Euthanizing a Hen

WARNING: this post contains graphic photos of a chicken necropsy.

One afternoon two weeks ago, when I went to collect eggs, Etheldred was in a nesting box. I lifted her up just enough to get the egg that she was sitting on. In doing so, I noticed that there was a mass as large and hard as a small baseball near her chest. What I was feeling was her crop, and I was concerned. After a hen pecks and swallows food, it all goes down into this storage pouch. A full crop is not unusual, but it shouldn’t feel as solid as this one did. It helps to know how the chicken’s digestive tract works to determine if something is amiss. The crop is a holding area - the organs in the rest of the digestive tract are far smaller. So, there are times during the day when the crop expands, but slowly, and as she digests the food, it shrinks. The organ immediately after the crop is the gizzard. This is where tough and large pieces of food are ground down. The gizzard is small and muscular. Chickens swallow tiny rocks, which go into the gizzard to help break down food, rather like a millstone grinds grain. (Offer grit free-choice to your flock because even free-ranging hens might not find the right rocks.) Once the food becomes mush, it progresses through the intestines. (The stomach is small and rather inconsequential.)

I kept an eye on Etheldred. She was eating and drinking. Sometimes the hen eats something too tough or large to break down and pass into the passageway to the gizzard and the hen develops what is called an impacted crop. I massaged the mass, which sometimes is all that is needed to move things along. I wanted to see how serious this was, so I isolated her overnight in a dog crate. Manure production would be telling. The next day I didn’t find any poo. This was bad. I dosed her with olive oil and epsom salts diluted in water. She continued to be an active member of the flock. She ate. She drank. But Etheldred’s crop remained too large and hard.

molting hens

I fed her a bit of bread soaked in oil. She ate it up. She roosted with the others. But her crop remained hard.

Finally, yesterday morning, she did not come off of the roost. I offered her bread soaked in oil. She didn’t eat. She pooped tiny bits of dark manure. I decided to euthanize her.

I know that many of you, faced with a hen that is huffed up, but still wide awake, and is walking, would want to do more.

hen not eating


I had a suspicion that although what I was seeing was an impacted crop, that there was more going on. I was not going to let her starve to death.

Two years ago I did a necropsy on a hen that a friend said had died suddenly. One day the chicken looked limp, and then she keeled over. It was a simple case of a crop impaction. It was obvious. Nothing else was wrong with this hen. You might wonder how the owner could have missed a crop of that size. It’s easy. Hens can be gluttons. They often don’t show distress until the very end. This is what her opened up crop looked like.

necropsy photo


Etheldred had been showing signs of being “off” for awhile. Treatment for impacted crop wasn’t working. Whatever I could do for her would only prolong the inevitable, and in that time she would suffer. I’ve cared for enough hens to have the benefit of hindsight. Steve euthanized Etheldred by breaking her neck. This is difficult. Death is instantaneous, however the heart keeps beating (those stories of “a chicken running around with it’s head chopped off” are not far-fetched).

I did a necropsy. There was an impacted crop (It’s that white ball on the left of this photo.) But there was also this – an abdomen filled with solid, rubbery yellow material. In a healthy hen none of that would be there. None.

chicken necropsy


There was no room for the intestines to function. There was no room at all. I’m not sure what I found. At first I thought that this was a case of internal laying, and that those were egg yolks that had dropped off of the ovaries and into the abdomen. But it didn’t look like other cases of internal laying that I’ve seen. Rather, this yellow mass looked and felt like fat. I’m not a veterinarian and I don’t have a lab. But, I do know this: I did not euthanize her too soon. When a hen is huffed up and can’t eat or drink, there is something seriously wrong inside of her. You might be able to prolong her life for a few weeks, or even months (it’s amazing how they can keep on going, despite the horrors inside of them) but should you? I’ll miss Etheldred, but euthanizing her was the right thing to do.

