The Kindness of Euthanizing

Agnes had been in obvious decline for two months, but her laying days were already well over. She never resumed laying after last autumn’s molt. At three and a half years of age, she wasn’t elderly, like venerable Eleanor, but Agnes, being a hybrid (a Golden Comet) had been a highly productive layer and I assumed that she was simply worn out. Her sister, Philomena, also stopped laying. But, as summer settled in it was clear that one of the Comets was doing fine and the other was not.

In April, Agnes looked seriously ill. Her comb went from red to a dark rust color. She stood hunched. When allowed to free-range she pecked at the grass half-heartily. This was in stark contrast to her usual behavior as an active forager. I tried the Spa Treatment and it seemed to give her some relief. Her comb reddened and she perked up. But then the comb darkened again and Agnes slowed down even more.

I kept an eye on Agnes. Although it was obvious that Agnes was sick by her posture and activity level, she was still roosting. She still went out with the other hens in the morning to get a bit of sunflower seed. But, yesterday Agnes didn’t come off of the roost. Buffy needs help off of the roost, too, but this was different. Buffy’s eyes are bright and eager in the morning and she starts eating as soon as I set her down. When I put Agnes on the floor of the coop, she didn’t walk to the feeder or to the door. She just stood there. I watched her some more during the day. If you weren’t looking closely, you’d think that Agnes was eating. She pecked. But, I noticed that she wasn’t picking up food. Hens will do this. Much of their behavior is automatic. A sick hen will go through the motions. You have to be very observant to see whether she is actually ingesting anything.

In the past, I always said that I’d let my hens live their days until they die naturally. Then I started doing necropsies. What I found inside of the hens was disturbing. A chicken can live a long time with a diseased body before she shows outward signs of illness. A hen can starve to death right under your loving care. I wouldn’t let that happen to Agnes. I asked Steve to euthanize Agnes. I knew that she was suffering.

I did a necropsy. Agnes’ crop was stretched into a thin membrane and filled with brown fluid. Her intestinal tract was hardened and twisted. Nothing could get through. Her gizzard was tumorous. I don’t know how long she had been unable to digest food. I don’t know at what point in the last two months her diseased body reached the point where it went into failure, or how long she could have continued to live like that. I know that by yesterday she was suffering, but how much before that? Should I have euthanized her last week? The week before that?

I used to say that I’d know when a hen was done when she stopped roosting. Agnes proved me wrong. She was starving and yet she roosted and moved about with the flock. Now I know to watch and make sure that the ill hen is eating. When a hen looks sick, I will get out a scale and weigh her. A precipitous weight loss will be a sign that her internal organs are not functioning. I do know that I no longer think that it is a kindness to let a hen die on her own when she is obviously failing. I will not let a chicken suffer for weeks.

But, then, what of Eleanor and Edwina? They no longer scratch the ground. They no longer actively forage. But, they roost, they are social, and most importantly, they still eat with gusto. A sick hen will stand hunched, almost upright, and apart from the others. Eleanor likes to nap in the middle of the ruckus. That’s the difference.

In the past these issues never came up. For the first year, a flock of hens was kept for their eggs. By winter all of the hens were harvested for meat, except for the very best layers who were kept through to the next season. At the end of their second year of laying the two-year old hens would go into the stew pot. Those of us who get attached to our birds don’t want to eat them. We want to give our chickens a good life into their old age. The sad reality is that cancer, tumors, and major organ failures are common in older hens. It’s also true that a hen will not tell you that she’s suffering. It’s up to us to be observant, thoughtful, and compassionate. I’m still learning when the hard decision to euthanize should be made. What I do know is that it is the right thing to do.


  1. thank you Terry for this most important info, I still feel guilty about euthanizing my beloved 3 yo Red last March, am crying again reading your post but now I know I did the right thing, it is so devastating to lose a most beloved hen, I am so sorry for your lost :'(

    • One reason that I wrote this is to help people like you, to put your mind at ease when you have these difficult decisions. A hen won’t show illness unless it is very, very sick. And, few ailments, other than the contagious respiratory ones, can be healed.

