The debate about urban (backyard) chickens is again in the news, this time in Windsor, Ontario. The debate was ignited by a recent case in which a Windsor couple has been given one week to get rid of their backyard hens. The couple is preparing to fight the order, stating that the chickens are their pets, and no different than other pet species.

Different cities have taken different approaches to the urban chicken movement. Some allow or even actively support keeping urban chickens. Others ban them outright.

Supporters of the urban chicken movement say that the birds provide local, natural food and that they can be good pets. They say that a few chickens are no more noisy or disruptive than many dogs.

Opponents worry about the mess the birds make, odours, noise, attracting other urban wildlife like raccoons and skunks, and infectious disease risks.

Which position is right? I don’t know. Bringing animals into closer proximity to people always increases infectious disease risks, but does it increase them enough to be a concern, and do the positive aspects outweigh the concerns? Even healthy backyard chickens can carry a variety of potentially harmful bacteria that could be spread by direct contact, or contact with the chicken’s environment or run-off into neighbouring yards. However, the biggest problem is probably not these small groups of chickens spreading infection – the nuisance factor and attracting other animals (including rabies vectors) into the area might pose the greatest risk. We don’t have enough information to make a very informed decision one way or the other. However, if people are going to keep backyard chickens and authorities are going to allow it, some common sense needs to be used in terms of how many birds are kept, how they are raised, how to dispose of manure, how to keep wildlife away, and general hygiene practices.

One more thing to be wary of is statements about food safety regarding urban chicken eggs. People sometime equate organic, backyard, non-intensively farmed animals as being no risk for foodborne pathogens. That’s not the case. This type of farming does not necessarily result in safer food, and misconceptions to that effect can increase disease risks if people fail to take adequate precautions. Backyard eggs and poultry products need to be treated the same as products coming from a commercial farm.