My first chicken was Sydney, the classic Cornish-cross broiler (production) hen. She was a treasured pet that was brought into the clinic when she was 3 days old for euthanasia because "her legs were on backwards." (There's a very long backstory there.) I ended up keeping her, and despite right-sided heart failure with ascites (ASD on ultrasound, confirmed on necropsy) since she was 3 months old, and borderline increased kidney values, she lived a long and happy life of 6 years 8 months (normal life span for this hybrid when kept as a pet is less than 18 months).
She was active and vigorous as the leader of her little free range layer flock until the last 2 months of her life, when she turned into a little old lady that spent more time resting than foraging, although even then she was never overtly painful when she did become active. It's been more than 13 years since she died, long before we routinely used gabapentin or meloxicam (or CBD) in elderly chickens. Here's what I did to try to keep her lean and comfortable.
- Because of her borderline kidney values, and my fear that her cardiologist would ridicule me if she gained an ounce (my most memorable quote from him regarding her weight was "Do you want her to live?!?!?"), I was really careful with her diet. She was 12.5 lbs when she was first taken to the UGA VMTH at 5 months old. After a month on lasix and other medications to treat her heart and relieve the ascites she was 10.5 lbs, so still 2 lbs overly fat after the ascites was resolved.
The cardiologist read me the riot act, and I knew he was right. No more free choice pellets (she would eat at least 2-3 cups daily if not restricted -- production hybrids are selected for big appetites)!! She was switched to QID feeding (7-8 a.m., 4 p.m., 8 p.m., and midnight to correspond with her multiple medications), plus free ranging over a predator-proof acre from 8 a.m. to sunset. She ate a lot of grass, dandelions, blackberries, wild cherries, other wild fruit, slugs, baby snakes, mice and bugs. Except in the winter, there was a lot of healthy, relatively low-calorie food in her environment, but no high concentrate food freely available. She just had to work to gather it.
For her QID meals, she was fed 2 level tablespoons (not heaping) of Roudybush AK Renal Care diet, 1/4 cup of some type of raw or parboiled thinly cut greens (collards, kale, shredded broccoli stems/leaves -- not flowers which can cause obstructions, dandelions, bok choy, etc,etc -- huge variety available), and 1 tablespoon of a really colorful vegetable or fruit. (The type of greens and vegetables/fruit changed frequently, at least 10 different items over a week.) Additionally, she got one strawberry and one tablespoon of plain yogurt every day. So a huge variety of natural food, and very little formulated concentrate.
- I expected that she would develop severe arthritis as she got older, so she was preemptively given these daily nutritional supplements:
- -one capsule of Cosamin DS (glucosamine),
- --300 mg Glycoflex Classic (perna),
- --one Welactin capsule (Omega 3 fish oil mix, 20 lbs dog dose),
- --1/2 teaspoon whole flax seeds
- --50 IU Vitamin E
- --30 mg Co-Q 10 (more for her heart than her joints)
- --250 mg L-Arginine (more for her heart than her joints)
- --0.4 mg biotin (a huge benefit to connective tissue, but often forgotten)
- --Pinch of turmeric and Ceylon cinnamon
- --1/8 teaspoon of good quality hoof supplement (for horses) containing copper, zinc, sulfur, methionine, biotin, cobalt, manganese, magnesium, selenium, iodine, and multivitamin array (I can't remember the brand I used back then, but Hoof Guard Trifecta would work well.)
- To make all this work, she was kept in a separate pen with a pudgy buddy at night, and each of them were fed separately at 8pm and midnight. The rest of her little flock had access to free choice pellets in the evening when they went to bed in an out-of-sight/out-of-sound pen, and in the morning before being let out. She and pudgy buddy were brought inside for their 4 pm meal, and while they ate the rest of the flock was given access to food in their overnight pen (they were never fed in the free range area, just to be sure that she didn't get any spilled food after the feeder was picked up). A bird that is not on both BID and TID medications would not need a midnight meal.
- Since production chickens and turkeys don't perch, have extra pressure on their feet/hocks, and are not thickly feathered, they do need special accommodations to remain comfortable. Insulated, soft but supportive bedding is important. Sydney slept in a house with 12" aspen shavings on the floor for insulation. Her bed was double layered egg crate foam inside a "pillowcase" made from a waterproof mattress pad, then covered with a towel that was changed every day. There was a Sweeter Heater plugged into a thermostat mounted above her bed, so she was never cold despite her minimal feather cover compared to most Standard bred birds.
Her feet and legs were checked many times weekly, and coated with a moisturizer to keep the skin healthy. Most unscented herbal hand/body lotions will work fine, but you can use something as simple as coconut oil. As a free range heavy bird, she was always getting wounds on her feet, but they healed amazingly quick because her skin was healthy. Antibiotic eye ointment absorbs into wounds well. Once these birds get bumblefoot or pressure sores on their hocks it is extremely difficult to correct, especially if their skin is unhealthy or there are other medical problems. Healthy skin on their feet and hocks is essential to their overall comfort.
You might want to substitute a different pellet for the AK renal care that I used, as most of these birds won't have kidney issues. The yogurt is a great source of protein, probiotic, and a little calcium (she did lay eggs as well as any dual-purpose breed until she was 3 years old, then stopped cold), but was mostly used to mix in her powdered supplements, so it may or may not be essential to the overall result. She was fed a lot of high calcium vegetables also, but was never on layer pellets, and never had osteoporosis on any of her many x-rays.
However, when it comes to homemade diets with these guys, the devil is in the details, and I'm not sure what aspects of my management were critical and which aspects were totally unnecessary. In all likelihood, your rescue chickens won't be getting x-rayed regularly, so you would have no way to monitor bone mineralization.
I know the general feeding principle is right, along with weighing her weekly for monitoring, but I'm not sure if a laying broiler hen would do as well as Sydney did without layer pellets if someone chose different veggies than i did, or didn't free range, or lived in a different area of the country where the calcium levels in the ground were different. I'd probably recommend using layer pellets instead of the AK, either 16% protein (Purina Layena), 18% protein (Nutrena Egg Producer, supposedly balanced to support the free range hen, which is probably all marketing but who knows), or 20% protein (Purina Game Bird Layena, which unfortunately now only comes in crumbles, but the crumbles aren't tiny or powdery, so turkeys and broilers eat them well).
Aso, free choice oyster shells might be beneficial for most laying hens, and probably essential for turkeys (their shells require a lot more calcium -- when my heritage turkeys are laying, they sometimes eat 1/4 of their total diet as oyster shells).