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 »

49 Comments

  • Marge
    February 5, 2021 at 7:44 pm

    I have ultimately become the slaughterer and butcher as well as the feeder and keeper of my chickens. It was not, and still is not, an easy thing. However, when I imagine how terrified and confused they would get if I sent them to some slaughterhouse, I cannot do it. I do my very best to make their end as quiet and peaceful as possible. I bring each one to the other side of the house, blindfold them, and quickly chop their heads off, and they never know it is coming or has happened. I do more for my chickens than I think most farmers would do, and less than I would do for a pet. It can be difficult…

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      February 5, 2021 at 9:36 pm

      It truly is difficult! Just trying to find that balance of being a compassionate chicken-keeper but a realist that most of them are, in the end, working animals.

      Reply
  • truetexas
    June 17, 2017 at 2:21 am

    Do we think of our chickens as pet? You bet we do. We started out as many of you did with the notion we would have chickens for the eggs and some good fertilizer for our garden, but soon the original 4 we got, not even a year ago, turned into 22 chickens. Yes, 22. All of them are named for the females in our family. My friends and family think we’re crazy, and maybe we are, but our girls have brought us so much pleasure I can’t imagine life without them now. We have not had any serious health issues as of yet, nothing we have not been able to handle on our own. And yes we have thought of what will happen to them when they do not lay any more. I just hope they make it to that age and we will gladly give them a home to live out the rest of their lives happy, well fed and spoiled.

    Reply
  • Alamar
    February 16, 2015 at 2:26 pm

    Most people are excited about the possibility of having a chicken to give them fresh eggs. Yet, almost all do not think about what to do when the hen stopped laying. Then, that is when the issue comes in. This is an important topic to cover on your blog and thanks for doing so. I do have chickens and they are my pets – I don’t consume their eggs, but I do feed them the cooked eggs every now and then. As a vegan, I don’t see them as “working animals” – they are just as much valuable to me as if they’re a dog/ cat. They taught me many life lessons that no human could, and one is the ability to have compassion toward non-human sentients, starting from what I eat.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      February 22, 2015 at 3:49 pm

      Such a beautiful comment, thank you for sharing!

      Reply
  • elaine Ritasdaughter
    December 28, 2014 at 6:26 am

    my main reason for keeping chickens is for their company and the fertilizer they produce – the eggs are just a handy by product!

    Reply
  • Brandey Green
    May 4, 2014 at 8:06 am

    Also you mentioned that cancer is prevalent amongst chickens and It got me thinking. In my small town of 800, an agriculture town, many diagnosis’s of cancer spring up everyday. Perhaps there is a connection regarding the GMO usage with both humans and chickens general diet throughout most America. Has me wanting to pay closer attention to those labels for me and my pets/livestock.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      May 8, 2014 at 10:47 pm

      It’s definitely something to think about. Like humans, chickens do their best on healthful diets and exercise. It’s just as important to feed them well if we in turn want to eat well (in the form of their eggs).

      Reply
  • Brandey Green
    May 4, 2014 at 7:59 am

    I think about this often as I look at my last remaining hen from my first flock. I was not knowledgeable with chickens when I began my journey and lost all but two of my flock the first weeks outdoors after raising them from 2day old chicks. Marcaline is 2 years old. I also rescued a chicken from a terrible neglected home her name is Rosie. I am unsure of her age but after much nurturing I finally saw her lay an egg! I love these two girls the most and couldn’t bare the thought of butchering them and eating them. So when their laying days are over my companions they will be as always. Now for the others that I enjoy but am not attached to, I wonder what will I do. I am on a budget like most and feeding throughout the winter can become pricey. I don’t really want 20 non laying chickens running around with ok space for layers. I’m sure nature will take it’s course and the older ones will eventually meet another end. But until then I wonder and just take the best care of them that I can.
    I’m new to your page but have really like the layout, the simplicity of your how too’s and your general writing style. Thanks for sharing what you do!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      May 8, 2014 at 10:38 pm

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts and also for the nice comments!

