I was floored yesterday to see an article featured on one of the largest chicken keeping websites in the world that endorsed suffocating a chicken as a humane way to euthanize a sick or injured bird. I can still hardly wrap my mind around it. I reported it explaining the problem but it still remains public on the front page.
As a heads up, never euthanize a chicken by suffocation. If you think suffocating a chicken is humane but throwing a bag of kittens in the river to drown is not, then your perspective on what is humane is skewed by how you value different animals. The physical sensation each animal experiences is identical, and it’s wrong in both cases. It could even wind up with you facing felony level animal cruelty charges.
I am just floored that someone though that was OK.
So here’s some REAL information on how to safely euthanize a chicken. This is an article geared mostly towards people with pet chickens, which is something I don’t do very often… But most farmers know that they will just kill and either eat or compost a bird that isn’t in good shape. We do this regularly and some people think of us as monsters for it, which confuses me. We work very hard to make sure that our animals do not suffer and have clean, fast ends to their lives. It’s very respectful even if it isn’t as soothing to the owner as just shutting your chicken in an airtight box and going out to dinner, then coming back to find your bird is dead. And it’s much more humane than leaving them to suffer and die “naturally”. We care about our birds, and unnecessary stress or pain is the last thing we want to see happen to them
So a few quick notes on euthanasia. Euthanasia is a word coming from the Greek words for “good death”. The goal is always to reduce suffering and end the life quickly and without undue stress to the animal. What’s good for reducing their physical stress might be quite stressful indeed for the owner. If you don’t feel like you can preform the actions listed here, find someone else who will or don’t keep animals. It’s not fair to the animal to suffer because you can’t deal with ending their suffering. It’s quite selfish, in fact, to let them suffer because it’s too gross, violent or sad for you to think about. I suggest reaching out to other chicken keepers or local farmers to find someone to do the deed, even if you can’t. You’re not required to kill your animals in order to keep them, but it’s our responsibility as their keepers to find them a humane ending even if we can’t provide it.
Euthenizing a chicken may become a requirement for you if you have birds, even just as pets. Chickens are prone to many fatal but slow illnesses (mareks, newcastle, avian flu), physical conditions (egg bound, prolapse, etc.) and predator attacks that might only injure a chicken beyond healing. It’s rare that a chicken manages to live so long that it dies of old age, which means most chicken owners will face a moment when a chicken they own will not recover, even with much care and medications.
So now to get into the nitty gritty on it. Here are several safe and humane ways to euthanize a chicken.
Go to A Vet
This is the obvious one, right? If you have a vet in the area, call them and ask them if they will put your chicken down. Many emergency vets will do this too, which means if you live near one they may have a 24/7 service available. But not all vets or clinics will do this, as dealing with a chicken is much more specialized than mammals and the drugs will react differently. An exotic animal vet may be your best option.
Some things to consider; Not everyone can find a vet that will do ANYTHING with chickens which often means medical care of any sort (palliative and euthanasia included) is hard to find sometimes. Not everyone has an emergency vet which may mean waiting until a “real” vet is open, which could be a long time. Some injuries will not even survive a 20 minute car ride to the vet, and moving a badly injured bird could be quite painful for them. Lastly, the drugs that the vet uses in the chicken render it severely toxic to any wildlife or domestic animals that may try to consume it. The drugs may also enter groundwater systems if buried. Composting remains may reduce the amount of drugs that leech into the soil.
This is, by FAR, the most humane method to put a chicken down that can be done at home. The process is cervical (or neck) dislocation (or severing the connection between two bones at a joint). In common terms, this would be breaking it’s neck. This can be accomplished through a lot of methods.
Method 1; Broomsticking
Broomsticking is how many homesteaders process animals for slaughter. It’s fast, simple, calm, and efficient.
This is really easy to do. The bird is simply layed on the ground with it’s neck outstretched and a long, smooth stick (like a broomstick) is placed across it’s neck. Them in one motion, the stick is stepped on on both sides and the chicken is lifted in the air, snapping the neck at the point where the stick is.
Some people choose to restrain the bird before doing this by wrapping the chicken in fabric to hold it’s wings down.
Method 2; Snapping the neck
You can accomplish a similar result but holding the chicken firmly, like a football, in one arm and grasping the chicken’s head in your other (dominant) hand. Then simply pull away hard while twisting the head.
