Though poultry-keepers are often taught how to ward off predators and how to keep their chickens healthy, end-of-life issues (and options) are often left out of the chicken-care conversations. However, being able to recognize the signs when chickens are ill or close to an end-of-life scenario is of critical importance—especially if other members of the flock may be at risk. How keepers manage end-of-life events and how chickens are handled if they pass is also instrumental to flock biosecurity.
Healthy vs. Unhealthy
Though the lifespan of chickens can vary widely by breed and care, a good estimate is that most hens will live between 4 and 8 years. However, it’s not unusual for backyard birds that have no genetic issues to live to between 10 and 12 years old.
A healthy bird should be alert, with bright eyes, combs and wattles. Its nostrils should be clean and feathers should be smooth. The bird should stand upright and be interested in its surroundings, as well as eat, drink and produce waste regularly.
It follows, then, that an unhealthy bird would be the opposite of those listed previously. It may cough or sneeze, or you might be able to hear it breathing or gasping. The bird may shake its head and have discharge from its eyes or nose, and its wings may look dirty. Sick chickens tend to wipe their nostrils on their wings. Its face or wattles may be swollen, or it may have a bluish cast to its face.
Any of these can indicate that the bird has a respiratory infection.
Though most of these signs are obvious, a sick chicken may offer only subtle—if any—clues that it isn’t feeling well. It may hide, not eat well, have lower egg production, stand oddly, have unusual droppings or be lethargic. Any of these symptoms warrant a closer look at your chicken.
It can be a challenge for a backyard bird owner to recognize signs of disease as chickens are quite good at hiding when they’re ill, especially during an end-of-life issue. “Unless the chicken is outwardly sick, you may not know they are dying,” says Jacquie Jacob, poultry extension associate in the department of animal and food sciences at University of Kentucky.
“Chickens can take a lot of pain without showing signs. The outward symptoms [the chicken is showing] will depend on the cause of the heath problem. For example, if they have a reproductive blockage or some cause of abdominal fluid buildup, the chicken will walk like a penguin. In general, the first sign of [any chicken] illness is not eating.”
Jacob notes that not eating could also be the result of having no available water. Chickens won’t eat if they can’t drink.
Isolate, Hydrate, Diagnose
So what should you do with an unhealthy hen?
Removing an unwell chicken from the flock will prevent it from being bullied by other flock members and protect the flock from what could be a contagious disease. It will also allow for closer observation of the ill bird. The chicken should be moved to a warm environment that offers protection from predators and other flock members.
While offering a chicken water is helpful, a sick chicken may require more intense management. Water may need to be provided by spoon or eyedropper to encourage her to drink. A chicken that can’t drink cannot regulate the most basic of needs, like adjusting body temperature or eliminating waste.
If possible, try to determine what ails the chicken. Though many chicken owners don’t have access to a veterinarian who is comfortable with birds, a simple internet search of trusted websites may shed some light on the problem. However, the cause of the illness may remain undetermined.
“Unfortunately, most diseases [in chickens] are diagnosed by necropsy, which is not useful,” Jacob says.
If a Chicken Doesn’t Rally
If a chicken goes more than a day or two without improving, Jacob notes that euthanasia may be the way to go. A chicken sick for that long rarely returns to full health. Though certainly not enjoyable to think about, all animal owners—including poultry owners—should have a plan in place should the animal become sick or injured beyond repair. Many backyard flock owners don’t have veterinarians who can assist with euthanasia, so the goal is to end the chicken’s life as quickly and as painlessly as possible.
For most hobby enthusiasts, this involves either wringing (not breaking) the neck or decapitation. Quickly and forcefully wringing the neck causes cervical dislocation, where the spinal cord severs and recoils, causing brain damage (unconsciousness). This is the most humane method of euthanasia for chickens at home, Jacob says. The most important part in the act is to make the bird unconscious, meaning the bird can feel no pain. Anything that happens after this (death) is moot.
Death by decapitation is often more difficult for backyard flock owners, though both decapitation and wringing the neck can be challenging for a chicken owner to do. If either of these end-of-life options seem unattainable, reach out to other owners of chickens in the area to see if they may be willing to assist when the time comes. Though difficult to think about, it’s imperative that a plan be in place, so the chicken doesn’t suffer.
