I’m not a chicken farmer, someone who raises birds to eat or to sell for a profit. I consider myself a fancier or a hobbyist. Yes, I do eat chicken, just not my own. I struggle with that decision, but I’m not okay with killing my own birds for food. If other folks can do that I pass no judgment on them, but I see them as pets, akin to my dog and cats.
Having chickens makes one confront the realities of life and death. As their stewards we are entrusted to make decisions in their best interests. For many of us, when to euthanize a bird is not always an easy one. For some folks, it’s about money: they can’t afford, or don’t want to pay for medications or vet bills. For others, it’s about the time required to research diagnoses and treatments, and then the time to nurse an ill bird back to health. Some people have the attitude they are just animals and are easily replaced by a bird you can pick up at the feed store.
And sometimes we keep them going, holding out hope that we will figure out what’s going on and be able to set them on the road to recovery. Unfortunately chickens are prey animals, and as such are really good at hiding any symptoms of illness or injury. By the time we notice a bird that’s ‘off’ it has often been sick for awhile and there is no turning things around.
It’s important that you spend time with, and do routine checks of, your birds to recognize signs of illness before it’s too late:
- Decreased appetite
- Lethargy, isolating itself
- Hunched appearance, fluffed feathers (regardless of temperature)
- Bubbly or watery eyes or nose
- Sneezing, coughing, raspy breathing
- Swelling around the eyes
- Swelling of, or lesions on, the comb and/or wattles
- Limping, inability to stand, paralysis or neurological symptoms
- Diarrhea, unusual or bloody poop; visible parasites in poop
- Ratty looking feathers; bald spots in an usual pattern
- Visible wounds and sores
- Enlarged crop
- Straining to pass an egg
- Droopy wings
- Prolonged period of not laying or consistently laying odd eggs
I have many broody hens. In all cases, I select what eggs I put under them to incubate. I feel a bit daunted by the power to give some the opportunity at life and others are relegated to be eaten for breakfast. Sometimes the decision is made for me: if the eggs are irregularly shaped, thin-shelled or double-yolked they are all unlikely to hatch. Maybe a hen has gotten an egg particularly muddy, or pooped on it, condemning them to the reject pile.
I prefer selling hatching, rather than eating, eggs not because I make more money, but I like to think of birds that have been given a future. I have gone to great lengths to save unhatched chicks – scrambling to borrow an incubator or slipping them under other broody hens or helped them out of the eggs myself. I have hovered over eggs for hours, cheer leading the chick on just as a mother hen would do, encouraging them to hatch. I’ve fixed curled toes and attempted to fix a slipped tendon to give those little ones a chance at a normal life.
I’ve pushed back prolapsed vents; broken and extracted a egg from inside an egg bound hen; repaired a split beak; cleaned up wounds; bathed and picked poop off dirty vents; gone out to the coop, night after night, administering meds or treating for parasites. I’ve taken a hen to the vet and worked hard to save others.
At some point, one has to admit defeat and accept that things may not get better – indeed, they may get worse. When do we throw in the towel and ask “are we doing more harm than good?” Are we prolonging a bird’s suffering? What are we keeping someone alive for? Is their current life better than no life?
We all come to these answers from different places: shaped by our spiritual, religious, philosophical or existential beliefs. For me the decision about when to euthanize is about quality of life. I know that’s hard to measure and sometimes so frustrating when animals can’t talk and tell us what’s wrong and what we can do to help them. Sometimes it’s obvious they have given up the will to live. I have had hundreds of chickens over the last decade (if you include my hatching chicks) and that experience has given me some insight into, and solidified, what I believe and what is important to me. I ask myself if our positions were reversed would I want to live in their circumstances?
I don’t believe that death is worse than a life with pain, suffering, profound disability or enduring deteriorating conditions. People can usually make those decisions for themselves, animals can’t. And it becomes our job to do that for them.