      Reply
  • dee
    September 29, 2013 at 9:51 am

    I got into the backyard flock notion of egg-layers in 2005. Like the article’s author, I was totally bowled over by how my day old pullets began to develop their own personalities and became some of my most beloved pets over the following years. Every one of them in this first dozen had a name within a few days and their antics were just adorable to watch. Being a free ranging country flock, I lost quite a few to predators…learned how to build a better coop to keep out many of them, but now and then one or two strayed too close to the creek and became part of their age-old food chain. The survivors became the teachers of the new ones I add every couple of years and pass on the vital info regarding the places NEVER to go. So now, I seldom lose a single hen to a predator, knock on wood. The occasional grief of finding a hen dead outside for no discernible cause is a rare occasion…but I have recently found two who had a lingering illness. One was an Ameraucauna who had been the grand dam of the flock for 7 years and she just became more and more immobilized and I put her down in the usual fashion when she could no longer walk and no longer ate or drank from the dishes I placed within her reach under a favorite cedar near the house. It was as painful an act as any I have ever done, to put her out of her suffering. A friend once told me that people who can’t do have a pet put down or can’t do it themselves don’t deserve owning a pet. I kept this in mind as I prepared to put my wonderful hen to rest, but I bawled when the deed was done. I have since had another hen, a younger one, with similar symptoms, but she died on her own even tho my amateur attempts to address her problems seemed to be working. I think I have found the reason for the loss of these two “family” members. The hens follow me to the barn where I feed our stud a half can of wet cob and a huge flake of hay twice a day. The grain he drops is quickly eaten up by the hens. And ,I regretfully admit, I would toss a few handfuls of wet cob just for my hens to gobble up.
    In my research of chicken illness, I found a remark by a keeper that mentioned that molasses upset the intestinal flora in chickens…and caused a host of problems whose symptoms my own two girls mimicked to a large degree. I share that here in the hope that others who have hens with access to molasses might know that it is not good for chickens at all. I did add a probiotic mixture to the water source from which all the hens drink numerous times a day…Even those hens who didn’t exhibit the same debilitation but whose poop had become runny and stuck to their feathers became much cleaner after adding the probiotics to the water. I wish I had known how dangerous molasses grain was to my hens before I had to lose two of them.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      October 2, 2013 at 5:01 pm

      Thank you for sharing your experience.

      Reply
    • Automne G
      August 13, 2021 at 12:36 am

      Very good to know! I had tried to add a bit
      when nursing I’ll hen, she’s doing good for now, but certainly won’t use molasses for them again:)

      Reply
  • Linda Ly
    September 25, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    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!

    Reply
  • Bruce Treloar
    September 25, 2013 at 6:22 am

    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.

    Reply
  • Isis Loran
    September 24, 2013 at 12:57 pm

    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

    Reply
    • emash2013
      December 15, 2013 at 7:10 pm

      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!

      Reply
  • Jenn
    September 24, 2013 at 9:20 am

    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!

    Reply
  • Janelle
    September 24, 2013 at 8:20 am

    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!

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 24, 2013 at 2:57 pm

      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.

      Reply
      • Janelle
        September 25, 2013 at 4:55 pm

        Thank you for this! I will try it tonight!

        Reply
  • Just Eat Real Food
    September 24, 2013 at 6:49 am

    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

    Reply
  • James Canter
    September 24, 2013 at 7:39 am

    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.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 24, 2013 at 2:48 pm

      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.

      Reply
  • David Hanson
    September 24, 2013 at 7:06 am

    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.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 24, 2013 at 2:21 pm

      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.)

      Reply
  • Cary Bradley
    September 24, 2013 at 6:24 am

    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.

    Reply
    • Linda Ly
      September 24, 2013 at 2:50 pm

      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.

      Reply

Leave a Reply to Just Eat Real Food Cancel Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.