  2. I’m sorry to hear about the loss of Agnes Terry. Just goes to show how hardy these birds are and what good actresses they can be! You are also lucky to have Steve to do the deed for you, not sure what I will do to euthanise a hen if and when the time comes….

  3. SS about Agnes. Sadly bunnies are the same way. They will hide their illnesses so you have to watch them closely.:(

  4. So sorry to hear about beloved Agnes! I had to read the blog in three parts because I couldn’t stop crying after the third paragraph. Bless your heart for doing the right thing.

  5. Thank you for sharing another side of having a flock of hens. We always love to hear about the happy goings on, but, it is also a necessity to see the sad aspects as well. A learning experience for all. We are sorry for your loss.

  6. She was a pretty bird. Seems so young. Makes me sad to think they are not around longer. Sorry for your loss.

  7. I’m sorry that Agnes had to leave. I get very attached to my hens, some more than others. They leave a void in the flock when their life is over. RIP sweet chicken.

  8. So beautifully put. I’m so sorry to hear about Agnes. I have learned more from your blog than any of the dozens of books I’ve read about raising chickens. You are so much more in tune to those raising a few hens in their back yards.

    I had to have a vet put down a 6 month old hen a few weeks back. I was not at all prepared for that and felt awful doing it. But you’ve given me the strength to know that sometimes, it’s the right thing to do.

    I wish I could reach through the monitor and give you a huge hug right now.

  9. Terry, so sad for your (and Philomenia’s) loss. I’ve had to have two cats euthanized in the last twelve months. I feel bad for them, and I feel bad for my loss, but I never feel bad for doing the right thing. Animals always hide their illnesses and she was roosting on the top tier! So how would you know?

    She lived a wonderful life in your care, and that’s something to celebrate. Take care.

      • Thanks. By the way, you can always see it in their eyes when they are ready to go, I think.

        • You can see it with cats and dogs, but it’s rare that a chicken has that look until after they’ve been suffering. That’s why I had to look at other behaviors.

  10. So sorry about Agnes! Thank you so much for sharing and for being a chicken keeper with kind compassion.

  11. Terry, I’m so sorry for your loss. How is Philomena doing, does she know her pal is gone?

    • Philomena has also not laid an egg since last year. In comparison to Agnes, she was looking OK, but now on her own, I realize that she, too, has issues. I have no clue if she misses Agnes, but she has been spending most of the day sitting quietly on the compost pile. I’ll be keeping a close eye on her.

  12. Terry,

    I’m sorry for your loss. It truly is the last act of kindness that we can do for our animal friends. Although it is never easy it is for the best.

  13. We had to put a hen down this year too – it was the humane thing to do, but heartbreaking just the same. We are so sorry for your loss. :-(

  14. “Euthanized” is a word I’m finding difficult to write as I feel like a murderer, but any way that’s what we did to Mary yesterday. I read everything in your FAQs about 19 times first as if that would somehow make it easier, but it didn’t, because of course the act is one you have to do yourself. We do feel really bad. Mary had been definitely under the weather for 3 or 4 weeks. She was no longer a welcome member of my little flock of 6: the others would try to peck her and she kept herself apart if she could. Then, for 1.5 days she sat on the perch in the coop and wouldn’t come out. If we lifted her out she climbed back in again but was very wibbly-wobbly. She pecked at food in my hand with enthusiasm but she didn’t swallow, just moved it around. I felt that this was the end so we did the deed. She was 3 years old, a hybrid who had until the winter laid pretty much 365 days a year. Is that old? I am so confused about when a hen is old and when she isn’t. I would feel less bad if I thought she was also an old lady. But I worry that I should have done more and tried harder.
    Silly, really, as it is too late now. Thank you for writing about the hard stuff as well as everything else. I’ve got several books on hen keeping and they are all useless in that respect.

    • I wrote this post for people like you in mind. Your hybrid had lived out her life. What you saw, in her taking herself out of the flock, and the lack of enthusiasm for food is the mark of a hen who is done. “Doing more” would only have prolonged suffering. Some of the fancy hens, who rarely lay, might last several more years, but rest assured that you did exactly the right thing. I’m glad that my experience and writing about it was able to help you and your hen.

