Making That Difficult Decision As a Chicken-Keeper

Figuring out a life plan for your chickens

I lost one of my chickens last week. It was devastating to find her so sick and not be able to save her.

It was also the first time I had a chicken in distress, and I tried to act as best I could in that situation. Nothing could’ve prepared me for her passing, and while it’s all fresh in my mind, I wanted to share some somber advice with fellow chicken-keepers, whether you’ve been keeping chickens for a while or you’re looking into keeping chickens.

With a small flock like mine, it’s easy to become attached to your girls. You see them every day, and you start to notice their little quirks as you clean their coop or give them treats. Chickens are highly underrated animals. Many people don’t realize they are full of personality, which was probably the most surprising — and enjoyable — aspect for me. They have just as much personality as my pugs, and because I started raising them when they were pullets (young chickens that haven’t started laying yet), they became very affectionate and sociable. They followed me around the yard, loved to meet strangers, ate out of our hands, never minded a little lap time. I often held my chickens in my lap upside down, rubbing their bellies. They humored me each time.

In an intimate environment (and not a working farm or a home operation that sells eggs), chickens behave like — and eventually become — household pets, even if you didn’t originally intend for them to be your pets. First and foremost, they are food producers. But the longer they’re a part of your family, the harder it is to let go of them.

Egg laying starts to drop after a few years, and while an elderly hen may still produce a handful of random eggs a year, her primary role has ceased. Depending on the breed, a middle-aged hen may only give you a couple of eggs each week once she reaches age 4, but you might be surprised to learn that chickens can live up to 10 years… and often more. When they do die in their old age, it’s usually due to an illness like cancer (which I’ve found out is quite common in chickens).

Being a responsible chicken-keeper means having a life plan for your chickens. What will you do once their egg production has dropped or even stopped? Will you continue to keep them as pets, give them to another family as companions, send them off to a shelter, rehome them at a farm sanctuary, let them loose in the wild, process them for meat? It’s a difficult decision to make, especially if you’re fairly new to the game. (And this is a conversation that continues to evolve in my family as we figure out our own life plans.)

I have read that the meat of older chickens tends to be tough. They’re more suitable for stewing or slow cooking, should you be considering that route. Some community food spaces, such as 18 Reasons in San Francisco, hold workshops on the humane butchering of sustainably raised chickens. You might find similar classes at local farms or health food markets.

While you can hand off this task to an actual butcher, I have always felt that if I raised my own chickens for meat (not just for eggs), I’d want to butcher them myself. I would do so with great appreciation for all they had brought into my life and the nourishment they were about to provide me. I would do so with gratitude for all they were teaching me about where our food comes from, and why we have a responsibility as humans to treat our animals humanely.

These are things we don’t often think about when we buy our neatly butchered and packaged meats from the store. In general, our society is very disconnected from our food… but I feel that if more people they grew their own plants or raised their own animals, they would look at food in a totally different way.

If you can’t bear the thought of processing your chickens, you could let your ladies live out the rest of their lives as pets. They really do deserve it for all the hard work they’ve done. Even without eggs, chickens are excellent garden helpers. They provide rich, organic fertilizer and help rid your yard of pests. They are endless entertainment. They’re not the most expensive pets to keep either, and they’re pretty low-maintenance for all that they do.

But what happens if your chicken becomes sick or injured? At some point, every chicken-keeper will need to play nurse, and that could mean a gynecological exam or even minor surgery — yes, right there on your kitchen table. Though many typical chicken ailments can be treated at home (such as mites, worms, bumblefoot, broken beaks, sour crop, stuck eggs, or bleeding pin feathers), more serious afflictions might need professional care at the vet. And that’s where the most difficult decision of all comes into play.

There aren’t many avian vets in this country, especially those that specialize in chickens (a parrot vet won’t necessarily know what’s going on with a chicken). If you’re lucky enough to find one near your home, how much money are you willing to spend at the vet… Think about it. Talk it over with your family. While most of us will spare no expense in keeping our dogs or cats alive and healthy, chickens can be a different story, especially if they’re not regarded as pets.

