Gone are the days when guinea pig owners would keep their pets alone in a hutch in the backyard with little interaction with the family or socialisation. Now many owners are choosing to keep their guineas inside as part of the family. All guinea pigs need a palace fit for royalty - read on for our best DIY tips for creating one for your pet.
Indoor living guineas have many advantages. For one, it is easier to control their environment as you don’t need to deal with the elements outdoors. Having your GPs indoors also means they get to be more involved with the action and spend precious time with their favourite humans.
Despite being small animal, guinea pigs need a lot of room to exercise and run around to be happy pigs, and for this reason are suited best to large accommodation. Exercise is very important for healthy guinea pigs; their best way of getting the exercise they need is to run laps around their housing. If their area is too small they will get bored and are at risk of serious health problems such as heart disease and diabetes.
A house fit for a piggie Queen or King
Indoor accommodation for your guinea pig can be fun and easy to create. It is also a great excuse to get creative and to build a perfect haven for your beloved companion.
Most hutches found at pet stores are far too small for your guinea pigs to be able to display natural behaviours and live the life they deserve.
To create a perfect and tailor-made house for your guineas then you may consider building a ‘C&C’ cage. A relatively new concept compared to the standard hutch, a ‘C&C’ cage stands for cubes and coroplast. Cubes refers to the metal grid system that forms the cage structure, and coroplast is the plastic ‘tray’ that forms the base of the cage.
Building your own C&C cage
The materials to build your cage can be easily sourced online or at hardware stores. To build a C&C cage, you will need a sheet of coroplast big enough to form the base of your cage, and the metal grid ‘cubes’ to form the walls. We recommend the following as preferred minimum sizing to adhere to ensure your guinea has all the space they need (dependant on the number of guinea pigs):
The structure and soft furnishings inside your DIY guinea pig house can be made from easily sourced and inexpensive materials. All that is required is some time, a few basic tools and some imagination. It’s the perfect way to get creative and put your own touch on the space. Whether it is an L-shape or using different levels, building your own creation means you can have it just how you want it. Undoubtedly the best part is seeing your piggies run around squeaking with joy at something you created for them.
- 1 guinea pig: Area – 0.7sq m / Grids - 2x3 grids / Size – 76x91cm
- 2 guinea pigs: Area – 0.7sq m / Grids - 2x4 grids / Size – 76x127cm
- 3 guinea pigs: Area – 1sq m / Grids - 2x5 grids / Size – 76x157cm
- 4 guinea pigs: Area – 1.2sq m / Grids - 2x6 grids / Size – 76x193cm
The best location for your guinea pig house is a room that isn’t too warm or prone to becoming damp, as GPs don’t cope well in these conditions. Choose somewhere safe away from other pets and loud noises, but close to the family.
The best bedding
Now you have your guinea pigs’ house built, it’s time to make it a home. When exploring bedding options remember that, above all, it needs to be absorbent as guinea pigs don’t use litter trays like rabbits. Common bedding options include recycled shredded paper, wood-shavings, and layered towels and fleecing. Just be sure to avoid any wood shavings that might have a high content of volatile oils or preservatives as these can be poisonous.
Both wood shaving and shredded paper are single-use and will need to be disposed of and replaced when they are soiled. Using layered towels and fleecing can be more efficient as these can simply be washed and re-used. You can get creative with colours and patterns of fleecing and create a unique piggie palace to suit your guineas’ personalities.
It's all about the detail
Once you’ve created the foundations, you can move onto the furnishings for your guineas’ pad.
Guinea pigs need lots of stimulation and entertainment; the more for them to do, the better. They love running around, darting in and out of tunnels, up and down ramps and snuggling away in hiding-holes.
Tunnels can be made to any length to suit their new house and can be made from plastic or material. These can easily be made from left over fleece blankets wrapped around cardboard.
Create your own ramps that lead to a higher part of the cage. These can be made out of safe-to-use wood or plastic. These materials can also be used to create small platforms or igloo style dens for the guineas to hide in. Take note that your guinea pigs will need an area within their new house to hide away and sleep in. This could be a ‘hutch’ that is placed in a corner of the accommodation or a purpose-built undercover section.
