We all love our chickens! This includes backyard farmers, master gardeners and chicken-keepers who consider their birds more pets than stock.
Our poultry provide us with endless entertainment, emotional comfort and food. These birds are truly wonderful animals.
However, like all pets, we need to be aware of their quality of life and plan appropriately for the eventual end of that life.
With dogs, cats, horses, etc., we typically get advice from our veterinarians on when we need to consider euthanasia. This is often not the case with respect to our pet chickens.
This article addresses some of those issues and provides useful information about euthanasia for your backyard birds.
When to Say Goodbye
As veterinarians and pet owners, we use several criteria when considering euthanasia in our pets, including:
- their overall quality of life
- when the bad days outnumber the good days
- when they struggle with the ability to eat, drink and go to the bathroom regularly
- disease status of your chicken and the risk/reward of the outcome. (For example, an old animal with a terminal disease is a different calculation than a young animal with a curable disease.)
- cost of treatment (Unfortunately, this is a reality of life, and often the price of treatment costs significantly more than what you paid for your bird.)
With food animals such as poultry, an additional consideration is the ability—or lack thereof—to produce food, such as eggs.
As noted, these types of conversations are common when dealing with dogs, cats, horses, pocket pets, etc., but this isn’t a normal conversation when dealing with chickens. With the overall prevalence of backyard poultry, though, it’s important to have an honest discussion about:
- evaluating the overall health and well-being of your flock and chickens
- understanding the options for humane euthanasia
The Flock vs. The Bird
For many poultry diseases, cures or effective treatments exist. In addition, necropsy (aka an animal autopsy/euthanasia) presents the best chance for diagnosis. The idea here is that if we do a necropsy of one chicken, we can identify the disease present and better understand how to treat the rest of the flock.
This is based on the reality that when one chicken in a flock has a disease, it’s very likely that the entire flock has the same problem. They’re all eating and drinking the same food and water and exposed to the same environment.
For example, if one of your chickens has a vitamin deficiency or an infectious disease or is egg-bound, as diagnosed by necropsy, then it’s safe to assume that your entire flock has or will soon have that same problem.
So how do you make the best decision for individual birds and/or your flock?
- Get a diagnosis (necropsy or a sample from a live bird if possible).
- Talk to your veterinarian about the potential for a successful intervention at the bird and flock level.
- Determine if this is a flock or bird problem.
This section will provide you with some background on how euthanasia of chickens is done with a focus on processes that your veterinarian or diagnostic lab may offer.
It’s important to know that euthanasia is different than processing a chicken to be turned into food. The end result (aka death) is, of course, the same, but the methods are different.
This article focuses on euthanasia and not processing. The two should not be conflated.
Here are three humane methods of euthanasia for backyard chickens.
If done properly, this form of chicken euthanasia is humane. However, this is often not done properly.
Cervical dislocation involves stretching the neck and dislocating the joint at the base of the skull. It causes the spinal cord and associated blood vessels to break.
This is accomplished by holding the chicken’s feet in one hand in a straight line from the head, which is held in the other hand. The head is advanced abruptly, smoothly and confidently forward. Part of the learning curve here involves using the appropriate strength so that the head doesn’t come clean off.
The use of carbon dioxide or another similar gas—such as argon—in a small space in the authors’ opinion is the most humane and practical way for backyard poultry enthusiasts to use. It’s technically easy to accomplish and also cost effective.
Ideally you would go to your veterinarian or to a diagnostic lab. (Often, this is done for free or for a nominal fee.) However, you can do this by yourself, if necessary.
First, purchase a rubber trashcan (~32 gallons), a rubber hose and a canister of carbon dioxide. Place the bird gently inside the trashcan (you can place two to three birds in a 32-gallon trashcan), and attach the carbon dioxide tank to the trashcan via a rubber hose. (Create a good seal at the attachment site between the trashcan and hose.)
Turn the carbon dioxide on, and wait approximately five minutes.
Note: You could practice cervical dislocation at this point to perfect this method without the welfare ramifications of practicing on a conscious chicken. There is a bit of a learning curve associated with cervical dislocation, so this would be an effective and humane approach toward perfecting this technique.
IV Injection of Euthanasia Solution
This has to be done by a veterinarian because the medication is considered a controlled drug by the Food and Drug Administration. The vet often uses a pink solution that is injected intravenously that essentially stops the chicken’s heart.
It’s not advisable to be present for bird euthanasia because, unlike dog or cat euthanasia, a catheter is not usually placed. This has the potential for a slower end result.
What isn’t considered humane/safe? Other methods including gunshots, decapitation, thoracic compression and blunt force trauma are not considered humane and/or safe for pet birds.
When deciding whether or not to euthanize your pet chicken, the biggest thing that you aim to avoid is waiting too long and, by doing this, prolonging suffering. While there is not a right or a wrong time to do this—assuming that production and economics is not your primary focus—a common mistake is keeping our pets around for our benefit instead of theirs.
The other decision is what to do with the remains. Most veterinary hospitals would be able to cremate your chicken. You would have to decide whether or not you would like the ashes back.
These options carry different costs.
Many veterinarians won’t be familiar with chicken euthanasia. So it would make sense to go to a veterinarian who has experience with birds and/or backyard poultry. Another option is to take your chicken home for burial after the procedure.
Each city and state can have its own laws regarding whether or not this is legal and how deep the burial must be. So check your local regulations.
The Respectful Choice
The goal of chicken euthanasia is for you to be able to find solace in the fact that you did the right thing for your feathered friend. There are always ethical concerns associated with euthanasia, but the goal is to use a humane and legal method to help your chicken on its way out.
Regardless of whatever you do, in our opinions, treating your animals with respect in the decision-making and euthanasia process should be based on gaining as much information from experts as possible. Among other experts, reach out to your veterinarian and even local universities to gather the best information possible.
Evan Adler, D.V.M, and Maurice Pitesky, D.V.M., are staff and faculty at the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine-Cooperative Extension. This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 issue of Chickens magazine.