Written by: Dr. Jacquie Jacob, University of Kentucky and Dr. Gregory Martin, Pennsylvania State University

Child with chicken
Child with chicken. Photo by Air Images from shutterstock.com

As with all animals, death is a part of life with a poultry flock. This fact is important to consider before starting a flock. Whether a bird is kept as a pet or a producer of food, it will die eventually. Animal welfare is an important matter at this end-of-life.

Why are end-of-life plans necessary?

Whether you raise poultry as pets or for egg production, you will face end-of-life decisions related to members of your flock.

Poultry can suffer from a wide variety of diseases that can make them very sick with little hope of recovery. When a pet or an egg layer contacts such a disease, you must make a decision about whether to end its suffering or not.

Moreover, even healthy hens will not lay eggs indefinitely. A hen that lays for two to three years can be considered a successful layer. If you raise poultry for egg production, culling can be an important tool for maintaining an economically sustainable laying flock, so you may wish to remove any poorly performing hens. When making culling decisions, you can use methods for evaluating hens for past and current levels of egg production.

How are end-of-life plans implemented?

Various methods for euthanizing poultry exist. The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) has a 2013 edition of guidelines for euthanizing animals, which includes a section about euthanizing poultry.

In a research setting, euthanasia of poultry typically is achieved by giving an overdose of an anesthetic. Because such drugs are controlled substances, they can only be administered by personnel who are registered with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Consequently, the use of anesthetics as a method of euthanasia is not feasible for home use. You may take a bird to a veterinarian for drug-based euthanasia, at a cost. Before doing so, it is a good idea to call to find out the veterinarian’s availability and willingness to perform this procedure on poultry.

Some home flock owners use decapitation when processing poultry for meat consumption. However, cutting the jugular veins is a cleaner choice for processing chickens. Commercially, poultry are electrically stunned to render them unconscious before cutting the jugular veins to bleed out the birds.

More readily available and acceptable methods include gas inhalation, cervical dislocation, blunt-force trauma, captive bolt, and gunshot.

Gas Inhalation

With the use of any gas, it is important to take appropriate precautions to ensure human safety. Gases that can be used include carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, and inert gases.

Carbon dioxide is the most commonly used gas. Using this gas will result in involuntary motor activity. The bird will be unconscious but may flap its wings.

Carbon monoxide also may be used, but even more convulsions may occur. When using this method, it is important to achieve a concentration of at least six percent of carbon monoxide quickly. Tailpipe emissions from a car are NOT a suitable source of carbon monoxide.

Some researchers have started using the inert gases nitrogen and argon, either individually or in combination, but these gases typically are not available for backyard use. Inert gases can be obtained from a welding supply shop or soda distributor. If using an inert gas, it is preferable to double-bag a bird in heavy-weight trash bags before filling the bags with gas. This procedure must be performed outside and never while alone.

Cervical dislocation

The neck of a bird can be broken manually or mechanically. It is important to achieve a complete separation of the vertebrae from the skull or crushing of the spinal cord. In manual cervical dislocation, the legs of the bird are grasped, and the neck is stretched by pulling on the feet while applying a down-and-upward rotation force on the skull. This method must be performed by someone who is trained in the procedure.

Blunt-forceĀ  trauma

Turkeys or broiler breeders that are too large for cervical dislocation can be killed by accurately hitting them on the head to cause blunt-force trauma. The back of the skull (where the medulla oblongata portion of the brain resides) is the desired target. This method must be performed by someone who is trained in the procedure.

Captive bolt

The captive bolt method of euthanasia is a variation of the blunt-force-trauma method. This method involves using a captive bolt pistol, in accordance with the manufacturer’s recommendations. The captive bolt method is suitable for large poultry, such as turkey, broiler breeders, ratites, and waterfowl.

What should happen after end-of-life plans are implemented?

After euthanasia is performed, you should proceed as if the bird were found dead. Proper disposal options include burial, composting, or municipal trash pickup (if allowed). Check to find out whether local ordinances prohibit any of these methods.