As long as the house and materials you use for your guinea pigs’ accommodation are safe and pose no risks to their health or wellbeing, you can set up their new home however you choose. Section it off or keep it flat with more floor space; it’s up to you. As long as the GPs have plenty of room and stimulation, they will be happy and living a wonderful life.
For more information about creating a guinea pig palace, visit these websites:
Dr Jess Beer, BVSc, Qualified Veterinary Behaviourist
Q: I had two guinea pigs, Bill and Bobby, but recently Bill has passed away. Now that Bobby is by himself I have noticed he has stopped eating and isn’t as happy as he used to be. Does this mean I should get him another friend?
I am sorry to hear that Bill has passed away. Guinea pigs are very social animals, and do pine when they are alone. Bobby has probably stopped eating because he is lonely, and is craving the companionship of his own kind. Guinea pigs thrive with one or two companions, so I would definitely recommend getting a friend for Bobby to fill the void Bill left behind.
Many vets can routinely desex guinea pigs, so you don’t have to worry them mating if you were to get a desexed female guinea pig friend for Bobby. Bonding guinea pigs tends to be a lot easier than bonding rabbits – allow them to meet, and if they don’t immediately fight, they are fine as a pair. Ideal pairings are one desexed male and 2 desexed females. Note it is never appropriate to house rabbits and guinea pigs together.
It is also important to make sure Bobby and his new friend have enough space to interact and show natural behaviours. Read ‘Creating a DIY house for your guinea pig’ on page XXX for more information on housing your guinea pigs.
The key to Bobby’s happiness is catering to his social needs by having a friend, enough space to ‘popcorn’, burrows to hide, and levels to climb. In no time Bobby should be eating again, and back to his normal self!
Q: My sister has just adopted a young puppy called Jazz. I really want Jazz and my dog Monty to get along, but Monty doesn’t seem to like her at all. What can I do?
We need to remember that puppies are still learning to behave. They can be excessive and demanding, which some older dogs find disruptive. Firstly, it is important for Jazz to learn good manners, and to respect Monty’s tolerance levels. Your sister can do this by always rewarding Jazz with a treat for calm behaviour, like “sit and wait” and eventually Jazz will learn this is a desirable way to act.
Secondly, both Jazz and Monty need to associate each other’s presence as positive. A good way to do this is if you and your sister take Jazz and Monty for a short walk on lead together. Then during the walk sporadically call the puppy and give them a treat. This way Jazz will learn to focus on your sister, and Monty won’t feel threatened by an over exuberant puppy. Having good verbal control to redirect too much exuberance is essential to teach good manners and protect the older dog from being pestered!
Sensible and stable older dogs will usually be quite competent at interacting with a young puppy. For example, they will initiate play and contact. It is not appropriate if Jazz is the only one initiating play, and if Monty only growls, snarls, and avoids Jazz, then you need to respect his wishes and give him space.
The most important thing when introducing Jazz and Monty is reading their body language. The signs to be aware of are body posture, avoidance, growling or snapping. If a dog is showing signs of stiffness, lip licking or whites of eyes you need to stop the interaction. A low growl is an appropriate reprimand, but you must never let interactions continue to the point of snapping or attempting to bite. Jazz must learn to read other dogs’ body language, and positive and safe meetings of sensible older dogs will be essential for Jazz’s upbringing.
Keep in mind that some older dogs might have health problems, or are just too old. So it is not suitable for them to be around a bouncy puppy.
Q: My cat Hudson won’t stop jumping up on the kitchen bench looking for food. It is making cooking a nightmare, please help!
A behaviour is repeated when it is beneficial for an animal. If Hudson is getting food or similar rewards when he jumps up on the bench, then this is a desirable place for him to be.
To get Hudson to stop, you will need to make your bench undesirable. Firstly, cats like being high, so if your bench is the only high place in your house and easily accessed then Hudson will keep jumping up. Provide other high places around your house as alternative options, such as cat towers or a bed on top of a chair and increase the temptation to these high places by placing beds, toys and food there.
Punishment such as yelling or squirting water bottles is not an appropriate option as it can cause fear in Hudson and will only ever stop Hudson from jumping up on the bench if you are present. It also won’t teach Hudson what you want him to do, it will only deter him temporarily.
If giving Hudson other desirable options to your bench doesn’t work, use double sided sticky tape or tinfoil on the bench consistently for a few weeks. But, it is usually most successful if you provide an alternative. Good luck!
Q: I just moved into a new house and my cat Charlie won’t stop licking his belly. He is starting to go bald and I don’t know what to do!
You will need to rule out medical causes such as allergies, fleas, or abdominal pain first. But if Charlie isn’t licking his belly for any medical reasons, it may be psychological. A cat licking their belly can be a sign of stress or anxiety, similar to how people bite their nails.
Moving house tends to be very stressful for cats, so Charlie might be struggling with both his new environment or outside cats he isn’t familiar with. Simple treatment for Charlie would include Feliway Diffuser in the home, as well as daily positive interactions with you through games, treats and grooming.
It is also important to protect him from sources of stress. For example moving him in to just one room in the new house with familiar furniture and smells to get used will help him settle before slowly exploring the new environment over the following weeks. It is usually advised to keep your cat indoors for 1-2 weeks when moving to a new home to ensure they do not wander off trying to find their old home.
If Charlie tolerates being in a cattery, consider putting him in one for a few days during the house move as this help with the transition. This way he won’t endure the stress of you settling into a new house. In cases that aren’t resolved with the above recommendations, seek advice from your veterinarian who can refer Charlie to a behaviourist who may consider using medication to help him cope.
Most of us associate 'working dogs' with a farm, as guide dogs for blind or partially sighted people, or as police dogs. But dogs are used in far more wide ranging roles than these, particularly in detection roles.
It’s a mid-winter morning, still dank with fog as Zara waits patiently for handler Janet and the supervisor at the factory to finish talking. Finally Janet comes over, slips on Zara’s harness and they’re into the factory to see what they can find.
Zara’s been trained to find drugs in the workplace, since the factory owner suspects some of his workers are using them on the job. Zara will be able to sort through the huge range of smells available to her and identify a range of drugs. It’s also happening during normal working hours so everyone can see this is an impartial search.
Initially she and Janet search the locker area where workers store their belongings and, while Zara identifies some drug smells it’s clear there are no drugs there today. So she progresses to the warehouse and soon sits beside a large spool, looking expectantly at Janet for a treat. Sure enough, a small quantity of marijuana is found within the central spindle itself. Further searches produce two more finds, all of which are confiscated.
She and Janet will be back in a couple of months to repeat the process. “I wish workers would learn they can’t fool a dog’s nose,” sighs the owner.
Dogs have between 250 and 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in ours, so a dog’s nose is more than 40 times more sensitive. While some dogs have been bred to enhance specific traits any dog can use their nose unless, like bulldogs or boxers, it has a genetic trait that inhibits it from doing this as successfully as other breeds.
The odour a dog is trained to detect makes no difference to the type of training it receives, be it search and rescue work, drug detection or anything else. “The difference is the environment the dogs have to work in, and how easy it is to detect the odour in the environment they’re required to screen,” says Janet Williams of NZ Detector Dogs, the only private company in NZ doing this role with professional dog handlers. “A dog checking boxes or suitcases at the airport has a much easier environment in which to find their target odour than perhaps a dog seeking drugs on a fishing vessel where hiding places, opposing and distracting odours, and access to and availability of the target odour can be very difficult.”
Nine years ago Zara was a severely malnourished older pup found wandering the streets of Auckland, who had been handed in to the SPCA. Janet remembers her as being just skin and bone, covered in sores and wounds. She’d already had a litter.
“I walked past the cage she was in and slipped her a biscuit,” Janet says. “For the next 30 minutes as we looked at the other rehome dogs, Zara didn't leave the front of the cage and her eyes never left us for a second. Eventually we took her out to assess her abilities and despite never having a scrap of training, she was willing to do anything we asked.”
Zara was adopted by the company, put into training as a working drug dog, and has never looked back. "I am a keen supporter of the SPCA, and wherever possible our company policy is to source and train rescue dogs," explains Janet.
NZ Detector Dogs is fortunate to have a company of experienced, professional dog handlers. "Most of us were trainers from large government dog programmes such as the New Zealand Police and the Ministry of Primary Industries," Janet adds.
