Dealing with death.
Sharing your life with chickens is quite fun and full of delights. Unfortunately their life is more temporary than ours, and we can’t help feeling heartbroken when they leave this world.
We’ve recently been reminded of the ephemerality of our beloved companions. We lost 3 hens in the span of 2 months earlier this year. It was hard and we are still grieving them. They all departed in different ways.
It was very sudden for Luna. She was fine in the morning and gone in the afternoon. We didn’t see it coming despite the fact that we are very attuned to our birds.
It was the opposite with Curry. There were many signs of her illness. We consulted with several veterinarians and treated her. She showed signs of recovery for a while, but then totally crashed within a week.
Sage had a reproductive issue (like many hens bred to lay an unnatural amount of eggs) and was under palliative care. Her belly filled itself with fluid, and we drained it on a regular basis. Eventually her body couldn’t take it anymore, and we euthanized her.
End of life decisions are the toughest part of caring for chickens. When she is fatally injured or ill, you need to provide her with adequate pain management. Ask your vet for appropriate pain medicines. And then consider euthanasia when her quality of life has really deteriorated, it may be the kindest thing to do.
Note that by euthanasia, I mean going to a vet and getting her euthanized by a lethal injection like you would do for your cat and dog. Please don’t try to kill her yourself. I have heard too many stories of people hacking her head off, slicing her throat, breaking her neck... It is just not humane!
Having a sick chicken is already stressful, so avoid extra stress by being prepared for the worst: have a list of vets you can go to, discuss with your family about their feelings about euthanasia, and have a plan on how to deal with her body.
This brings us to a question I often get: What to do with my chicken after she died? You can burry or cremate her like you would do with any other companion animals. We bury ours in our backyard. Make sure your city allows it and check the regulations like the depth, the distance from property lines, streams... It’s always a good idea to dig a hole deep enough (at least 3 feet) so no critter will dig her out, and cover her with hydrated lime (calcium hydroxide). There are also pet cemeteries if you prefer.
Cremation services are usually offered at your vet or animal control services. You will have the option for an individual cremation where you get her ashes back, or a communal one.
If you don’t know why she died, I strongly suggest doing a necropsy. It will not only explain the cause of her death, but also detect things like viruses, bacteria, and parasites. You will learn from it, and possibly help prevent ailments in the rest of your flock. Store her body in a fridge (not a freezer as it will damage the tissues) until you are ready to send it. Here in California, the easiest and cheapest ($20 for up to 2 chickens) way is to send it to the CAFHS (California Animal Health & Food Safety). Call them to get the instructions on how to pack the body and get their fedex number. It usually takes less than a week to get the necropsy report back.
The next step is to see if you can protect the rest of your flock from a similar fate. Fix and secure your chicken setup if it was a predator attack. Clean and disinfect thoroughly the coop if it was a contagious disease.
Keep an eye on your flock for a few days as they are re-establishing the pecking order. And spoil them a bit extra too :)
Once she is properly buried and the rest of the flock is safe, give yourself and your family time to grieve. She has been part of your family for many years and it’s totally okay to mourn her departure. You can celebrate her life by planting a bush for her in the chicken yard, painting her name on a rock, making a nice bouquet of flower in her memory... Do whatever feels right and makes it easier to go through your loss.
Life is short. Theirs is shorter.
Enjoy every moment with them.
Did you know?
The oldest chicken ever to have lived was called Matilda (at least she was the first chicken to receive the title of World's Oldest Living Chicken from Guinness World Records). She was a tiny 14-ounce Old English Game hen, and she was sixteen years old when she finally passed away. Matilda never produced eggs, which was most probably a factor to her long life. She lived with a pair of stage magicians, and had a comfortable life indoors. She seemed to enjoy being a star and even appeared on the Jay Leno show!