Humanely Euthanizing a Chicken

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.

Cervical Dislocation

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.

Bleeding Out

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.

Shoot It

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.

CO2 Chamber

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!
https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Documents/euthanasia.pdf

 

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6 thoughts on “Humanely Euthanizing a Chicken

  1. Thank you for posting such a necessary correction. We do something similar to the broomstick, but my husband just uses his foot to hold the head in place and then pulls up. This does usually remove the head, but it is very quick and the bird is calm at the time. I applaud the bravery and honesty of your site.

    • Those of us who raise animals for food, especially on a small scale, think a lot about how to handle our animals humanely. It gives all of us a bad name when someone is cruel to animals whether the person has four hens or a multi-thousand chicken farm. Thank you for the compliment. It means a lot.

  2. Freezing and whacking cannot possibly be considered “humane” options. Putting the head of a chicken under one’s foot and pull may be quick but, seriously… The only humane option is to not create any fear/stress for the animal. Think about the way you would like to die and I doubt you will choose one of these three! This is as simple as this. Any human I know would choose to die in their sleep. Animals are not different from us. So from this perspective using gas is probably the best option IF the proportions you use are proportions you are absolutely sure about. I will always remember the gasping of the two day old chick I had to euthanized because of wrong proportions presented on the web. This image will be with me for life. The life of a chicken may not be as important to you. It is to me. Now if you would like to die with someone putting their boots on your head and pulling your legs, go for it, but I doubt it will be your first choice…

    • Hello. I understand your concerns about these methods. For people unfamiliar with the science of euthanasia and death they may seem rather startling. However, I fear you may be allowing a strong emotional reaction to color your views on the subject. For starters, you seem to have misread several things. Nowhere in my post do I suggest stepping on an animal. You may want to take a moment to re-read and genuinely research the suggestions made.

      Death and pain are recordable phenomena and we understand very well how they work. Unfortunately, gassing an animal produces more pain/stress responses for a longer time than any sudden physical trauma. Adrenaline levels of animals that are gassed are much higher than that of animals that undergo significant physical trauma for example.

      For the misread portion, broomsticking requires a broomstick, a light wooden pole that on it’s own simply resting on the neck of an animal causes no fear or stress at all. This is not comparable to stepping on an animal with a broad shoe carrying a lot of weight. The stepping comes from stepping onto the stick and lifiting back in a smooth and simple motion that separates the spinal column in seconds. Severing a spinal cord is an extremely humane way to deal with an animal and causes less stress and suffering than many other ways of administering death.
      Imagine for a moment if you will that someone you trust simply asks you to lie down and places a stick over your neck. This is not something I would be scared of or stressed about and I can assure you that animals that are handled gently and with kindness usually react very calmly to this. I have timed this method and from the first pressure to the neckbones severing it is about 2-3 seconds. It takes about 2 seconds for our bodies to register a conscious response to stimuli, which means fear and pain are only experienced for about 1 second or less. Frankly, yes, I would be very comfortable with dying this way. Simply lay down, close your eyes, and almost before you can register a change it’s over. That seems like it would be very comfortable to me, particularly if I was otherwise going to die anyhow.

      I also agree that freezing has it’s drawbacks, however, we also have lots of reports of people who have experienced severe hypothermia. Typically as their body enters a too-cold state they simply go numb, tired, and feel warm despite the cold. They typically die, as you say, peacefully in their sleep.

      As for the last method of severe impact (“whacking”), when done correctly as to cause immediate loss of consciousness you may consider comparing this to a car accident in which the people involved died instantly. I would also find a death of sudden impact without warning to be an acceptable method of passing.

      While I can understand your hesitation, from the study of death these are all very humane methods of euthanasia when preformed correctly. Stress levels in the bodies are lower than with many other methods of administering death and death comes on more swiftly than in other methods, and these are scientific facts. I can understand your strong emotional response to them, however when considering the comfort of the animal involved your own personal comfort with any given method should not be a factor beyond your own ability to carry it out. As you say, the goal is to make sure the -animal- experiences no stress or fear, not that the owner experiences no stress or fear.

      I strongly suggest that anyone considering euthanizing an animal do careful research and make sure it’s preformed correctly. When done right, all of these methods have been scientifically proven to be acceptable low-stress methods for euthanasia.

      • Thank you for your response. You did not speak about stepping on the animal. And I did not say you did. A reader did, responding to your broomstick method. So I was responding to your text and theirs. My apologies if you thought I was misreading your text, that I read very cautiously. And my gratitude to you for writing this text and taking the time to explain and respond as it opens a so needed discussion.

        I was not reacting with a strong emotional response as you suggest but objectively and honestly.

        Did you actually lie down and asked someone to put a stick behind your neck? I actually did and tried this with several people. All of them got instantly a very wary feeling.

        For the whacking, what would happen to your level of adrenaline if you were put in a bag and suddenly lifted in the air? And how many people do you think will actually hurt the chick before killing it this way because they are inexperienced?

        I have witnessed several death using anesthetic and mixed gas at my local vet, every time the animal looses consciousness and does not wake up. No visible pain. But this only if the right proportions are known and used. If not, the animal will lack air, gasp and experiences pain (from CO2 poisoning for instance). There is an article here about gas and small animal euthanasia that I attach to open the discussion: http://www.alysion.org/euthanasia/. I am not saying that it is the way to go. I am sending it for discussion if someone knows more, please let us know.

        Freezing, makes you numb after a while. Is it comfortable for a chick to be freezing slowly to death? Is it a death you would choose for you? I wouldn’t. I don’t see it as humane at all.

        Ultimately it is the status we give to animals and the sincerity we use towards ourselves that makes us choose the right practices.

        I would choose gas with the right proportions, confirmed by a caring vet at this stage and would make sure that the animal will become unconscious before experiencing stress or pain.

        Regardless of the method, one should NEVER attempt to kill an animal if not 100% sure that one is doing it humanely and knows what they are actually doing in my opinion. And I am the first to blame and will be much more thorough in my research before I have to do it again.

        The more we speak about animal euthanasia, the more we also have a chance to bring to light practices which are absolutely atrocious and presented as humane options on the web. Someone was, for instance, putting their chicken in a cage, covered with a blanket, behind the exhaust pipe of their car and would go and drink a cup of coffee until it is done. They called it humane.

        I am not even speaking here about the reasons WHY we choose to euthanize an animal. This is again another very needed conversation.

        Thank you again for opening a space for this conversation to happen.

        • Sure. Let me put this into context. This article was written geared towards pet chicken owners. Personally, I am a farmer, but I have also been a life-long pet owner. I will also get a little personal here; I have depression and when I was a teenager I spent an unhealthy amount of time considering ending my own life. It was also fairly recently that I watched my mother die of cancer, literally begging daily for someone to end her suffering (which is illegal in my state). So when I talk about the death of a beloved animal or my own untimely demise or even the death of another human being I take it VERY seriously and I am VERY honest about it. Given how close I came to making the choice of how I would die during my teenage years, you can rest assured there’s no dishonesty there.

          The presumption of this article is that you are not a farmer, like me, processing some spare rooster to eat but that you are a pet owner trying to spare an animal a continued life of pain. This means that, for the purposes of this debate, the animal in question is sick or injured beyond recovery or otherwise dying and that the experience of life is painful for the animal on some level that requires intervention. For the sake of this debate it’s also worth noting that my top choice is going to a vet. A professional, chemically-induced end is always going to be for the best. But needing another option is a common experience among chicken keepers as few vets will see and treat chickens.