The company has four full-time handlers and one part-time, covering all of New Zealand. This allows them to adopt dogs that other agencies and dog owners could never consider. The company's aim is to take an individual dog and bring out the best in the animal. "Once you go in with this attitude and training though process, the handlers/trainers are 100% invested in in the wellbeing and development of the dog. So far, every dog has exceeded expectations and they're every bit as good as the purpose-bred dogs, if not better," Janet says.
Dogs are worked for no longer than 30-50 minutes at a time, depending on the size of the site to be checked and the working conditions - for example, the ambient temperature or number of items to be searched. As a general rule, the amount of time a dog is worked in one session means an equal amount of time to rest, ensuring the dog is always working to their peak detection capability.
Giving unwanted dogs a chance
NZ Detector Dogs' policy is to source their drug dogs from the SPCA, pounds or animal welfare agencies in an effort to give unwanted dogs a chance for a productive and happy future. While it may take a lot more expertise and patience to train such dogs, the company has the experience, knowledge, skills, and facilities to undertake this.
Four of their dogs have come from SPCAs in the North Island, while the remaining five have been rescued from other rehoming organisations. "Because we take 'red light' dogs it usually means they have issues that don't usually come with being calm and trusting," Janet explains. Instead of correcting bad or unwanted behaviour, we give the dog alternative choices, and direct and focus their drive into what we want them to do. Once we have them doing that, a lot of the unwanted behaviour naturally diminishes. The dogs also then look to their handlers for more direction, which results in a dog that is focused on working for their handler."
NZ Detector Dogs doesn't select the dogs by breed, but by their level of drive for certain items - usually food. They use this drive to motivate the dogs to overcome issues and work for one of their primary needs - which also helps them overcome a lot of the issues they may face. Once they achieve the desired result, food is used to reinforce the required behaviour.
Janet's own background includes 13 years with what is now the Ministry of Primary Industries' detector dog programme, inititally as a handler and ultimately as the senior trainer responsible for the training of all dogs and handlers at airports across New Zealand.
She was trained by an American specialist contracted to help set up the local programme in 1995/6, based on the US 'Beagle Brigade' which had started in 1984. Initially, only about 10-20% of dogs ended up being truly successful working dogs, and Janet's main aim was to increase that success rate. "By the time I left, we'd raised the rate to about 60-80%," she says. "I started a breeding enhancement project and travelled to the UK to source better and more suitable lines, and I understand this has continued to improve the success rate."
Currently, over 50 dog teams work across all major airports as well as Auckland's International Mall Centre, International cargo companies and even cruise ships arriving from overseas. The dogs are trained to find plants and plant products, as well as animals and animal products. Internationally, beagles have become the most common breed of detector dog, although MPI has found labradors are also very good at such work. "At NZ Detector Dogs, we aim to show the wider public and other agencies just what can be achieved with rescue dogs, and give those dogs that would otherwise not be rehomed a meaningful and valuable future," Janet says proudly. "It is our way of giving back to the animals that gave us our careers, and we want to make a difference and change attitudes towards rescue dogs."
Reggies the explosives detector dog
It has been said that dogs like Reggie only come along once in every 60 dogs. Reggie was surrendered to the SPCA by his owner as they weren't in a position to provide him with the stimulation he needed. He was quite shy and reserved initially and it took the team a while to get to know him. But as soon as Reggie got into the daily enrichment routine, he quickly adjusted to life at the SPCA.
Due to his obsession with tennis balls and ability to learn quickly, SPCA staff thought he may be a good candidate for Aviation Security Servicwes (Avsec), the brance of the Civil Aviation Authority responsible for providing security services at New Zealand's six security-designated airports.
Avsec has a prestigious explosive detector dog (EDD) training programme which as officially recognised by the United States' Transportation Security Administration in 2014 - a world-first acknolwedgement. Reggie started formal training with his Avsec handler, Anke Claessen, in early July. Anke is the other half of Reggie's team - the half who drives, picks up after him, holds onto the lead and interprets his changes of behaviour. "Reggie can be a bit of a clown, but the moment there is work to be done, he switches on and is extremely focused," Anke says. "He is a pleasure to work with." The two of them are looking forward to graduating in September and becoming operational at Wellington Airport.
Avsec's ten-week EDD training programme consists of an allocation course, where the teams are assessed for suitability, and a nine-week EDD training course at the Police Dog Training Centre in Upper Hutt. The course is delivered and supervised by two instructors - one from Avsec and from the New Zealand police - who train four teams (consisting of one Avsec handler and one dog per team) to search and find explosives in different environments.
At the end of the course the teams are tested and certified by the New Zealand Police. A passing grade means the team graduates at 'operational'. Avsec EDD national manager, Monique Masoe, says that Avsec has a strong relationship with animal rescue organisations because of their common interest in securing positive outcomes for both the dogs and the communities in which they live. Avsec is proud to be able to provide the dogs with a new chance at life, with caring and capable handlers, in the service of New Zealand.
"As an EDD, the dogs enjoy a great life and do an important job - not just for Avsec, but for the travelling public and airport community," Monique says. The SPCA team are delighted that he has done so well. "Dogs like Reggie have amazing potential and are often too energetic for the average family home. We are delighted that Reggie has excelled in his training at airport security," they say.
More dogs with jobs
Department of Conservation
DoC's Conservation Dogs Programme uses highly trained dogs and their handlers to detect New Zealand's protected species and unwanted pests. www.doc.govt.nz/conservationdogs
The Blind Foundation's Guide Dog centre breeds its own labradors and golden retrievers to become guide dogs for those people who are blind or have low vision. www.blindfoundation.org.nz/guide-dogs/
Police patrol dogs (all german shepherds) are supplied by the police dog programme that is based at the Dog Training Centre near Wellington. The dogs are mainly used to track and search for people, but many of them are also trained for search and rescue work, victim recovery, narcotic detection work, and deployment with the Armed Offender Squad. www.police.govt.nz/about-us/sturcture/teams-units/dog-section
NZ USAR Search Dog Association
USAR (urban search and rescue) search dogs are an incredibly valuable resource in the location of people who are trapped by the collapse of structures as a result of earthquakes, tornados, landslides, and other natural and man-made distasers. www.usardogs.org.nz
Aviation Security Service (Avsec)
Avsec's explosive detector dogs (EDD) sniff for explosives and explosive materials at New Zealand's main airports (Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and Queenstown), protecting travellers, airline crew, airport workers and New Zealand by ensuring that no dangerous materials are present on aircraft or in airports. www.avsec.govt.nz/travellers/explosive-detector-dogs/
The humble goldfish tends to be misunderstood. They make great family pets, but they are plagued by myths that insult their intelligence, and individual personalities.
We’re busting these myths: read on to find out the truth about our finned friends!
Myth #1 – Goldfish Have a 3-Second-Memory
It has long been said goldfish have a 3-second-memory and don’t get bored. There is a common joke that by the time a goldfish has circled a bowl, it has forgotten doing so. However, the truth is quite the opposite! Goldfish have a memory span that lasts quite a long time.
Goldfish can hold memories for up to five months, and have a sense of time and routine. If you are a goldfish owner, you might notice they get excited in the morning before you get the food container out. There are even reports of goldfish repeatedly jumping out of the water out of sheer excitement when they see their owner walking through the door.
Myth #2 – Goldfish Only Grow to the Size of their Enclosure
There is an element of truth to this myth. But what really stunts their growth is poor water quality associated with a small tank, rather than the tank size itself. When properly cared for, goldfish never stop growing. The ‘common goldfish’ are the largest kind of goldfish and can grow up to 45cm long.
Stunted growth is a sign of sickness, and as a result goldfish can die prematurely. To avoid this and keep your fishy friend healthy, the recommended tank length for the ‘common goldfish’ should be at least 120cm long, or a minimum of 112L per adult goldfish. ‘Fancy goldfish’ can thrive in a tank that is at least 90cm long, and 75L per adult goldfish.
If you plan to keep more than one goldfish in your tank, then add an extra 40L for each additional fish – but if you want to see them reach their full potential, the bigger the better!
But if you only have space for a small tank, it is best to consider some small tropical fish, there are a number of species which don’t grow very large and have beautiful colours which light up your tank!
Myth #3 – Goldfish can be kept in Bowls
Although goldfish are hardy fish capable of surviving in a range of conditions, a bowl is not an ideal home.
Goldfish create a lot of waste, tend to be very messy, and eat a lot. They need an aquarium with proper filtration, aeration, water volume for dilution of waste, room to grow, and a home for good bacteria to mature.
