End Of Life Decisions

Maizie was not a friendly bird. She started off life as a mail order chick. She and about two dozen peeps arrived at an urban farm to be used in their educational program. By the time I got her as a pullet, she had had it with humans. I understood and let her be. She was bossy, but she was beautiful, and she laid eggs steadily for three years. Since last winter, though, she hadn’t laid a one. I kept her with the flock of old, retired hens.

She’s a bird I didn’t interact much with, still, I knew her well; she’s been in my flock for four years. A few weeks ago I noticed that she didn’t carry her tail with quite as much aplomb as usual, and she wasn’t the first into the morning scrimmage for corn. This isn’t uncommon with older birds. They get arthritis. They slow down. But about two weeks ago it was clear that something was truly off. She had runny manure stuck to her usually pristine fluffy vent feathers. I didn’t see her scratching in the compost. Then this week she took a turn for the worse. Maizie stood aloof, in a tail down, upright stance – a bit like a penguin. A healthy chicken’s head is at one point of a triangle, the tail at another. A sick chicken stands more upright. Maizie’s abdomen felt like a water balloon. For the last few days, when I picked her up, brown fluid poured out of her beak. Every morning I expected to see her dead, and yet there she was, standing with the flock. It is a tribute to what a bossy hen she was that even in this state the other girls didn’t bother her. Finally, two days ago she stopped roosting and so I put her into a straw-bedded private coop.

I could tell by posture and behavior that Maizie was not well. But, beyond that with a chicken, it is impossible to know what she was experiencing. I’ve had chickens with gaping wounds that acted as if nothing was amiss. I’ve had chickens with oviduct blockages that didn’t show any symptoms until a few days before death. Some might call it stoic, but that implies a conscious decision to overcome adversity. I think that a chicken divorces herself from illness and just keeps on ticking. They are hurting – that’s why they’re moving differently – I know there is pain. But how they register it not known. Chickens have an innate reaction to disease. They act as if nothing is wrong for as long as is physically possible. After all, if you live in a group with a pecking order that can become lethal if it becomes disturbed, and when you are on every predator’s dinner menu, you don’t show weakness.

Maizie died yesterday. Since she hadn’t laid an egg for a long time, I doubted that it was an oviduct or internal laying problem. I guessed that she had peritonitis, or some similar infection. I did a necropsy. I was right about it not being a reproductive issue. I was wrong about it simply being an infection of some sort. Maizie’s intestinal tract was twisted and tumorous. Organs were distorted and discolored. She had cancer. I’m sure she’d lived with it for a long time.

In the end Maizie was terribly skinny. She had not a bit of yellow fat anywhere in her body, and her flesh was a thin sheet on the bones. I hadn’t realized that she wasn’t eating because up until this last week she moved with the pack, roosted and came out to see what I had in the compost bucket. I’ve always thought it was a kindness to let my chickens live out their days to the very last, but I’m rethinking that. The next time one of my old chickens looks “off” I’ll be more observant. When other, serious symptoms appear, I’ll hand feed the hen. If she doesn’t eat, I’ll know it’s time. I’ll euthanize her and spare her the week or two of slowly petering out.


  1. Oh gosh, that’s tough. She looks almost exactly like my Silver Laced Wyandotte. Everyone thinks she’s the prettiest. I started off having to euthanize a chicken within the first couple of months of chicken keeping. It took me all day to work up the nerve. I guess it’s never easy.

    Oddly, mine is the most standoffish too. Maybe the breed?

    • My experience is that they are stand-offish, but my friends in England tell me that ‘dottes there are friendly. Different strains, I think.

  2. My heart goes out to you. We’ve all had this experience and everytime, I too, say I wil euthanize in order to spare pain but when that time comes I just can’t seem to do it. I think it’s because I don’t know of a humane way to do it. So I will probably just keep watch on the older girls and hope maybe they just go in their sleep.

  3. Sorry to hear about Maize! I know it’s all a part of the cycle of life, but still. I hope I’ll remember your idea of feeding them by hand after some careful observation when we finally have chickens. You hate to have to make that decision, but that’s way better than having one suffer. Thanks for all that you share…I’m learning a lot!

    • I’m beginning to think that the way you can tell the ones on death’s door to the other is if they eat. Having a definitive moment helps to ease the decision.

      • This is very true in many animals. I have many cats and that is the 1st sign something is wrong and time to go to the vet. Also with Bunnies!