My usual position is to do what I can to assist a creature in need. If the prognosis is such that they can recover I do what I can to enable that, but if not, it’s time to look at euthanasia. We use euphemisms like cull or put to sleep, when in reality we are confronted by ending a life, regardless of our motives. If you’re like me it’s not an easy decision. I go back and forth, second guess myself, wonder if I should give it one more try. We’ll often not know when is the optimal moment to euthanize a bird, but we try our best given the circumstances (which often means not having a firm diagnosis and prognosis for treatment and recovery).
My partner and I used to have a moyen (medium) sized Poodle, Simon. He was smart, playful and a really special dog. He was also a magnet for having health issues: he ate, and subsequently had to have five surgeries to remove, foreign objects from his gut; he chewed on a stick and had to have another surgery to repair a blocked saliva gland; spear grass seeds worked their way down his ears and perforated an ear drum. We spent a small fortune over his lifetime to rescue him from the jaws of looming death, over and over.
Repeated surgeries on his intestine predisposed him to more issues. We always thought his penchant for eating things would be his downfall so it was a surprise when he developed heart issues. We were hopeful that meds would stabilize him. Several months of listening to him coughing due to fluid on his lungs, tweaking meds and watching him become increasingly crankier, brought us face-to-face with the decision to euthanize him.
Our vet commiserated with us, saying that Simon probably had more good days ahead of him – how many, he couldn’t say – but the risk of prolonging his life would be to make him (and us) live through his worst days. He suggested that we euthanize Simon while his life was still positive and not be forced to make that decision when he experienced a medical crisis. We loved our dog and didn’t want to put him through that.
We took him to the vet’s, which was always a scary place, somewhere he associated with his many procedures. Their clinic is on five acres of forest and fields. We didn’t go inside, but sat as a family with our dog in the grass and he died with us there, holding his paws, the wind blowing through his ears, knowing that he was loved. I can only wish that we could all have that kind of peaceful death. It wasn’t easy but we allowed him to leave this life on a high note.
All animals deserve the best care we can give them and when that is not possible, we can give them the best death possible. I belong to several Facebook farm groups and see a range of attitudes about euthanasia: some people’s go-to response to any kind of illness or injury in their birds is to dispatch them immediately; some kill perfectly healthy birds that don’t meet their breeding standards; while others post queries about how to help their bird who has clearly been sick, and suffering, for weeks.
I went to a small flock health management workshop in which the avian veterinarian/pathologist who was presenting suggested euthanizing a bird after 24- 48 hours if there were no signs of improvement. Some of us might might feel that’s a bit premature, but I’ve come to believe that is sage advice. I concur that far too many people take too long to make that decision: sometimes in our ignorance we are hopeful for a treatment or cure, which sadly doesn’t come. In every case in which I’ve procrastinated making that decision – I am equal parts coward and optimist – I’ve regretted not doing it sooner.
Not only do I not butcher and eat my own birds, largely I haven’t had to euthanize them. Frankly, I’m scared of botching it and making them suffer more. It’s not the kind of thing you can practice with, and not worry about not getting it right, while you’re learning. I’ve been lucky that my friend, Thomas, is both experienced and willing to help out. He’s even done some necropsies to see what was going on with those birds.
Most of us are going to experience chicken injuries and illness that require euthanasia. It’s good to have a plan long before you need to enact it. Can you go to a vet or farmer for help? Are you able to do it yourself?
This isn’t meant to be a how-to on euthanizing birds, but rather food for thought about how we care for our birds from cradle to grave.
If you are up to euthanizing your birds there’s lots of information, including step-by-step instructions and videos online. My vet advised that the best – meaning the quickest, least painful method – is cervical dislocation.
I’ve had to euthanize several sick birds. It never gets easier even when I’m sure I’m doing the right thing by ending their suffering. I take ending another being’s life to heart, as so we should.
If you have unexpected losses or are curious about what had been wrong with your sick bird I encourage you to invest in a necropsy. You’ll have a confirmed cause of death and may find out other issues that could be affecting your birds. Best of all you will have peace of mind.