what it was: a prolapse of Ethel’s vent (also called a cloaca), which is the exit route for both waste and eggs.
In the old days, Verschell would have gone to the local feed store and asked for advice. “But now you’ve got the Internet,” he said. So that’s how Verschell, a climate scientist, ended up spending about a week of last summer applying cold compresses and Preparation H to the rear end of a hen and shooing away the flockmates that might have pecked at her.
Backyard flocks like Verschell’s have become so popular over the past two decades that enthusiasts host neighborhood coop tours, Etsy shops sell hen harnesses, and chicken-focused bloggers can have followings the size of a C-list celebrity’s. In many ways, the roosters and hens clucking outside American homes have become pets like the dogs and cats that got there first. But chicken owners are learning that when their birds get sick, veterinary care can be difficult to find. And the humans who dreamed of fresh, free-range eggs and urban rusticity can find themselves offering hens ground oyster shell as a calcium supplement or dabbing Neosporin on raccoon-inflicted wounds.
For backyard chickens, lots of TLC
There's no national data on the number of backyard chickens in the United States, much less on their veterinary experiences. A study based on an online survey of backyard flock owners, published in 2014 in the journal Poultry Science, found that most had a "lack of awareness about some poultry health conditions," and that 87 percent well, wing it, using the Internet as their main source for chicken health-care information. The study's authors surmised that it is likely due to most storefront veterinarians' unfamiliarity with the birds.
Online chicken hobbyist sites cover esoteric as well as common ailments; recent subject lines on BackYardChickens.com’s user forum include “caring for a chicken after a hawk attack” and “Home amputation success story and how-to.”Got a hen having a problem passing eggs? You can try to remedy that with a “spa treatment” involving a soak in a warm Epsom salt bath, a blow dry and doses of olive oil.
Even professionals sometimes turn to the Internet. Take Kathy Trow, a Philadelphia-area veterinarian who mostly treats cats and dogs. In the summer of 2014, one of her clients called to ask whether she could heal a friendly hen named Black Henry, who had begun dropping weight.
Trow, 50, recalls responding: “Just know that we’ll be seeing the chicken with the textbook open and YouTube on the screen.”
And so she did. Black Henry had an impacted crop, a small sac where chicken food collects after it is swallowed but before it moves to the stomach. Guided by a YouTube video, Trow and her colleagues tried tube-feeding Black Henry olive oil and warm water, and massaging the hardened lump. When that didn’t work, they numbed the area with lidocaine, sliced open the bird’s chest, pulled out the mass of straw stuck in her crop, sewed her up and pulled the skin together with surgical glue. — another technique from YouTube.
Beyond the Internet, chicken keepers can tune in to the “Backyard Poultry With the Chicken Whisperer” podcast, which regularly features Salisbury, Md., poultry biologist Peter Brown discussing topics like what new federal antibiotics regulations mean for chicken owners. On his website, Brown offers $25 consultations and sells a range of products including incubators, antibiotics, vaccines and, until recently, a $34.95 emergency medication kit.
The Rosenzweig-Fang household in Gaithersburg, Md., owns such an emergency kit. But that only hints at the lengths the family will go to to keep their six chickens healthy and happy.
The back yard of the Rosenzweig-Fang'sneat ranch-style house is what you might imagine chicken paradise looks like. On the patio is a red barn-style coop with a ceramic heater inside. Atop a plastic shoe cabinet is a small box that serves as a maternity ward for Snowy, who prefers to lay her eggs in private. In the corner of the yard are sandboxes that Aaron Rosenzweig acknowledges he did not buy for his two "human children," but rather to be used as chicken dust baths.
Inside, under the stairs to the basement, is the “infirmary”: a spotless space brightened with flower decals and divided in two by an apple-green picket fence. Also inside is Lulu, a rooster, who on a recent day wore a red bandanna-patterned diaper.
“Okay, boy, let’s put your diaper back on. Oh, you’re such a good boy,” Rosenzweig, sitting on a pristine white family-room couch, murmured to Lulu as he strapped on the contraption. He stroked the bird’s impressive tail feathers. “I’ve debated on changing his name to Fabio.”
