Backyard Chickens / Health

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 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.

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring—all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »