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Your Chickens Don't Need Sweaters And Other Winter Animal Myths

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As more and more people get into chicken keeping, living outside of the city, having indoor/outdoor pets here in Colorado, a number of myths and memes are popping up that need addressing. Here's just a few of the ones pertaining to animals.

MYTH - Chickens need sweaters.

One of the fun little memes running around Facebook right now is a picture of a flock of chickens in sweaters specially made for them. It joins the the chicken capes as one of the most shared links to patterns among the crafty and/or homesteading crowd. But there is no need for it.

The average chicken does not need a sweater. If you're in a cold area, take a look out your window at the birds, the squirrels. Looking rather large these days, aren't they? It's because they have "puffed" themselves up. Both the squirrel and the finch have an extra layer of protection - a squirrel has an undercoat of fur it can fluff up, and the finch has an underlayer of fluffy feathers it also fluffs up, both trapping air warmed by their bodies, creating a layer of personal insulation.

Your chicken can do that too. In fact, on the coldest nights, your chicken will nearly double its size my spreading its wings slightly and fluffing up all their underfeathers. They end up looking like a giant ball of feathers with feet and a tiny head. They are quite warm.

A sweater not only keeps the chicken from spreading their feathers, it can also damage them, and in time completely mess up a chicken's ability to self regulate their temperatures. Even with a molting chicken or a picked on chicken who is missing a number of feathers - they can still regulate their temperatures; they will snuggle down in a nest of straw or put themselves in the middle of the other hens. (I'll talk more about hens and cold weather in my next article.)

So, if you want to make a silly hat and sweater for your chicken, take pictures and share them around, then do so. But take that sweater back off when the photo shoot is done and let the hen do what comes natural.

MYTH: If you're cold, your dog is cold.

Unless you have a tiny breed, a short haired breed that burn a lot of energy like a chihuahua, or other dogs that are really affected by temperature changes, this isn't true. It's another meme currently making the rounds, and it does serve its purpose to remind people to care for their pets. But your dog is not always cold when you are. Just like the squirrels, the finches and the chickens, a dog that lives outside a good deal of the time will grown a nice thick undercoat that helps keep him warm. That's why it can be below freezing and you can still see a dog laying out in the sun panting - that dog is too warm!

Of course, you do still want to bring your dog in during a blizzard or heavy snow storm, or at night when the temps are below freezing. Or provide an option for the dog to get in out of the weather - a decent dog house with a thick layer of straw and a door flap to keep the weather out can go a long way.

But assuming your dog is feeling the weather the same as you does them no favors as well. Just like for chickens, constant sweater wearing can cause a dog to be unable to regulate their own temperatures. The only exception to this is in areas of higher humidity and ice; if your dog has soft pads, specially made winter dog booties can help his or her feet. Be sure they are waterproof; a fleece bootie may look cute but it is only going to get wet and and cause more damage to your dog's pads.

This advice applies to cats as well - indoor/outdoor or purely outdoor cats need a specific pace where they can go to be warm as well. Barn cats are particularly adept at finding a warm place to be. Just be sure they have plenty of food and fresh water, even if you don't see them for a few days.

MYTH: The wildlife are starving in the winter - we must feed them!

No, no, no. While it is awesome to look out the window and see all the different winter birds at the feeder, watch the squirrels, see deer and elk wander through the yard, feeding them does them a great disservice and can actually cause the death of those animals you love to watch so much.

Animals in the wild know how to find food. Even in the worst winters, when you hear stories about ranchers losing cattle and snowfalls of 5, 6, 7 feet at a time, the animals do manage to get through the winter. Some of the animals will go into a state of semi hibernation - squirrels, rabbits, beaver, skunk all do this. During a cold spell, you may not see them at all. They have nice warm nests they go to, and as mentioned above, they all have their winter coats and are keeping themselves nice and warm.

Deer and elk will go to sheltered areas they know about in storms and lie down close together, sharing body warmth. birds will also find sheltered spots, and huddle together as well. You will often see bird and deer together; as the deer paw away the snow to find grasses and such buried, the birds follow in their paths, picking up seeds and fallen bits too small for the deer.

But when you put out a bird feeder, you are teaching the birds that there is an easy source of food they do not have to work for - and of course, they will flock to it. You are overriding their natural instincts to fend for themselves. And you have now taken on an obligation to feed these birds all winter - you can NEVER let that feeder run empty, or you may well be responsible for the deaths of all that came to that feeder.

This goes for the squirrels, rabbits, deer, elk - all other wildlife you may feed. You are subverting their natural instincts and abilities to find their own feed. Animals that would normally spend the colder days asleep in their nests and holes are now out looking for the easy food from you.

And this bring predators to your back door - small ones like fox, coyotes, raccoons, skunks, and even the larger ones like mountain lions. This can put not only the wildlife at risk, but your pets, your livestock, your family at risk. A hungry mountain lion does not care where the food comes from, as long as there is food. And like every other animal, they will go for the easiest source - the animals flocking to your back yard for the free meals you offer.

In very bad conditions, where the snow is deep and shows no sign of melting soon, the Department of Wildlife may choose to go out to specific areas and lay down hay and other feed to preserve the deer and elk herds, much as a rancher does with his cattle. But this is through long and professional observation of the herd, it is not done near residential areas, and is done only as a last resort to keep a herd from starving to death.
Feeding the wildlife s best left to the professionals.

As in all winter things, use common sense when dealing with your domestic animals. Your dog really shouldn't be out for more than a few minutes at 20 below, and your livestock need extra care during that time as well. Just don't overdo it.

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