Talking Chickens With a Bird Vet

Dr. Elinor Granzow at Alameda Pet Hospital can keep your urban chicken healthy.


Photo by Lance Yamamoto

Dr. Elinor Granzow (Gran-zo) has been a veterinarian in Alameda for four years. Alameda Pet Hospital, where she works, offers medical services for urban chickens, a growing constituency as the hipster food movement has increased the number of Alamedans who have chickens. So, we talked a little chicken with Dr. Granzow.


Why are you interested in chickens?

When you get your degree in veterinary medicine, you are qualified to do anything, but in school, you are taught mostly the basics, and then you specialize. You could see birds and reptiles. You just have to feel confident to do it. So, I did. I was just weirdly interested in birds.


What services do chickens need?

The chickens I see are pet chickens. These are people’s backyard chickens, and these are pet owners that have chickens to lay eggs but also get attached to them and want to treat them when they get sick. So, most of the time, when I am seeing chickens, it’s because they are ill and people are wondering if there is anything they can do for their sick chickens.

The most common infectious disease that chickens get is Marek’s disease. It’s a herpes virus, but it causes a variety of neurological symptoms, including tumors and nerve damage. Sometimes you can see changes in the chicken’s eye color. You can’t do anything about this disease, other than supportive care. Sometimes the chickens are just paralyzed, they can’t walk, or they might suddenly have a wing falling down. It can also cause crop statis. The crop is in the esophagus. It’s where food sits before it goes down to the digestive tract. In crop statis, the crop loses its nerve function, so instead of being a nice, muscular organ that moves stuff along, it fills up and can’t move food along. There is a vaccine for Marek’s diseases, but it has to be given as soon as the chicks hatch.

The sad thing is that, often times, people bring in their chickens and they are not easy to fix, unless it is something simple, like the chicken got attacked by dogs, which is probably my favorite chicken emergency, because it is fixable — unless they are really injured badly.


Do you visit the chickens, or do the chickens visit you?

I have done flock visits, and that is more for preventative medicine. I have gone to people’s coops and looked at their pets, but generally, people bring in their sick chickens in a cardboard box. People put them in cat carriers, and I definitely get a variety. I’ve met people who live with a single chicken on a boat.


What are the biggest mistakes to avoid?

Not doing enough research and either not feeding them the right things or not keeping things as clean as they should. Definitely animals like chickens, the more space you can give them, the better. Because obviously they are going to poop where they are, so the smaller the coop you have with the more chickens, the more you are going to have to clean it to keep it clean. A lot of chicken bad behavior results from having too many chickens in too small a space. Also trying to crowd too many chickens into a small place. I’m sure there is a minimum space requirement that people list out there, but whatever it is, you would be better off with more.

When chickens are stressed and feel like there is competition for resources and space, they will pick on each other. The term “pecking order” comes from chickens. You have chickens who are boss hens, who are more in charge, and you have the poor, sad, little hens that get picked on and lose feathers. As for laying chickens, which is what most people have, they really should be on laying-chicken food. Some people try to have their chickens eat mostly non-formulated feed, but when you do that, the numbers of eggs you have goes down and/or your chickens develop nutritional deficiencies. So, a commercial laying-feed is really good for laying hens.


Any advice for wannabe chicken owners?

A lot of people, I think, buy chickens like they buy dogs and cats. Someone is like, ‘Oh, they have chickens for sale!’ and buy the chickens there. So, buy your chickens from a reputable source, not, say, at a feed store where chickens are for sale. But honestly, you can order them online, and those chickens have been vaccinated for everything under the sun, and that is a good idea. So, there are definitely reputable sources of very healthy chickens that people should avail themselves of.

I also see a lot of guinea pigs, hamsters, chinchillas, small-mammal pets, and a few reptiles, but they are probably the least of what I see. Reptiles are kind of like birds, including chickens, in that they are not that expensive to purchase, although they are expensive to keep in a good way. Pretty much all exotics, what they all share, is that their environments are very difficult to be kept perfect — especially reptiles and birds.