  4. Oh no, so sorry for another loss. Little Blue was heartbreaking enough and now Maizie !! It is really tough, isn’t it ? So sad.

    • In all honesty, it is not heartbreaking. Maizie had stopped laying. Other than her beautiful plumage, she was not a particularly memorable bird. Four years of age is old for an animal designed for two. It was okay for her to go. What is hard is that in my role as caretaker I want to do right by these animals from start to end. When a chicken isn’t going peacefully, I have to decide how much suffering is enough. Chickens are in that gray area between domestic farm animal and pet, they have no economic value, and do not show pain in a way that is easy to understand, so the decisions are complicated. Unlike pets that are euthanized at the vet’s office, a chicken is killed at home. That makes it that much harder. Maizie’s death was thought-provoking. Seeing how diseased she was made me sad and question how I cared for her. But, it’s not heart-breaking.

      • Poor Maizie – what a pretty bird. Does your vet not do it? I’ve had birds euthanised (for only £7!), and they inject straight into the liver – the bird just nods off, no flapping or anything.
        This week I have been hand-feeding Big Girl tinned sweetcorn while she gets over an E.coli-type infection, but Baytril the wonder drug is kicking in now and she’s pecking for corn tonight. But she’ll be eight in spring so I know her days are numbered, and I’ll have to watch for little changes in her behaviour and act fast.

        • Most vets won’t take chickens, and if they do it can be $35 or more. Your Big Girl has lived the life of two chickens so far, an she has the personality of 5!

  5. Sorry to hear of Maizies passing. I emailed you about my RIR (Rosy) being ill. I’m sad to say she passed a few weeks ago. She was very uncomfortable in the end. Her bottom was swollen and very heavy. I hand fed her everyday her favorit things :) She gave it her best effort to show nothing was wrong, but the other girls knew and let her be. She passed peacefully in my arms. It was 6 months from the time she showed signs of being ill to her passing.

    • I’m sorry to hear about Rosy. Many ailments can cause that water-balloon filled look. Almost none of them are curable. She was fortunate to be in your care.

  6. As a vet, I have to deal with this sort of decision a lot. People hope that their pets will quietly pass in their sleep, but this almost never happens. I warn them that they will probably have to make a qualty of life decision. I usually tell them to observe the pet doing things that they have always loved in the past. If there is no interest, it is probably time.

    • Wise words, Kay. What people need to understand, too, is that there is no such thing as a “natural” death for our domestic animals. We breed them, feed them, medicate them, and house them. With chickens, especially, disease usually gets them before a “natural” lifespan. So, euthanizing them is part of the continuum of care that we give them from hatching on.

  7. I am sorry to see Mazie pass away. And yes it can be quite hard to maek that decision. I guess one can only go by experince and what that animal is like. With chickens they will fight to the bitter end, so maybe it is more merciful to put them down before they really get ill and dying.
    Mazie though true to her nature would not go out in a usual way like from infection. She was a tough old bird and you saw it in her everyday. Not the nicest, but still tough.

  8. Terry
    I understand what you are saying. It’s tough to know when. With dogs and cats I’ve always known when it was time. Kit is right, I just counted and I’ve had 8 dogs that are no longer in my life and only one has died on it’s own.
    I found Whichway (polish hen) dead in the run about three weeks ago, had no clue she was sick, absolutely no signs.
    I think it’s time for a Wrongway and Whichway part two this spring.
    After the tornado I sold my white rock egg flock and so have plenty of room to expand my “pet” flock this spring.

    As always Terry your insights are excellent.

    • I am sorry to hear you lost Whichaway Ken. This is has been a tough year for the poor Polish. Another lady I followed lost her first two Polish Ozzy and scared little rooster Ozzy to a predator, along with all her broody silkies. Glad to hear their will be another Whichaway and Wrongaway soon. If you can I would try and get them the same breeder or hatchery you got those two from since they lived so long. Then you can have another pair that lives for a long time again. But six or eight years is a good life for any hen, espically the Polish who do try to get themselves killed for all their silliness.

  9. I always think it’s sad when a pet is gone, but I understand your concern about quality of life and knowing when to make the decision to let them go. I have a local vet who will take chickens which is good for me because I just can’t euthanize them myself. I have a few girls who no longer like to jump down off things, but I don’t know if it’s their eyesight or legs that cause them to hesitate. They are only 2-1/2 so it seems strange to think about them aging. It’s hard to imagine someone had one as old as 8!