I know that this is a hard post to read and look at. If you’ve read my blog for awhile you know that I don’t sugarcoat things, and that I make it clear that backyard chicken keeping isn’t all fluff and happiness. Still, this story does veer to the most difficult part of animal keeping. But it’s important. If you keep chickens for any length of time, you will have to face what to do with a hen that looks “off.” Sometimes a hen will bounce back with a spa treatment. If so, then her insides are still in good shape. If she doesn’t, something bad is going on. It’s nothing that can be fixed. Not by you, and not by a veterinarian. These issues usually arise after the hen reaches three years of age – which is past prime for poultry. I’ve agonized over these end of life decisions and so I do necropsies to know if I’ve done right by the hen. Having seen what I’ve seen (now more than 20 necropsies), I’ve not once thought I should have done more. Often, I wish I’d let the hen go sooner. I tell you this to make your own decision making easier.

Horse Friendships

Too much is made in the horse training world about how horses are prey animals, and that’s why they’re different to train than dogs, which are predators. Yes, horses are wary and sometimes skittish, but my horse, Tonka, knows I’m not about to chase and eat him. If anything, my approach means that something good is coming his way (this time of year, it’s apples from the orchard.) Too much is also made about “dominance” and “leadership.” The basic premise of that is that horse herds are composed of a head horse that keeps all of the others in line via aggressive body language. That assumption has been debunked by ethologists studying feral horses. So, if it’s not about dominance or fear, how do we go about communing with these animals? For horses, it’s all about relationships.

In Tonka’s last boarding situation, he lived in a paddock with three other horses. They each were given a pile of hay twice a day. The paddock was bare dirt and so there was nothing to nibble on between meals. Tonka had to eat up quickly or have to defend his forage. Horses use teeth and hooves. Tonka had marks on him. This had nothing to do with herd leadership, but was because there was a pecking order due to limited resources. Horses are relationship oriented animals. Given enough food and space, they form lasting friendships. Buddies graze together, groom each other, and even stand head to tail to flick flies off of each other’s faces with their tails. But, shrink their resources and those relationships can be stymied. Other horses in his group were able to deal with this feeding schedule, but not Tonka. Tonka did not have a friend. He was too concerned about keeping his pile of hay to himself.

The remarkable thing for us humans is that horses form close friendships not only with others of their kind, but with their people, too. Tonka didn’t have a horse friend, but he did have me. His attachment was obvious. At the new stable I asked someone to hold his lead rope for a moment while I went into the barn to get something. “He ignored me” she said. “I thought that maybe this is a dull horse. But when you came back his head lifted and his ears pricked.” For the last year, I’ve been Tonka’s best friend. But now there’s another woman in his life.

When we moved to Sterling Stables, Tonka was put into a spacious, shady paddock. Next door was a grey mare named Maggie. She was very interested in this new gelding. Tonka ignored her. Tonka was now getting hay four times a day. There was no one to chase off of his pile of feed. He relaxed. Maggie was put into his paddock. There was plenty of hay and both horses have calm natures, so there were no scuffles. Still, he ignored her.



Tonka kept his distance from Maggie. He looked for me.

T and M


But, Maggie was smitten. Her owner told me that last Sunday that Maggie looked so lethargic when led out of the paddock that she took her temperature, thinking that her mare was ill. However, as soon as Maggie got sight of Tonka, she perked right back up. Maggie was lovesick.

It took a couple of weeks, but Tonka gradually realized that this grey mare wasn’t competition. She wasn’t going to bite or kick him. I arrived last week to see them side-by-side, scratching each other’s backs with their teeth. That is the ultimate sign of horse friendship.

Maggie has claimed him. When I arrived on Monday, Maggie knew that I was going to take Tonka into the barn. She tried to block me.

M blocking


Tonka said hello as best he could. Over her neck.

T looking


Under her neck.

head under


Maggie is a sweet mare. I told her that I was willing to share. She agreed to that.



It’s good for Tonka to have another woman in his life, one with a tail for swishing flies, and teeth to give back scratches, and that keeps him company for all of those hours that I’m not at the barn. It’s okay, because we’re still best friends.

Tonka in bridle

Alfalfa Update

On and off over the last couple of years, I’ve fed alfalfa from bales, and chopped alfalfa from bags, to my hens. My girls have benefited from the highly usable protein and calcium, as well as nutrients found in leafy greens.