Method 3; Cutting off the head
This is common if you’re planning on eating the bird, but it is still fast and humane if you are not. Typically the bird is restrained in a “killing cone” or a burlap sack with a hole cut out for the head to go through. The chicken is placed upside-down in one of these restraints, with it’s head hanging down, which makes the bird dizzy and woozy. A large pair of shears, scissors, or a very sharp knife is used to cut off the chickens entire head, including severing the spine just below the head.
A quick note on cervical dislocation of ANY sort. Severing the spinal cord results in a LOT of movement from the body of the bird afterwards, and occasionally even the most well preformed cervical dislocation can remove the entire head. It’s strongly suggested that you restrain the birds for this reason. Rest assured that the bird is completely and fully dead within seconds, but may continue to move aggressively for several minutes afterwards. This is a normal function of the body as it releases the energy stored within the muscles, but it can be quite a shock for someone unused to it and can lead to people thinking that the animal is still alive. The bird is dead the moment the spinal cord is severed. This might be hard to watch but it is quite humane and instantaneous.
I like this method less than removing the entire head, as it’s slower, but it does result in less sudden, violent, motion on the part of the bird. Nearly identical to removing the head, one simply suspends the bird restrained, upside down, and the slits across the front throat. The bird is usually quite out of it from being upside down and not much of a reaction is witnessed. The bird drains of blood in a minute or two and is dead.
Now, this is illegal where I live, but it’s a seriously viable option. I don’t know much about the “proper” way to shoot a chicken, but through the head or chest would strike me as the most appropriate. A shotgun would produce a scatter shot that would put it out of it’s misery quite quickly. If guns are illegal where you live and you want to employ this, I suggest talking to local farmers and hunters in the near-by countryside.
This method is tricky. The American Veterinary Medical Association suggests using a CO2 chamber is humane only for animals only under 2lbs. While some chickens fall into this category, especially bantams or young birds, MANY do not. A larger chicken may go peacefully, but it may not pass out before the CO2 poisoning starts to cause it to suffer. A larger chicken may injure itself or knock over it’s container during the process. Use this with care.
Producing CO2 is a simple science experiment, by mixing baking soda and white vinegar. About 1.5 tbs of baking soda to 1 cup of vinegar will produce a bit over a gallon of CO2. To fill a chamber large enough for a chicken, you will want to use multiple cups of vinegar and tablespoons of baking soda. Both of these are inexpensive, so shouldn’t be a serious burden, and you can always use a lot more than you need. If you’re having trouble imagining how much gas you are creating, think of a milk jug for every cup of vinegar you use.
Place the chicken in a container large enough to hold it comfortably. A dark room may reduce the activity of the chicken. The container must also be able to be sealed to nearly air tight. Then simply add the vinegar and baking soda and seal the container. The chicken will pass out and then die within 30 minutes. Larger chickens may need more time. Use this method with caution, and remember that CO2 can also poison you, so take care.
For Chicks Only!
Two common methods for euthanizing baby rodents may also work well for chicks, but please do NOT attempt these on birds older than about one week. That would be cruel and inhumane, not to mention ineffective.
Method one; Freezing
A small animal that can’t retain it’s own body heat well will die very quickly (within a few minutes) in a very cold environment. A metal cookie sheet in the freezer is a good way to simulate this safely and encourage the transfer of cold into their bodies. This takes multiple minutes, and so isn’t ideal, but is more humane than allowing a chick to suffer long term.
Method two; Whacking it
Placing a chick in the bottom corner of a plastic bag and then hitting that bag VERY firmly (with NO hesitation!) on a table, wall, or other hard surface will kill the chick instantly in several different ways. This comes across as very violent, but it’s very humane for the chick, resulting in an instant death with no suffering. Following through is important, since a hit that is not hard enough will not kill the chick. Many people do this to euthanize mice or rats before feeding them to reptiles by swinging them by their tails.
So that’s it. That’s my list of humane ways to euthanize a chicken.The name of the game in humane euthanasia at home tends to be speed, since we do not have large numbers of chicken-appropriate opiates to fill them with before giving them a lethal injection the way a vet does. A few seconds of suffering is a humane end for a bird that may otherwise die slowly over minutes, hours or even days.
Please be responsible and use a humane method to euthanize your chickens. And remember that if you cannot bring yourself to do one of these things, someone else in your community may be willing to help you out. Best of luck!
PS; Here is a great PDF by the AMVA about the actual national standards for euthanasia!