    How’s Agatha doing? Does she know she’s destinated to be a star?

  10. I’m sorry to hear of Maizie’s death. She was a beautiful animal even with the attitude. I also had second thoughts about how long I kept one of my cats alive. You do the best you can with what you think at the time. Their natural stoicism doesn’t help. And no chicken or other animal could hope for a more caring home than yours.

  11. I think Jeff Smith wrote something about the rooster being a symbol of bravery, due to their fighting to the death. (Wikipedia doesn’t support this…) I guess the hens fight to the death in their own way.

    • I have a good friend who fought cancer. It was a battle that went on for years. So far, she’s won. I don’t believe it was the same for Maizie. My friend made choices to go through hell and high water to survive. It was a conscious, brutal undertaking. I think that Maizie just kept living because that’s what chickens do. I don’t think she was brave or stoic or determined. I think she was simply a chicken, living until she couldn’t anymore. My realism doesn’t detract at all from her life – but seeing her as what she truly was, instead of with layers of human emotions pinned to her – makes me appreciate the chicken-ness of her. I don’t need my chickens to have human emotions. What a chicken does gift us is their live in the moment life. Observe and be part of that. A chicken does have an emotional life, I’m not denying that, but it’s not ours. If there’s any lesson at all, it’s to appreciate the unique perspective of the living things around us.
      It’s egocentric to want all of the animals we love to have our emotional lives. They have their own. It’s different. Letting go of our assumptions allows us care for our animals to fulfill their needs, not our own.
      (Suzanne, this wasn’t directed at you – but your comment was a good jump-off point to something that I’ve been thinking about for a long time!)

      • Actually, I remember you had said something about that before. It makes sense- the animal has only it’s own role and experience.
        It’s hard to think that way, maybe because I grew up with movies & books in which the animal characters think & talk just like humans.

        Maybe this isn’t quite the same thing- but I used to worry about lobsters being dropped into a pot of hot water- the pain that heat must cause! Now that I think of it from an evolutionary perspective, a lobster probably does not have any sensation of heat, being an animal that would normally remain underwater. Perhaps the sudden change hurts it in other ways…? But I would imagine humans have been working with fire for so long, we probably a far more refined sense of pain from heat than other land animals.

  12. I am so sorry. I have a Mazie but she is a barred rock. She is not real friendly but her sister is the most friendly out of my 10. She is always the first..I dread the end for any of my babies. I have fell in love for sure. Your Mazie was a beautiful girl!

  13. Thanks again, Terry for your insight. I would be most interested in the best way you feel to euthanize them?

  14. So sorry to hear about Maizie….you couldn’t have know when she first got the cancer….but I do understand the caretaking concerns. At least now we know she is at peace, grazing in the never-ending lush fields above….along with all your other birds that have passed. God Bless!

  15. I think you did what was right at the time. Now you have learned something else and next time you will do what’s right for that time. I’m so proud of you. I learn so much from reading your blog each day and I’m so grateful for it. I’m sorry Maizie passed but I’m glad you were able to get so much out of it and share it with so many.

  16. Sorry to hear about Maize. I had a horse get lung cancer. We tried many different things and she just kept getting thinner and sicker. A necropsy told us what was wrong with her. Cancer seems to be a common problem in animals too. It is a terrible thing.

    • I wonder how many animals die of cancer who are misdiagnosed. One reason that I do necropsies is to know what’s going on and not jump to conclusions. Maizie had the classic egg bound stance, and yet that was not what killed her. I was involved with horses for more than 20 years and never saw a diagnosis of cancer, but I’m sure, like with your mare, there were cases out there.

  17. Terry
    You have so much wisdom and common sense when it comes to understanding and caring for your animals.
    Your blog is so informative and receives more comments than any other I have read. This makes us all feel part of it. Thank you.

  18. Sorry to hear of Maizie’s passing. She lived a good life with you and your girls. Regarding the end of life decision, I understand your questioning yourself, and I know it’s hard not to feel guilty in retrospect, but you did the absolute best thing with the knowledge you had at the time (and you have a LOT!). Possibly next time you’ll make a different decision, based on this new experience and knowledge. It’s just never easy, is it?