Rosenzweig, a 41-year-old who writes software, said he and his wife, Jen-Lien Fang, chose to get chickens more than two years ago as pets, ones that were soft and social but would not bite their children, ages 11 and 13. Now their small flock has access to the indoors, and the two males spend nights inside, the better not to annoy neighbors or the city, which frowns on roosters. Hence the diapers, lined fabric pouches that are held on by straps that extend over the wings. Fang, 45, sews them herself.
Chickens are excellent pets, Rosenzweig insists: cuddly, warm and smart enough to learn tricks. He said the family has taught the birds to jump for treats and to recognize some colors and suits on playing cards. Currently, he said, the chickens are learning to play the xylophone with their beaks.
Dog owners might bring their pets’ stool samples to a vet once a year to check for worms. Rosenzweig collects chicken poop twice a year and drives it 25 miles to a state animal health lab in Frederick, Md., to be tested for worms. Concerned by the loss of his pets, he’s also taken the corpses of three dead chickens there for necropsies. He learned that two died of cancer, and one from a heart attack, perhaps spurred by a marauding fox.
Frederick-based Annika McKillop is a rarity: a mobile chicken vet. She had previously worked in large commercial settings. But when her husband was transferred to Maryland three years ago, she said she realized "there's a big need for backyard poultry people."
McKillop, who says remedies suggested on the Internet usually don’t work, travels through Maryland, West Virginia and Pennsylvania, handling up to four sick chicken visits a day. She usually treats respiratory illnesses (though, she notes, the vast majority of the chickens she sees are also overweight due to indulgences such as doughnuts and human leftovers).
Spending time with McKillop is a sobering warning about the precariousness of chicken health. To avoid spreading disease, she wears two layers of scrubs to appointments — one to pull off after the visit and before getting back into her car — and a disposable hairnet and shoe covers. She takes her car to a carwash and sprays her shoes with disinfectant after each visit.
Though McKillop normally doesn’t make night calls, she drove out to a home near Boonsboro, Md., on a recent rainy evening to visit a distraught owner. Some of the woman’s flock of 49 chickens had runny noses and were sneezing, and the feed-store antibiotics and Internet-recommended smoothie of kale, yogurt, garlic and vanilla wafers weren’t helping. One chicken had died the night before.
The flock’s troubles had begun after the owner had adopted 12 of the chickens, some from a guy on Craigslist who said he would kill them if they didn’t find new homes, others from a man who’d procured them at an auction. McKillop says it’s perilous to acquire chickens with unknown histories, who can endanger other birds.
Inside the chickens’ plywood quarters behind the house, McKillop cradled one afflicted bird after the other in her left arm, swabbing inside their beaks for samples to send to a lab.
One of the worst-hit birds, a tawny rooster named Flip, was hunched. His eyes were practically swollen shut, and his once-red comb was black — a possible sign, McKillop said, of loss of blood flow.
“Don’t be surprised if he goes,” McKillop said to the worried owner. “I can euthanize him for you now, or you can try to nurse him back to health.” That would involve tube-feeding, she explained. The woman said she wanted to try.
The rooster made it, but because tests later confirmed that the flock had more than one infection — including a chronic, transmittable respiratory disease — the owner later decided to euthanize all the birds.
Working with home-based flocks has been eye-opening for McKillop. One of her clients let her birds live indoors full-time; each chicken had its own bedroom, and they spent time lying by the fire. Some owners dress their hens in sweaters. People “love their birds,” McKillop said. But they don’t always know how — or have the resources — to keep their clucking pets hale.
“People think it’s like having a dog,” she said. “And it’s completely different.”
Those unexpected challenges haven’t dissuaded Rosenzweig. “You get attached to them,” he said. “It’s not just the eggs. Chickens, their life value is about five bucks ... but for us, they’re pets, and if they’re healthy, they live 10, sometimes 18 years — as much as a dog. So it’s worth it to us.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Peter Brown as a veterinarian. Brown is a poultry biologist and specialist.
Karin Brulliard edits and writes for The Post’s Animalia blog. To comment: Email email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more articles, as well as features such as Date Lab, Gene Weingarten and more, visit The Washington Post Magazine.
Follow the Magazine on Twitter.
Like us on Facebook.