      • Thank you, Terry, for your reassurance, I appreciate it very much. It is a mighty thing to take away a life and I suppose it shouldn’t be easy. One of my remaining Girls has chosen today to go broody so I guess the cycle of life goes on, doesn’t it. Meanwhile it’s another trip to the FAQs for me: I’ll just go and type “broody” in your search box…. xx

  15. Thank you for your kind words, Melissa, Kim, Sante Bunny, Kristen, Cindy, Kris and Denise, Natalie, Kim and Corrina I hope I didn’t miss anyone – all of your expressions of sympathy are appreciated. Agnes is not a hen I was particularly close to, but I feel a strong responsibility to do the right thing by all of the animals in my care. The experience of watching an animal decline and having to guess at the best moment to euthanize is so difficult! Thanks for your support.

  16. Animals are such stoics. I am sorry to hear you lost Agnes. You gave her a good life and made a courageous decision to end her suffering. Take care.

  17. I’m still learning and educating myself about chickens and whatnot. It will be at least a year before I even get some hens. My question is how do you go about euthanizing the chicken? I know most vets don’t really care about chickens and I, for the most part, will have to do the ‘doctoring’.

    • There are different ways to euthanize, and if done properly are quick and not stressful for the animal. Steve does a pull and twist neck break that he learned from a book.

  18. Thank you so much for sharing the details of Agnes’ end. Sending out love into the universe for you and yours. May it find you on the wings of a hen.

    • I’m so sorry about Agnes. Knowing it was the right thing can’t make it any easier. I will be watching our hens closely for any of the signs you mention. Thank you for sharing this difficult decision. My love to you and your remaining flock.

  19. A thoughtful and wonderfully written post on a very difficult topic and decision. Thank you again for sharing ALL the aspects of keeping chickens.

  20. It’s sad to lose a familar member of the flock. I had to do strike…for my “prettiest’ blue hen. And now the rest of the flock just turned five years old this June 11. Out of the original 15, I have only lost two so far. I expect a concentrated expiration in the near future, but they are all laying, looking clean and perky..even the old rooster is robust and doing his job with gusto. But I have to steel myself to the duty ahead. I have even pre-prepared some final resting sites that will be ready for bad weather or winter use if necessary. I already am familiar with that sinking feeling when seeing an ill hen. It’s part of our bargain, they lay eggs and keep me entertained, and I keep them happy and safe, and help them when they cannot go on any longer. It’s a heavy responsiblity, but I am glad to provide that personal touch so lacking in the factories where a hen is a mere unit of production.

    • Lucy, I remember when you got your flock. Fly strike is horrendous. I’m impressed that your hens are still laying.

  21. I am so sorry, Terry. I don’t think you should second guess yourself on what could have been done sooner. You made the best decision for her. We all will miss her but none more than you and her hen friends.

  22. Such an important post written with much empathy and kindness. You absolutely did the right thing. Condolences on your little hen. :)

  23. Terry, I am so sorry for your loss. Agnes lived a wonderful productive life, Certainly not an easy decesion, but I believe the right one. Thank you for this informative post. Thinking of you, Julie.

  24. Thank you for having the strength and the knowledge to know when it was time. Always a difficult decision.

  25. Oh Terry, what a sensitive lovingly written post. After such a tough decision and a difficult day. You should not second guess your timing – we do the very best we can for our animals. She had a blessed life on your farm, that’s for sure! What a pretty girl ! RIP in hen heaven Agnes!

  26. As we have discussed many times, euthanasia is an act of loving care. Necropsies help us gain information to better care for those still alive. You know you have my support and appreciate the blog.

  27. I am so sorry about Agnes. She lived a good life and was lucky to have you to care for her.

    I also want to thank you for your blog and site. Every morning when I get to work one of the first things I do is check in to see what your feathered friends are up to. I really enjoy watching them as well as Candy and the goats.

  28. It’s never easy to make that decision with any pet, my sympathies. My hugs sent your way.

    When my dear Scooter died from a sudden heart attack, within 2 weeks I had Lulu, I started the search almost immediately. People couldn’t understand how I could get another dog so soon, especially my son. My response was she needed a loving home, in truth I needed her.