The ‘common goldfish’ grow particularly big, so an outdoor pond is the best option unless you can provide them with an aquarium which can hold 200 litres or more.
These quirky and wonderful creatures deserve a home that’s as beautiful as them.
Myth #4 – Goldfish don’t live long
In fact, the opposite is true! Goldfish are some of the longest living fish you can adopt. They are able to live for several decades when well looked after – the record is held by a 49 year old goldfish!
It is possible this myth came about because of goldfish dying prematurely due to poor conditions in which they are kept, rather than the actual lifespan of the fish.
Myth #5 – There is only one type of goldfish
There are many different varieties of goldfish. The common goldfish you see are fantails, lion heads, ryukins, comets, orandas, bubble eyes, and commons.
They generally tend to fall into two main groups: hardy goldfish, and fancy goldfish. Hardy goldfish are slim bodied and have a single tail, whereas fancy goldfish have an egg shaped body and twin tails.
It’s best not to have hardy goldfish and fancy goldfish living in the same aquarium as hardy goldfish are faster moving, dominate the access to food, and tend to bully the fancy goldfish. You want to avoid playground arguments at all costs!
If you are thinking of creating a multi-fish palace, remember that if your goldfish is large enough to swallow another fish, he probably will.
Myth #6 – Goldfish tanks should have cold water
Goldfish are capable of surviving in both cold and warm conditions, but room temperature between 18-21 degrees is best.
When temperatures are above 23 degrees, goldfish can also become lethargic and over heat. If you have higher temperatures in your goldfish tank, make sure you have vigorous aeration.
Goldfish can survive in water that is frozen on top. However this is not ideal, and a hole should be kept free of ice on the surface.
During the winter if you are wondering why your goldfish isn’t moving around much, chances are your goldfish is cold! When temperatures are below 16 degrees, goldfish can slow down, stop eating, and hover at the bottom of the tank or pond.
If you see your goldfish exhibiting these symptoms, it may be time to invest in an aquarium heater to keep the water temperatures moderate and stable.
Myth #7 – Goldfish are Herbivores
Goldfish are actually omnivores, and eat both plant and animal material. A high quality goldfish pellet should be their staple diet for a goldfish but you can also vary their diet by giving them additional fresh food. This can include plant material such as romaine lettuce, peas (with the shells removed), cucumber, oranges, and soft-leaved aquarium plants such as duckweed and anacharis.
In the wild goldfish would eat fish eggs, invertebrates, and smaller fish species. Frozen invertebrates are a delicious treat for goldfish!
Backyard chickens - the romance and the reality by Patricia Thompson
As a lifelong urban dweller I used to have a rather romantic view about what it would be like to keep a few chickens in the back yard. I pictured them strutting around decoratively, clucking contentedly and delivering a daily gift of beautiful fresh eggs on a bed of sweet smelling straw.
Twelve years of chicken-keeping later, I still love backyard poultry husbandry – but the rose-tinted specs have gone. I look forward to the welcoming clucky clamour which greets me each morning, the cuddles my five ‘ladies’ demand, their ‘help’ when I’m weeding and chicken legs waving from the sunny dustbowl they’ve scratched up outside my kitchen window. A gift of fabulous golden-yolked eggs is an added bonus – I appreciate knowing the journey of my eggs from chicken to plate.
However, the other side of chicken-keeping involves toiling come rain, come shine - and frequently, for me, in the teeth of howling Wellington winds - doing the weekly ‘mucking out’ of the small mountain of manure even a few chickens will produce. You’ll need somewhere to compost it too. You may need to deal with broody hens, sick, injured or egg-bound hens and the interest hens can inspire among the local dog, stoat or rat population.
Back yard chicken-keeping can quickly lose its allure. I have two elderly white Leghorns and three red Shaver hens. I bought my Shavers in the depths of last winter, from a first-time chicken keeper who was bailing out after a few months. The look of sheer relief on her face as I loaded the box of feathered ginger hooligans into my car spoke volumes. Keeping a few backyard chickens, doesn’t mean ‘free’ eggs either. My experience is you’ll be lucky to break even on costs. Chickens can live for 8-10 years or more - so that’s years of care and feeding long after they’ve stopped laying. You also can’t eat the eggs for some time after worming or other parasite treatments.
