You are here
Home > Lessons Learned >

When To Put Your Chicken Down

Anyone who has raised an animal knows the joy of seeing new life…and the heartache of watching it pass. I think of all the species living on this beautiful earth, we, as human beings, understand and appreciate this journey from birth to death the most. Maybe this is because of our higher level of intelligence, maybe it’s because of our length of life or maybe a little of both. That’s a philosophical question for better brains than mine. But what I do know is this; witnessing the death of a living being is absolutely gut-wrenching. And for the record, my heart goes out to anyone who finds themselves in the position where they have to make a decision – ‘should I let my friend go on or should I stop the suffering?’

And this is exactly where I’m at, right now!

Adding to my situation, is the undeniable fact that I wouldn’t be in this position if I had made different choices. The variables are a mixture of ignorance, lack of foresight and plain old-fashioned bad luck. What had ‘worked before’ blew up in my face and now I’m left in a bad place.

But here’s the catch, everything isn’t set in stone. If I look real hard, there’s a slim chance of hope. And that fact is torturing me with self-doubt. What exactly should I do?! Should I try and move mountains or I’m I fighting fate?

When it comes to my flock, I’ve come to gauge my decision as to whether or not to put a bird down on two simple questions; Are the birds suffering or is their presence disruptive to the rest of the flock?

How Do You Know If A Chicken Is In Pain?

It can be really tough to know exactly how your bird is feeling. Clearly they can’t talk to you and I think they instinctively try to hide any issues that might attract the attention of a predator or the rest of the flock. This is why it is so important for you to know your flock. Any change in individual behavior should be looked into, and sooner is always better than later.

Some of these changes in behavior could be:

  • A drop in activity – Chickens are busy little creatures. You should see them out and about, scratching and pecking and flapping as a group. So if you see a bird, separate from the group – especially for an extended period of time – you should investigate.
  • Not drinking food or water – A lowered interest in food or water is never a good thing for a chicken. We give our flock treats on a regular basis. This is fun for the family, but also helps me keep tab on the birds. If I come up with the wrong head count or a see a bird not engaging with me, (possibly avoiding the flock) I make a mental note of it.
  • Heavy breathing while inert – If you find your chicken sitting alone somewhere, possibly eyes closed and breathing heavily, you should investigate immediately. Quite often, this behavior is from a serious problem and time is short.
  • Limping – I’ve seen chickens having a very happy demeanor, hobble over to me because of a wounded leg. Discoloring and swelling of the limb will accompany this kind of injury and are pretty good ‘tell-tales’ that your bird is in pain.

Chickens + Bad Behavior

There is nothing more frustrating than having your whole flock in a tizzy because one bird is misbehaving. And while it’s always easy to be mad at the ‘bully’ sometimes it’s the bully’s fault and sometimes it’s not. Understanding the dynamics of your flock will go a long ways in helping you restore flock unity.

Let me give you an example.

Let’s say you have a batch of 14 chicks; 13 hens and 1 that was a supposed to be a hen but is starting to exhibit not-a-hen behavior. And then let’s say that because of a failure on the part of their caretaker (cough, cough, wink, wink (ME!!!)) 12 of the 14 chicks have sustained injury from a weasel attack. All of the variables are now in place for a bad situation.

Immediately following the attack, I removed the chicks from their outdoor brooder and brought them into a super secure brooder in my garage. After a ‘quick’ inspection of the injuries, I gave them food and water, then turned off the light (chickens are more docile in the dark). 24 hours later, I go out for a more thorough inspection and find that 9 of my chicks are now mobile and active. This is good!

I gathered the 9 healthier chicks up and returned them to the ‘re-enforced’ outdoor brooder and let them loose. To my relief, they immediately engaged in healthy dust bathing.

The following day, (roughly 24 hours) I felt that one of my indoor chicks was healthy enough to rejoin the flock. So I gathered her up and took her to the outdoor brooder.

### Important Note ###

Always standby and observe when introducing a new bird!

Despite the fact that my chicks were only six and half weeks old and despite the fact that the new addition had only been gone 24 hours, my should-have-been-a-hen rooster decided to try and dominate.

Within seconds of reintroducing my girl, he made his way over to her, grabbed her by the neck and tried mounting her.

At six and half weeks, neither the rooster nor the hen have any idea of what they’re doing. And to be honest, I would have not thought it possible to see this kind of behavior until at least the 8 week mark. As to what could have caused this at such an early age, I don’t know. But what I do know is, no matter how many times I swatted him away, he immediately came back. In short, he was never going to stop harassing her! Clearly this was not going to work for my recovering bird.

After removing the rooster from the outdoor coop, peace returned to the flock and the hens were soon all cozied up together preening and enjoying the outdoor space.

So who is at fault? Is it the injured hen, who was only gone for 24 hours? Is it the rooster, who was only following the instincts it was too young to understand?

As to who is to blame, that would be me; the caretaker who unwittingly (and who feels absolutely horrible about it!) managed to make a mess of things.

But regardless of who is at fault, the dynamics are set. And unless I act, there will be stress for the entire flock.

Unfortunately, I do not have the means to build a separate pen for just one bird.

But What About My Remaining Injured Birds?

By the 5th day, 2 of the 4 remaining chicks were active, and quite frankly restless, from being indoors. Sadly, the other 2 chicks were still quite lethargic. But even if they do make a full recovery, their injuries are permanent and will have a handicap for the rest of their lives.

Having been around roosters, I know how viscous chickens can be. I also know that the healthy birds will not like having the recovering lethargic birds around. Life would NOT be good for the injured birds.

Which brings me to my 2 questions: Are the birds suffering or is their presence disruptive to the rest of the flock?

There is still a little time left on the clock, so we’ll see how it works out. But keeping chickens indoors all the time is not an option. Chickens need to be outside, pecking at the ground, eating bugs and generally enjoying life. I will not keep a crippled bird indoors indefinitely simply to avoid making a hard choice.

These birds are my responsibility. I made the choice to raise them and though I did not choose to have this happen, they are still my responsibility. Their health and well-being is my top priority.


My heart goes out to anyone who finds themselves in a position where you have to consider putting a bird down. It probably doesn’t seem fair for the bird or, for that matter, you either. And for the record, chickens are incredibly resilient creatures so give them as much time to recover as you can possibly afford– at least in good conscious. But when it comes down to it, chickens are flock animals and the well-being of the flock depends on us, their caretakers.

Please take your time and think things through. When you’ve done this, you’ll know what’s right for your whole flock.