If you keep any animal at some point you’re going to have to deal with life and death issues. It’s rare that our pets die a peaceful death in their sleep alleviating us of any decision making about their end-of-life care. I have owned cats and dogs all my life and have been confronted by their impending mortality and when to ease them along. In every case, I have opted to have them euthanized by my veterinarian, and I hope, not later than necessary.
Euthanasia of pets has certainly improved since I was a kid. Our current vet makes house calls or opts to euthanize pets outside their office. Several years ago our poodle was suffering from heart disease and we knew it was only a matter of time before he would get worse and potentially require veterinary intervention. Our vet advised us that Simon probably had more good days ahead of him, but knowing that his condition was terminal he preferred not to wait until his condition was critical. We didn’t make him spend his last moments inside the examining room, which for him held stressful memories. My family sat out on the grass at the edge of the forest while our vet administered the drugs. Simon died a peaceful death with the wind blowing through this fur and his loved ones around him. I would wish that kind of death for everyone: no fear or pain and the alleviation of suffering.
The word euthanasia comes from the Greek words meaning ‘good death’. For many folks new to chicken keeping they are unsure when is the right time to euthanize a bird. From the posts I see on Facebook chicken groups I think most wait too long. A couple of years ago an Avian Veterinarian/Pathologist advised me that if a bird has not demonstrated some clinical improvement after 24 hours then to consider culling. I thought that was a bit hasty at the time, but I have subsequently conceded to her wisdom.
I am equal parts optimist and coward and fear I have made some of my birds suffer, unduly, because of my indecision. My advice is to euthanize a bird in the following cases: if it is suffering and is unlikely to recover; if you’ve intervened and there is no improvement after 1-2 days; if the bird is carrying a contagious pathogen for which there is no cure.
Whether you keep chickens for meat or as pets, at some point you will be faced with ending their lives. There are many ways to dispatch chickens, but not all of them are considered humane. Regardless of the reason, the method should always be fast, painless and avoid any further suffering.
Canadian Veterinary Medical Association position statement: “The animal must be rendered irreversibly unconscious as rapidly as possible with the least possible pain, fear and anxiety. The preferred methods used to achieve this are those that affect the brain first, followed quickly by cessation of cardiac and respiratory function. The experience, training, sensitivity, and compassion of the individual carrying out the procedure are critical”
The following methods are most commonly practiced as humane forms of culling chickens.
This is the technique that my vet would employ to dispatch a chicken. It is the simplest method in that it doesn’t require any tools and causes unconsciousness quickly when done correctly. (Of course, the proviso is ‘correctly’. How do you practice without causing any suffering to your first test subjects?)
Cervical dislocation causes unconsciousness by stretching the neck and dislocating the joint at the base of the skull. The spinal cord snaps and the resulting recoil causes brain damage and unconsciousness through concussion. Blood vessels are broken resulting in oxygen deprivation and death. Dislocation farther down the neck will not be as quick and effective.
- Tilt the birds head back so it points towards its tail, which aligns the joints making dislocation easier.
- Firmly push the head away from your body until you feel the head separate.
- Pinch just behind the head to ensure that the head has separated from the neck. You will feel a gap like there are two layers of skin between your fingers.
- The bird will convulse and go into spasms, which is the normal result from the loss of central control over the muscles. The movements do not mean the bird is conscious or suffering.
- Broom sticking is how many homesteaders process animals for slaughter. It’s fast, simple and efficient.
- The bird is simply laid on the ground, face down with its neck outstretched and a broomstick is placed across its neck.
- The stick is stepped on both sides and the chicken is lifted upwards by the feet, snapping the neck.
- Some people choose to restrain the bird before doing this by wrapping the wings.
- Don’t put too much weight on the broomstick or stand on it too long or you can cause unnecessary pain and stress.
Decapitation is an effective, humane method of dispatching a suffering animal. It is very quick, with unconsciousness usually occurring within 15-20 seconds. When the spinal cord is cut spinal fluid is released causing unconsciousness.
The loss of blood flow results in a quick death. The head should be completely removed or the bird may remain conscious until the oxygen in the brain runs out up to four minutes later. Bleeding out is not considered an acceptable method of killing a bird by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association). If you want to bleed a bird (i.e. for slaughter), you must make it unconscious first.
- Blades must be sharp in order to remove the head in one cut.
- Blades or the scissors must be large enough so that the head is removed in one motion.
- Scissors/loppers are easier to manage than knives and axes.
- If using an axe you can place the bird on a stump with two nails driven in about an inch apart to hold the head securely.
- A bird can be placed upside down in a ‘killing cone’ mounted to a tree. A large pair of shears, scissors or a very sharp knife can be used to cut off the chicken’s head, severing the spine.
Severing the spinal cord results in a lot of post-mortem movement from the body. If you are squeamish I’d recommend restraining the bird to minimize flapping. The bird is completely dead within seconds, but may continue to move for several minutes afterwards. This might be hard to watch but it is quite humane and instantaneous.
Of course there are other methods, some more humane than others:
- Overdose of prescription barbiturates (administered by a veterinarian).
- If you have a young bird you can make a C02 chamber using baking soda and white vinegar to cause asphyxia. Veterinary Associations advise only using this method on animals under two pounds.
- Captive bolt devices and guns are fast and effective. The shot should be aimed at the brain, between the bird’s eyes and ears.
- Blunt force trauma to the head works if your aim is good and you have applied enough pressure on the head to kill the bird instantaneously.
- Inhumane methods include: drowning, freezing, ‘helicoptering’ (holding a bird by the neck and spinning it around in order to break the neck) or using car exhaust.
I am the first one to admit that I have a difficult time, not with the concept, but the hands-on practice of euthanizing a bird. Even when I believe it’s to alleviate their suffering I still struggle with making the decision and feel a bit queasy once done. I have only euthanized a few birds over many years: using the scissor method with young birds and once with an axe on a mature hen. I have been fortunate that I have friends that are skilled and willing to help out when it comes to euthanizing my sick birds. I know that their lives have been ended quickly, with respectful and compassionate care.
I’ve seen workshops offered for small flock keepers on how to humanely euthanize a bird. If available in your area consider taking it or find a farmer who can teach you what to do. If you don’t feel like you’re up for the task, please don’t let your bird suffer. Take it to a vet or find someone who can provide that service for you.
Featured Photo: Two Oaks Farm