Decent coops are costly – unless you can build your own. I’ve tried the relatively cheap mass-produced flat pack type, as have friends, but we’ve all eventually moved onto something more robust. It’s essential that chickens are secure, and warm and dry at night. Many people think chickens can live on household scraps. But for chickens to lay well and be healthy, they need chicken-specific food. Mine are largely fed on layers pellets, a small amount of dog roll, for extra protein and I gather puha/rauriki native greens for them and grow silverbeet, borage and comfrey to supplement their diet.
The ideal is to have a fenced off area of your garden for your chickens to roam during the day – but be prepared to adapt the height of the fencing. Different chickens, like any animal, have different personalities and physical abilities. My shavers are content to potter behind wire but my leghorns are experts at vertical takeoff. Not surprisingly, the main cause of chickens ending up in SPCA care is because they’ve been found wandering the streets. Even when you are confident your chicken security is sufficient to keep your birds in, you need to consider if it will keep unwanted visitors out. Our own dogs are socialised around the chickens but we’ve experienced two traumatic chicken attacks by a high-jumping neighbourhood dog.
We think the cost and effort is worth it for the pleasure our chickens bring to us – but I’d advise anyone thinking of “keeping a few chickens” to go into it with eyes wide open, research done and rose-tinted specs off.
Patricia’s costs for five backyard hens
Set up costs
• Good quality coop: $400 – plus additional materials to build a larger run.
• Poultry bell hanging water dispenser – because chickens will just kick dirt or chook poop into a bowl: $30.
• Chooketeria – automatic poultry feeder - to help prevent wild birds eating the pellets - and potentially spreading parasitic infections to the chickens: $135.
• Point of lay pullets: $25-$30 each
• Hay bale for bedding: $16 about every six weeks.
• Layer’s pellets: $12 a fortnight.
• Grit/oyster shell: $6 for three months’ supply.
• Diatomaceous earth, to repel mites: $17.50 every three months.
• Worming costs and vets’ bills: Varies.
The art and science of keeping backyard chickens
Chickens can be wonderful companions and are energetic, inquisitive, and friendly animals. Keeping backyard chickens is also becoming increasingly popular as part of local, sustainable and organic food movements. Chickens are a lot of fun to have but the decision to keep them should not be made lightly. Chickens need dedicated and consistent care and, just like when considering adding a cat or dog to your family, there are important issues you need to consider before you made the decision to start your own chicken flock.
Chickens need company, so you should have a minimum of three chickens in your flock. Consider carefully what kind of chicken will be best for your circumstances; there are many different breeds of all shapes and sizes.
Be aware that if you are hatching eggs there are generally half male and half female chicks as a result. People can find it difficult to find homes for the males but roosters deserve homes too and should never be dumped. Roosters will crow so if you have male chickens you need to be aware of this and of council requirements for keeping chickens and noise control. You should never use a rooster collar to try and stop a rooster from crowing; these devices are cruel. Getting pullets (young female hens) or hens that have already started laying (~21 weeks) is a good way to avoid this. Please consider adopting chickens from your local SPCA or rescue group.
Your chickens need somewhere safe to live, away from other animals that might hurt them (cats, dogs, birds of prey and other potential predators). This can be provided by a well set up coop. The coop should be the biggest and best you can afford.
The coop should have:
- An indoor area where the birds can shelter, sleep and nest. This needs to protect the birds from the sun, rain and wind but it also needs to be well ventilated.
- Adequate roosts/perches at different levels so that all your chickens can perch at the same time. The perches should not be positioned over each other or over areas that should not be covered in waste (e.g. not over water or food).
- A safe outdoor area where the birds can exercise, enjoy the sunshine and fresh air and express normal behaviours such as scratching, foraging and dust bathing.
- Nest boxes with appropriate bedding in them such as straw or wood shavings. Nest boxes should be secluded, warm, clean and safe and there should be enough for all of your hens (at least one nest box for every 3-4 hens). This area needs to be cleaned regularly to minimise problems with parasites such as red mites. Some food grade diatomaceous earth can be added to the bedding in the nest boxes to help with parasite control.
- A dust bathing area. Dust bathing is an important normal behavior for chickens. You can fill a tire or paddle pool with dirt, sand, or peat. You can also add a little food grade diatomaceous earth to this, which can help with parasite control.
