Recently, a commentary in the op-ed section of a local newspaper proclaimed chickens to be “the new black.” Apparently, keeping poultry has become increasingly popular among the less agriculturally inclined in the US, not only in the suburbs but with the big city folk, too.
Now, I’ve kept a relatively small flock of chickens and other fowl for many years, generally enough to keep my family as well as a few others perpetually in stock with fresh eggs. However, this new breed of poultry enthusiast has scaled back the hobby much further, often keeping only two or three hens in a fairly small space but treating them much more as pets than for utilitarian purposes.
In response to this growing market of people with pet chickens, manufacturers are coming out with products to accommodate their particular needs. Among such products are smartly designed but compact coops and enclosures that easily fit in a backyard of the most modest dimensions. Feeders and other equipment now can be purchased in a variety of boutique colors. Toys, costumes and even diapers for your pet chickens are now available.
While most poultry feeds and supplements are still sold on the basis of their nutritive value, treats for chickens (as opposed to chicken treats for dogs and cats) are becoming popular as well. I would expect the major livestock feed manufacturers to retain most of the market with respect to provision of the mainstay components of the pet chicken’s ration (e.g., nutritionally complete mash or crumbles, scratch grains, oyster shell).
However, like other pet owners, pet chicken owners appear receptive to value-added niches such as vegetarian, natural and organic (the latter for the perceived health benefit to the chicken, not necessarily to adhere to requirements for organic egg production). Also, there have long been many supplement products on the market intended to help in the nutrition, health or productive capacity of flocks large and small. The pet chicken treat market, though, appears open at this time.
Currently most chicken feeds, including treats, are primarily available through feed stores. However, I have seen some pet stores as well as the pet departments in discount stores carrying food items for poultry. I would think pet chicken owners would be more inclined to purchase a pet chicken treat at one of these outlets while shopping for items for their other, more traditional pets rather than making a special trip to the feed store. Thus, there would appear to be opportunities to distribute pet chicken treat items through the same channels as other petfoods and treats.
The ingredients suitable for a chicken treat are notably different from what normally goes in a typical dog or cat treat. Commercial products I’ve seen for this purpose include seeds, nuts, dried fruits and insects such as mealworms. Manufacturers of bird food and other specialty petfood may be more capable of handling these types of ingredients. From my experience, most chickens seem eager to peck at almost anything you give them but appear most inclined to eat common fruits and vegetables, baked goods and breakfast cereals.
A definite consideration in formulating a chicken treat is the fact that chickens have a decidedly poor, if virtually nonexistent, sense of taste. Thus, they primarily rely on visual and textural cues to determine what is food. In other words, don’t depend on flavor additives to augment acceptability of chicken treat products. Also, of course, chicken have no teeth, so while they can peck and tear at soft items, any hard baked or extruded item larger than they can swallow will likely go to waste.
Even though they may be thought of as pets, labeling of chicken treat products would need to adhere to the general Association of American Feed Control Official (AAFCO) Model Regulations, not the AAFCO Regulations for Pet Foods and Specialty Pet Foods. It is unlikely that the AAFCO definition for “specialty pet” would (or should) apply in this case, and even if it did there are existing labeling requirements specifically applicable to poultry feed labels in the general regulations that would supersede any applicable petfood labeling requirements. Thus, the label format, particularly the guarantees, would need to follow that prescribed for non-pet poultry feeds.
By Greg Aldrich, Ph.D.
The options for plant-based proteins in pet food are expanding all the time.
By Debbie Phillips-Donaldson
Despite the pandemic and economic turmoil, pet food saw healthy sales increases in 2020, as did market leaders.