  19. If ever there was a perfect portrait of a chicken, this is IT! It’s just lovely!

  20. i also have some sad news i am raiseing a orphaned baby raccoon and she is geting to the age where i can let her go back into the wild(we have a nice no hunting aera in the woods behind our house where she will have plenty of food and water and other raccoon friends)well so was out side and she was close to the chicken coop and so moved her and time whent by so i went outside to find and put her in here house i couldnt find her so i went looking for here she was in the chicken coop i dont know how she got in there but ming-ming my black chicken was dead:(

    • Sorry about Ming-ming. Now she is a chicken-eating raccoon and I’d find another place to release her – far away from any chicken coops. Since she’s not afraid of humans it’s going to be impossible to scare her off.

      • i think i will find another no hunting aera to relase her.because i cant have her killing everybodys chickens!

  21. I just had a hen die a couple of days ago and was acting similar and was quite old too. She didn’t die because she was sick, but decided to commit suicide. She hung herself on the fence…

    Now I understand why ‘chicken wire is a doom sentence for chickens’.

    But, now I learnt the hard way…

  22. What an exceptional blog this is. First, thank you Terry for doing the necroscopy and sharing what you found. Last year I had a 7 year-old with similar symptoms and my vet did an xray and found huge tumor.He was willing to euthanize her and we did it right away, even though she still looked good from the outside, and was a real loss of a lovely personality. Of my three old ladies, only one remains, the turken having fallen off the perch, dead in her sleep, which I now see as an exception and a blessing. I do think all our animals are at the front line of a chemical onslaught, even when we try to avoid it. If we buy from hatcheries it is present in their history and if we buy commercial feed it is unavoidable. I buy organic when I can get it, but I know my feed store saturates the area with bug spray regularly, and then there is drift. Anyway, thank you Terry for your excellent mix of loving them, caring for them, and understanding that their reality is their reality. If all chicken keepers looked at things through their perspective occasionally, most setups would have a different shape! I am rambling- apologies!

  23. Terry, so sorry to read about Maizie. One of the many reasons that I enjoy your blog is the fact that you are quite realistic and practical about the care of your hens. It’s so human to want them to have emotions, to wish that they looked forward to seeing us and all that silly stuff we think. It’s not ever doing right by an animal to humanize it. When I read Temple Grandin’s book, she told a story about a lion that was to be transported across country by rail. Someone thought it would be more comfortable if it had a pillow to sleep on, rather than straw. The lion ate the pillow and died. A terrible story, but a great example of what treating them like a human can do. Yes, we are their stewards, which really means, we do what’s best for them, and not what assuages our feelings and wants. Again, this is why I have much respect for you – it’s about the animal, and not you! Thank you, Terry!

    • Well put, Karla. If you make it about the animals, then life with them is even more interesting. How boring if all creatures were to respond to the world the way we do. How they see, smell and touch the world is unique to each type of animal, and also to each individual. When we interpret their lives through our own lenses, then we miss out on their world. Again, they do have emotions, (read Temple Grandin and Karen Pryor and you’ll discover the commonalities in our brains) but they’re not entirely like us. I see that as a good thing!
      I get so upset watching YouTube videos that people post of supposedly cute animals. 99% of the time, they’re not! For example, smiles on dogs are often from fear aggression. I’ve been known to yell at the computer screen, “can’t you tell your dog is stressed!!” The viewer sees upwards curved lips and that’s all. Think of the public’s love of dolphins. I know a dolphin trainer. That “smile” means nothing. An angry dolphin and a happy dolphin all “smile.” Bubbles, tail flicks, swimming speed, that’s what you look at. It’s all there if you pay attention.

  24. This post has been really interesting because it has provoked lots of interesting comments and interaction. I have really enjoyed the longer comments and have agreed with many of the views expressed.
    In fact this is the first time I have felt moved to leave a second comment on the same post. (comment on the comment’s if you like).
    Thank you to everyone.

  25. i had been thinking about maizie ever since you first mentioned her not feeling well earlier this week. i was hoping to not read that she had died. she was such a beautiful bird.

  26. Terry, I am sorry to hear of Maizie’s demise. I too lost a Wyandotte, my girl Fern. In all honesty Fern was a beautiful gal, a dependable daily layer, but very mean spirited. I must say the “air” in the hen house is now calm, everyone is getting along nicely. It still amazes me that all it takes is one hen to disrupt coop dynamics. Greetings from Maine, Julie.