If a deceased chicken is on the property—either because it was discovered or killed—something must be done with the carcass. If a hen is found dead, immediately remove it from the coop or run if other chickens have access to the body. Though it may seem like overkill, donning protective gloves to remove a feathered friend from the coop is necessary for effective biosecurity to keep the other chickens safe.
Proper disposal of a chicken carcass directly relates to the cause of death. Unfortunately, unless there are outward signs (often of predation or disease), it can be difficult to know what caused the chicken’s death.
If an infectious disease of any kind is suspected, chicken owners (even hobby poultry owners) should reach out to an extension agent, local veterinarian, the state veterinarian or the USDA to determine what should be done with the carcass. USDA can be reached at 866-536-7593. It should be reiterated that a chicken found dead should not be consumed.
A chicken that has died of natural—or at least unknown—causes can still be a bit of a conundrum as disposal of animal carcasses can vary by county and city. To get an idea of what is acceptable, reach out to a local extension agent or to the municipal waste station for guidance.
Options for Disposal
Though a chicken might seem small in comparison to larger livestock like horses and cows, there may still be local laws regarding burying it, often with regards to the depth of the local water table, location of water sources like ponds and streams, or how many structures are on the land. Additionally, the location of where electric, gas, water or cable lines can also be a concern when attempting to bury a chicken (if unsure where these are located on the property, call the respective companies before digging the hole).
If it’s determined that burying is appropriate, bury the hen several hundred feet (or as far as possible) from the coop where other chickens reside. This is of particular importance if parasite overloads, mites or lice are suspected to have played a role in the chicken’s demise. Chickens are omnivores and as such will scavenge a carcass if available, potentially ingesting worms or other parasites.
The hole should be at minimum 3 feet deep and the soil should be tightly packed around the body to prevent predators like raccoons and dogs from smelling and unearthing the body.
Burning a dead chicken in a firepit or burn pile is an acceptable means of getting rid of the carcass. Though it will smell unpleasant, this method will ensure that no parasites or diseases transfer to other chickens or wild birds.
Sending to a Landfill
Though often not an ideal resting spot for a favorite hen, in many areas of the United States, urban and suburban waste facilities allow for dead animals (including chickens) to be placed in the trash. Often the body must be double- or triple-bagged, so it’s wise to find out what’s acceptable ahead of time.
Chickens that reach an end-of-life event due to natural causes can be added to a household composter, which must be properly designed and managed to minimize odor and destroy pathogens. A dead chicken provides nitrogen, so it must be balanced with carbon materials like paper, straw or cornstalks. The correct amount of moisture in the composter is critical for proper breakdown of the carcass and to avoid any unpleasant smells. When done correctly, composting should be completed in about a week after adding the dead chicken.
Some veterinary offices will offer cremation services for a fee. Determine beforehand if the ashes will be received or will remain with the clinic for disposal. This means of removal will incur a fee.
Incineration at a university or state veterinary diagnostic laboratory (often after necropsy to determine cause of death) is the preferred method of carcass disposal if disease is suspected.
Though the loss of a chicken can be emotional, having a plan (or plans) for how to deal with the body can alleviate some of the immediate stress, allowing owners time and space to grieve.
Vaccination & Medication
While owners of other livestock are used to vaccinating their animals, backyard poultry owners are often not afforded that option to prevent illness for a variety of reasons, including lack of access to veterinarians familiar with poultry, expense or negligence of disease susceptibility.
Poultry owners should consider vaccination if they show their poultry or if they routinely introduce new birds to the flock, either from auctions or other sources. Additionally, if owners often allow unfamiliar people to handle birds, or if the flock has a history of disease, immunization should be considered. A veterinarian can provide guidance on which vaccines to administer based on the flock’s location and susceptibility.
Though respiratory diseases are common in poultry, they’re often nonspecific in backyard flocks and come on as the seasons change. Often birds will cough or sneeze, but they’ll continue to eat and drink.
Medications are often unnecessary, and the illness will resolve on its own in seven to 10 days. However, if treatment is desired, most birds can be treated with a tetracycline antibiotic, which can shorten symptom length by about half.
It’s important that only medications approved for laying hens be used and that their directives for administration are followed, says Jacquie Jacob, poultry extension associate in the department of animal and food sciences at University of Kentucky. Though these medications were previously available over the counter, they now require a veterinarian’s prescription to obtain.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2023 issue of Chickens magazine.