    • I thought that after my late, great, Nimbus died that I would have to take a break from dogs, as it was impossible to replace her. But I found that I didn’t know how to live without a dog around. Also, I realized that the word, “replace” isn’t right. There’s a hole without a dog in the house. One fills the hole, one doesn’t replace the animal that you lost.

  29. I’m crying too. Agnes had a great chicken life in your care, Terry. That’s the best we can do for them and in their way they appreciate us for being so caring.

  30. I’m so glad i have found your blog, my husband had to do the awful deed last month to one of our Golden Comets (3 years old), she was sick for a couple of weeks improved for 3 weeks or so we thought. I picked her up one day and she was a bag of bones. I’ve been blaming myself ever since. Trying to find a cause for her to end up like that.
    I now have her sister in a crate in the garage, poohy bum for a good few days. She not eating much at all but still very lively. She is only eating a tiny bit of mash and corn. She was tucking into tuna yesterday, but only has had very little today.
    I have just given her an apple and she’s going mad with it, but she can’t just live on that, so if she has not eaten anything more by tomorrow night, i have decided to end it, i don’t want her starving to death and ending up a bag of bones like her sister.
    The whole experience has put me off hybrids, i have just got, a welsummer and a cream legbar and hope they live much longer lives.
    Thank you so much for your blog and very sorry about Agnes.

    • I’m so sorry that you’re experiencing the same thing. I have been watching Philomena, my other Comet, and am sure that she is slowly dying as well. Will probably put her down tomorrow, as I can’t hear to see her starve. OTOH, my ancient barred rocks walk around stiffly like they have terrible arthritis, but they tuck into food, they preen and they remain social. So, some hens can have decent elderly lives.

  31. Echoing others in my appreciation of this heartfelt, thoughtful post, and my gratitude for your honest sharing of your observations, thoughts, and doubts. I agree with whoever said that no matter how many books you read, it’s a whole different story when it is one of your own girls who is ill.
    Either I skimmed over this part, or it just wasn’t emphasized enough in the books I read before embarking on chicken raising 3 years ago … But I didn’t really get how short a chicken’s laying life was, or life in general. Having to face mortality, or the end of laying and what, if anything to do about it ( for those of us who live in a city with numbers restrictions) is a sobering fact of life, especially for those of us who did not grow up in the country, dealing with farm animals, butchering, etc.
    I am dreading my first death or serious illness. I feel I ‘should’ be able to do the deed myself and then fire up the stewpot, but I don’t think so!

    Once again, thanks for sharing the hard parts as well as the good times. I believe that you, and those of us who grieve over the pain and deaths of these animals that have been friends of mankind for centuries, are truly doing something to redress the evils done to their unfortunate kin in the big factory egg system.
    Hugs from me too!

  32. Oh, I am so sorry to hear about Agnes. :( I think you did the very best you could, and you should not berate or fault yourself. Flock animals in particular are masters at hiding illness.

    This was surely difficult, but…you cared for her well. You really did. *hugs*

  33. So sorry to hear you have had to put Agnes down, she was a good hen, and had a good long life for a hybrid. The hybrids just don’t seem to live as long as the other breeds because of the egg production. Barred Rocks on the other hand seem to be much hardier and I know more than a few people online with barred rocks that are five years or older and they still seem to keep going. I hope Philomena won’t fill too lonely with the others either.

  34. I’m just barely 13 and I can understand your loss. I just recently got a goat, a baby rabbit, and two litters of rabbits on the way and possibly puppies. Along with the 21 animals we already have, I’m young enough that I’ll see them all go. Thats sad to see something you nursed from a few days old, to one adopted from someone who wouldn’t have mounred their death. Terry,
    I hope you know she is greatful for what you did, for the euthanization to the care you gave her. Bless.xx

    • Jonathan, I am forty years older than you and I can’t remember the names of more than two people from my ninth grade class, but I could tell you, in detail, about the horses I rode, my dogs, my neighbors dogs and my cats. It is mature or you to recognize that our animals are here for a comparatively short time. But, I’m sure your animals will be in your heart forever.

      • And thats what is so great about animals, they can’t vocally speak to you, but you know what they’re saying. You develop a bond and that bond last both you and the animal’s lifetime.