When you feed roughage. there’s always a risk of impaction and intestinal blockage, however I feed the alfalfa as part of a balanced diet. My hens aren’t hungry and they have lots of interesting things to peck at in their compost piles. They leave most of the tough stalks and eat just the good bits. Also, they have access to grit, which is granite that’s been broken into small pebbles. Chickens eat these rocks, which go into the gizzard – that is the powerful muscular pouch where food is ground up. If chickens don’t have grit in their gizzards, they can’t digest food thoroughly.

I recently heard from a reader who found this odd pile of manure in her coop:

fibrous manure

She also had a hen that was huffed up and looking uncomfortable, although she was still eating and drinking. A day after the hen passed this manure, she was back to normal. What’s going on? I found out that the reader had recently begun to feed alfalfa. There’s a chance that the eager hen ate too much of this new treat. I was also told that although grit is offered free-choice, that the only type available at her feed store was the fine stuff for chicks.

I dispense chicken keeping advise for a living and I take the responsibility of what I say very, very seriously. I base what I say on twenty years of hen keeping experience, plus lots of looking into primary research materials. But, I could be wrong. What works for my flock here in New England, on my soil, with my coop structures and management, might not work for you. If anyone else has issues with feeding alfalfa, do let me know!

Animals IN Nursing Homes

For the last year I’ve been involved with a forward-thinking nursing home director who understands that animals can enhance, engage, and delight the lives of her facility’s residents. Ellen Levinson appreciates what dogs can bring to an institutional setting. She has two of her own that work alongside of her.


But Ellen wanted to go beyond traditional therapy animals that are brought to a bedside, and then are taken away. The nursing home is owned by a large corporation, based in Texas. Somehow Ellen convinced the accountants that bigger, permanent animals were worth paying for. The home is sited on a large piece of property. There is a field. She had it fenced, built a barn, and installed llamas and goats. Then Ellen came to one of my chicken keeping workshops, decided that chickens were essential too, and I was brought on to establish a small flock of hens on the grounds.

Ellen believes that having animals living on the premises gives the residents a sense of control. They get to choose when they see the animals and how to interact with them. Some just look. Some touch. Physical therapy sessions can take place outdoors, on a track around the pasture. There’s a destination for the exercise.

Yesterday a camerawoman and a producer from Chronicle, the Boston ABC station’s long-running human-interest news show, came to Life Care.

They filmed the hens. In this photo you can see an occupational therapist encouraging her patient to stand up to get closer to the chickens.

nursing home coop


It was a beautiful fall day and so the patients were out on the track, viewing the animals, doing physical therapy, and getting fresh air and sunshine.



Llamas are unique creatures and Ellen needed someone who knew how to work with them, so Ellen sent one of her employees to “llama school.” This is the designated handler,

llama handler


but anyone can pet Travis.

llama outside


Not all of the residents can go outside. No problem. Travis comes in.

llama in hallway


Animals bring the unexpected into a place where life is regimented by meal times, therapy sessions and visiting hours. My photographs failed to capture the sheer craziness and joy of the animals in this building.

Not only was Travis plodding on his camel-feet down the carpet, but there was this young dog in training learning to work with his occupational therapy owner:



Along with Ellen’s two goldens,  there was this shaggy fellow spreading happiness:

shaggy dog


I was taking the whole the scene in and looked up to read this banner:

perfect score


There’s a llama and four dogs in the building, and chickens and goats outside, and yet the facility gets a perfect score from the health inspectors. How wonderful is that?

The segment on Chronicle will air mid-November. I’ll let you know when it’s on.

Um, Ellen? I know all about horses :)


Every year I know it’s going to happen. The change of seasons. The trees change color. You’d think that I’d become blasé. I’m not.

Every year I’m gobsmacked by how spectacular fall in New England is.



Isn’t it wonderful to have an excuse to use that word? The colors are really and truly just like this.



Three days ago there was a torrential downpour and the trees shed leaves. Last night was the first serious frost. We’re now past peak. But fields still look like this.


Yep, gobsmacked.