          So with that in mind; all things must be observed as relative. You asked your friends to lay a board against your neck… Not if they would be OK with a little social experiment where -they- simply layed down and you placed a board on their neck and then they could get back up. I would be happy to record endless hours of videos of or photos of my dogs with 2x4s lying on them looking bored if you’d like a more solid example of how this is not a frightening experience.
          Personally I lift my animals and lay strange objects against them all the time. Sometimes those things even cause discomfort or hurt such as when I use a needle to give a shot or make a tattoo marking. This is a requirement for good husbandry, handling your animals regularly, giving medications, trimming nails, all of these things require doing strange things that our animals have no comprehension of and are about as frightening as the proposed situation. Your anecdote isn’t reflective of the reality of the situation. There’s no fear from the animals I have observed. I am a farmer ultimately, and I process rabbits and chickens with cervical dislocation on a regular basis. Because of how they are socialized, I place the rabbits on the ground and they begin to eat the local plant life almost immediately. I place the stick over their neck and they don’t even stop eating long enough to bother moving away. They frankly just don’t care. It’s over so quickly it’s hardly noticed. If that’s inhumane, so be it. Sign me up for that sort of inhumane end. In fact, I’m so confident of how good my care with broomsticking is that I invite people to my farm to learn to humanely process animals from live to table.

          High impact trauma is a lesser option in that it does take a moment (several seconds) longer in a frightening situation. You are more likely to mess up if you don’t follow through which is part of why this is ONLY suggested for chicks. The amount of force in the strike needed to render a chick unconscious is relatively small. In a larger animal this is too difficult. I admit, it has it’s drawback in the prep time, a drawback that is not seen in cervical dislocation and therefore cervical dislocation is always inherently superior if a vet is unavailable. However, as you say the reasons why we euthanize also matter. If for some reason CO2 is unavailable this is still going to be less inhumane than allowing a chick to suffer long-term over hours or days and therefore it has a place of this list.

          For dying of freezing… I have already explained that people who have experienced nearly dying of the cold have said that they found it to be a strangely peaceful experience. While I can imagine it would be frightening at first, again, I am presuming this is an animal that is suffering and has no professional options. Again, with a large animal this is worse than with a small animal. Larger animals are more likely to injure themselves, and will take much longer to pass away. Given reports from human beings of the physical sensations experienced being moderate and tolerable, I feel this is an acceptable option even if it’s not also ideal.

          That webpage you linked to has a great article on CO2 for small animals. However, it notes right in the article you cite that it’s only suggested for animals under 2lbs (a note I made in my own article). That is insufficient for the average adult chicken, and many younger birds as well. Even a very light breed such as a leghorn weighs in at 5lbs for adult hens. For most chickens, CO2 is not an appropriate option so other options MUST be made available.
          For small chickens, it may be that that the owner does not have the appropriate air-tight equipment on hand and the chicken is actively dying, say, of an injury. In these cases high impact trauma or freezing are more than appropriate.

          I agree that some methods are inappropriate. The car exhaust one would be CO2 poisoning, but the experience of the car would be stressful at best. Given that they clearly had the equipment to use CO2 in home (a sealable box of appropriate size) I would say that it’s not an appropriate method to use. The person in question had other options that were less stressful.

          I always feel as though broomsticking is the best option if CO2 and a vet are not an option, but as you say and as *I* say, you shouldn’t preform something you don’t think you can do. Using a boot to remove the head of a chicken is a form of cervical dislocation and done carefully and swiftly can be as effective as broomsticking but the presence of a boot coming down is going to be more frighting than that of a simple stick. But if you feel confident with that and very unconfident with broomsticking it may be a smoother, safer end for everyone involved.

          Ultimately, how someone chooses to preform these actions is going to be very personal and based on circumstances. I try not to judge too harshly about the method as by the time comes that you have to put an animal down you have already reached a point where you are stressed and the animal is unwell. But if you can choose to make it a better end, if that option is available to you, you should take it and all this article is here to highlight are some options that might be better than what the average person has thought of.

          I think we’re ultimately on the same page, but perhaps have different ideas of what acceptable tolerance limits are. I wrote this because suffocation was presented as a viable option on a major chicken keeping site, and I think every single one of these options is more humane than that. I also think every single one of these options is more humane than allowing a chicken to suffer long-term and has a minimal impact on the animal. Indeed, if I had to pick one to remove it would be bleeding out as the slowest and the most pain inducing.

          Each chicken keeper has to make a choice based on their own experiences and situation. It was merely my intention to provide a series of options that were not-awful to make it happen. People should pick the option that they feel best able to carry out and will cause the least stress to the animal, and this will be very dependent on circumstances.

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