Sometimes, a chicken can be cured at relatively low expense but a reproductive problem means she won’t lay eggs again, even if she’s still young. Sometimes a chicken will require rounds of antibiotics and you won’t be able to eat her eggs for a while, or ever, if you’re striving to go the all natural route. Sometimes you will never know what’s wrong with your chicken until she passes and a necropsy is done.

Backyard chickens as pets is a relatively new thing, so the field of poultry testing is still developing. After the initial vaccination that day-old chicks receive for Marek’s disease (which only reduces, but doesn’t prevent, exposure), there are no follow-up boosters or new vaccinations to prevent other diseases. Once a non-vaccinated chick turns 2 days old, there is nothing more you can do for her. Nature has to take its course. Your flock lives outside in full contact with wild birds and other creatures, digging through the dirt all day, eating who-knows-what.

Should something go wrong, you have to know in your heart at what point (and what dollar figure) you’re willing to let your chicken go. It’s a harsh reality and one I’m still having trouble coping with.

How many of you see your chickens as working animals versus companion pets? How many have raised chickens for meat versus eggs? If you’ve dealt with this matter in your own experience as a chicken-keeper, please share your thoughts.

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September 24 2013      38 comments     Linda Ly
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  • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

    You made me smile with the term henopause. :-) I might have to steal it sometime!

    I also find that the circle of life is hard to grasp when it comes to backyard chickens, as they blur the line between meat and pets. Do we sacrifice them for their generally intended purpose as food, or treat them as we would a dog or cat?

    Also, your ladies are lovely and what a joy it must be to find so many eggs in your nests each day!

  • Bruce Treloar

    Hello, I do keep poultry sometimes called chickens. We consider young poultry chickens.
    Poultry can become sick from not having the correct housing which has to be dry and free from draught but the air does need to be moving out and away. If conditions do not lend themselves to good health then medication may be necessary to combat the problems.
    They have to be kept free of external and internal parasites such as worms and treated approximately every 2 months. If weather conditions have been damp or wet then I would suggest using Baycox or similar type drugs for coxsydeosis . The last is Blackhead which is similar to canker in pigeons. This can be treated with a drug called Flagyl.
    Best method is to have all the conditions perfect and then only treat for worms.

  • Isis Loran

    I’ve been following your amazing blog now for 6 months or so and this is the first time I find myself commenting.

    We are new chicken owners, as of last week, so we’ve been pondering the same thing. We’ve been eating mostly vegetarian for 5 years now (I was even vegan for almost a year) so it’s a tough decision. I can greatly respect those who do process their own animals for meat after they’ve had a lovely life in pasture and fresh air (If your going to eat meat you might as well do it right).

    We’ve yet to know the answer to the henopause question. We inherited these chickens, 8 brown leghorns but they are already 1.5 years old. We have a large acreage, I could totally see us keeping them as manure producers and weed eaters as chickens are totally useful even if they aren’t producing eggs. But who knows. Perhaps the feed bill will become too much. I don’t know yet. I find that death and killing something is not necessarily humane, but it’s also the cycle of life and of nature. I can’t think of what I would do with a deceased old hen, we can’t bury them because that will only attract more bears, cougars and coyotes where we live. What is worse to take a life and use it for soup or waste a body to rot into the ground? Oh the complexities of life that I wish I knew the answer to.

    I really admire your respect and love for your chickens. My heart really felt for your loss last week.

    Here is our ‘hello chickens!’ post :)

    http://littlemountainhaven.blogspot.ca/2013/09/hello-chickens.html

    • emash2013

      To Isis Loran, I would say If they begin or have already begun to produce eggs, that you should sell those eggs to people who do eat eggs and that money could help with your flocks feed bill. Just an idea for eggs in a non-egg eating household. :) BEST OF LUCK!

  • Jenn

    While reading your post last week, I cried for your loss. I am a new backyard chicken keeper – as in my three gals just recently started laying eggs. But I was attached to them from the first day I brought them home as baby chicks. This totally surprised me as I thought they were going to be “just chickens”. And I was also surprised with how they each developed a unique personality: the bossy Barred Rock NOLA, the sweet & shy Ameraucana Lita and the jealous Rhode Island Red Joe. I love them (is it crazy to hug your hens???) and they provide not only wonderful eggs, but lots of entertainment. I had no idea!