- A container of ‘grit’. Chickens need small pebbles and grit to help them to digest their food (remember they don’t have teeth to chew their food!)
- They also need extra calcium once they start laying and especially as they get a little older. You can get soluble calcium grit or add dried out eggshells (bake the empty shells in the oven and then crush them) to provide the ladies with extra calcium for their eggs.
- Clean water from a watering system that is easy for the birds to drink from. Birds don’t have lips, so it can be hard for them to drink water when it is down low. The water container should be placed somewhere where it is out of the sun (so it does not get too hot). Hanging drinkers can be a good way to achieve this. Fresh water is always best!
- Good quality commercial chicken feed in a feed container that is not accessible to other birds.
- Grit, water and feed containers should be placed somewhere where they cannot be tipped over, dirtied or walked in by other birds.
- Enrichment such as green leafy vegetables (e.g. kale or brussel sprouts) strung up in the coop so the birds can peck at them, watermelons, food toys, ramps and different levels within the coop, areas in which they can scratch and peck, are all great ideas for enriching your chicken coop. There are lots of fun ideas out there for chicken enrichment!
- And if you’re really keen, chickens are very easily trained with clicker training to do all sorts of tricks….
Your chickens will need some good quality commercial layer hen pellets as well as getting supplemental fresh food. The pellets contain an important and balanced mix of vitamins and minerals that the birds need which can be lacking in diets consisting of simply kitchen scraps. Chickens should not just be fed kitchen scraps, as they need a balanced diet, just like you and me. Be aware that certain plants and foods can also be toxic to chickens. For example, you should not give them raw green potato peels, dried or undercooked beans, or avocados. It is better if chickens are given mostly fresh foods that are not too energy dense or sugary (for example, give them plenty of leafy greens and limit the quantity of foods such as corn and fruits that have a high energy and sugar content). Chickens need fresh feed and water every day and food that is old, moldy, or stale should be cleaned up and thrown away.
Ideally your chickens should be able to have some time out of the coop and free-ranging in the backyard if it is safe. The outdoor ranging area should have good cover to protect the chickens from predators (this can be bush, shrub or tree cover or man made cover). Remember that other species of bird can bully chickens (for example, ducks, turkeys etc). If it is not possible for your chickens to free-range then it is of even greater importance to provide them with enrichment and a varied diet, including a balanced chicken feed and fresh vegetables and fruit. Check for poisonous plants and weeds in the area the chickens have access to and keep the grass short to avoid the birds getting grass impaction from eating long grass.
Remember that hens do not lay eggs all year round. They need some time off every now and then just like we do! When your hens are laying don’t forget to collect the eggs every day to prevent the eggs going rotten, hatching (if you have a rooster), getting broken or the hens starting to eat them.
Chickens should be checked daily for wounds, feather loss, parasites such as red mite and general health. Chickens are a lot smarter than most people think and can be trained! You can train them to be handled and to come into their coop at night and allow themselves to be picked up so you can check their health every day. Plus, it’s fun to hug a chook!
Your chickens should be wormed every three months and possibly treated for red mite (talk to your veterinarian about this). It is a good idea to include the chicken coop in your regular cleaning routine. Remember that after giving any kind of medication to your hens you will need to avoid eating their eggs for a certain amount of time (this is called a withdrawal period, varies with different medications and will be stated on the medication information). Remember that your chickens will need veterinary care so take this into account when considering the costs of caring for your chickens.
Observe your chickens regularly, not only is it fun to watch them, but you will get to know your different birds, their personalities and what is normal and abnormal for each bird. If a chicken is behaving abnormally this is usually a sign that something is very wrong. Birds tend to hide signs of illness until they are very ill so please get veterinary care as soon as possible if you notice any problems. If you already have chickens and are introducing new birds to your flock you should temporarily quarantine the new birds for two weeks, treat them for parasites, watch the birds closely for signs of illness and only introduce the new chickens into your flock if they are healthy.
Don’t forget that your chickens will need daily care if you go away on holiday. It can be very rewarding to have chickens and they can be excellent companions for adults and children alike. However, in order to keep the chickens as happy and healthy as they deserve, they need a lot of dedicated care. There is a lot to consider before making the decision to start your own backyard flock.