    A few months ago, I put thought into what I will do once they stop laying as much. I don’t have what it takes to eat them, nope. So I decided I would let them live out their lives as my pets. Granted, those silly girls will continue to work in the yard and produce fertilizer for their keep. From reading your posts, I am going to look into a vet that specializes in chickens just in case I face a similar situation as you unfortunately did. Thank you for sharing your heartbreaking situation – I feel many of us have learned from it. And one more thing… love your blog! I learn lots and more often than not, your words make me smile. Thank you!

  • Janelle

    This is very timely for me as I am dealing with a sick hen that has been unable to stand or walk for over a week now. She is not improving nor does she appear to be getting worse. We have no vets that see chickens in our area and I’m worried that it may be Marek’s disease based on what I’ve read online. She is in a dog kennel in the house and I’m wondering how long am I going to continue with this? We have six other hens and love them all!

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      I was told that Marek’s tends to be a swift and debilitating disease. But who knows?

      Have you checked if your chicken is egg-bound? My home remedy for mystery ailments is an Epsom salt bath for up to an hour (until the water cools) followed by a gentle blow-dry. Often, the chicken will relax enough in the bath that if she has a stuck egg, it’ll slide out. Or if anything, the Epsom salts will absorb through her skin and hopefully make her feel better.

      • Janelle

        Thank you for this! I will try it tonight!

  • Just Eat Real Food

    Chickens are also good for eating food scraps which keeps those food scraps out of landfills, plus digging through the dirt for insects and worms is what chickens do, they’re omnivores and its healthier for them to eat insects than it is for them to eat grains especially soy.

    Oh too, when chickens get older their eggs ducts get blocked up. Here’s an interesting video that discusses the dilemma you raised about what to do when chickens stop laying eggs, though it isn’t for the squeamish https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5_S3P0eU0lE

  • James Canter

    I am a chef and am about to leap headlong into the world of chicken farming for eggs mainly but I would also like to use the meat too. Unfortunately I am kind of a softie when it comes to dispatching live creatures. Points in this article are all great things to consider, thanks for the info it has helped.

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      I’ve read that farmers hoping to use their birds for dual purpose will often keep them as layers for the first two years, then butcher them since the meat will still be tender. But I am a softie like you. I’m surprised it hasn’t turned me vegetarian! If anything, understanding the sacrifice of these animals makes me appreciate meat so much more.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=826734007 David Hanson

    Just one day after you wrote about taking your chicken to a vet, there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about how difficult it is to find a vet that will care for a pet chicken.

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      I read that article and it’s absolutely true. (Link for anyone else interested in reading: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887323527004579081812563033586.html)

      I’m actually quite surprised by how many chicken vets we have in LA. There are three in my neighborhood in Palos Verdes (all in the same office), and another one in Hawthorne (half-hour away) that has very good Yelp reviews. But I’ve heard other chicken-keepers lament that their closest poultry vet is hours away.

      Anyone thinking about raising chickens cannot be squeamish. There will come a time when you have to clean poop off their butts, stick your finger up their vents, wrap up bleeding feathers, and other things you can easily treat at home. (And I’ve done all three.)

  • Cary Bradley

    Oh Linda, I am so very sorry for your loss. I know how close you are to them. I’ve so enjoyed reading about your care for them and their good work around your home. We have a small flock of 4 (lost 5 to predator few months ago, horrible) and sewed up gash in skin ourselves because as you say, it is very difficult to spend dollars on chicken vet. (She survived well!) Dogs and cats spare no expense, but chickens, different story, somehow. Do you have any idea what happened to your dear girl? Again, I am so sorry.

    • http://www.gardenbetty.com/ Linda Ly

      Thank you Cary. The preliminary results were inconclusive, so I’m waiting on the final report. Somehow, “inconclusive” sounds much scarier than just knowing the actual cause.

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