Caring For Feeble Old Hens

Most chickens don’t have long lives (see my post about how long chickens live) but a few sturdy birds manage to survive respiratory diseases and escape reproductive tract malfunctions and live on into old age. Even then, they rarely die peacefully in their sleep. Old chickens are prone to tumors, cancer and blockages of their intestinal tracts. Internal layers that survive peritonitis can have large masses in their body cavities that will eventually interfere with body organs. I do necropsies, and have seen all of these things. All of these conditions can cause a hen to suffer, sometimes just for days, sometimes for weeks.

Then again, an old hen can go sedately along, with something obviously wrong (look at Twinkydink’s grey comb!) and yet still get pleasure from a sun bath and take part in the social life of the flock. An old hen like Twinkydink you can leave well enough alone.


If you intend to let your hens retire (and not dispose of unproductive hens as real farmers must do) then you will be faced with knowing when to let a hen live out her days, and when it is kinder to euthanize. This is a decision that I make on a daily basis about Buffy. She’s survived many ailments. At almost eight years of age, she is ancient and feeble. She can no longer hop out of the coop in the morning. I have to carry her to a spot in the sun.

But, Buffy is not yet suffering. I know this because of a few things that she still can do. Buffy can stand on her own and eat and drink. In fact, she continues to eat with gusto. A hen that is too weak to eat is truly ill.


Buffy is not harassed by the other hens, and in fact will peck at those who get into her space. The other hens recognize weakness, so although to my eye Buffy is wobbly, she has maintained her status in the flock. A truly sick hen will hide, or be attacked by others.

That said, it is clear that much is amiss with Buffy, She no longer has the strength in her legs to roost, which means she’s below everyone else at night. Sometimes she gets pooped on. Being a soft-feathered Orpington, the manure sinks down into her coat and sticks there, unseen. Yuck.



Being a weak old hen, Buffy can’t preen those feathers, and so today, using scissors, I carefully snipped off the manure.



I was concerned that Buffy was filthy in other places too, and so I gave her a warm epsom salt bath.



I was relieved to see that her bottom was clean and healthy. Her manure is normal, not runny and sticky. She had a few lice crawling on her, but it wasn’t the sort of infestation that happens to sick hens who can’t dust bathe.



Buffy was skeptical that all of this fussing was necessary.



It’s too cold to go outside with wet feathers, so I blew her dry, which she seemed to like. When done, she had enough energy to stand up and glare at me.



Buffy is at the end of her life. She cannot walk more than a few steps without sitting down. She’s skinny – it’s likely that her body can no longer efficiently digest the food that she does eat, and so I do give her a small handful of sunflower seeds and corn in the morning. (High value food, in a small amount, gives her a boost, however, do NOT feed your ailing hen with a syringe or force gruel into them. If a hen isn’t eating or drinking, there’s likely something blocking the passageways inside and you will make matters worse.)

But Buffy is not done yet. She eats her corn and sunflower seeds right up in the morning, and woe to anyone who wants to share! When Buffy is no longer able to stand, if her vent area becomes raw from diarrhea, if she becomes infested with lice, if she no longer eats and drinks, then I’ll know her time is up. I don’t want her to suffer, and sadly, many older hens do as they waste away at the end. I won’t let that happen to Buffy; I will euthanize her. For now though, she has a patch of sun to enjoy.



  1. This is a very kind post, so thank you for that. I’ve contemplated for years (yes, years) about getting a few hens, and have pretty much set out to do just that next spring. However, I know that there is no way I could personally euthanize any pet (and that’s what my hens would be). Could I ask how you do this when it’s time? For other pets (cats), I’ve taken them to the vet, and I’d assume that’s what I’d do for one of my hens when the time came.

    • I’m working on such a post. For now I’ll just say that I think that a quick neck snap is at least as humane, or even more so, than taking a hen to vet to be put down. It’s very hard to find a vein to inject in an old hen. Sorry to be graphic – but caring for domestic farm animals has always included death with life.

      • Terry, have you ever tried starter fluid? That is my method of choice. I would rather ease them to sleep, I don’t think I could snap a neck. =(

        • Since you asked, I have read up on it. I’m of mixed mind about it, as the chemical is potentially dangerous to people if not handled properly. But, it might be the right option for those who can’t bear to break a neck.

  2. what a beautiful piece and it made me shed a few tears of happiness that Buffy has someone so loving to minister to her but also of sadness because I know that Buffy’s days are numbered. I have 3 girls that are at least 10 years old, I’ve had them for 7 years and when they were given to me, my friend thought they were old then. So they very well could be even older than 10. But none of them are suffering, my three elderly girls, Ellen Degeneres, Rosemary Clooney, and Mimi. They eat well and when the weather is warm all three of them even gift me with an occasional egg! I feel the same as you, I will not let them suffer and when it seems that they are, they will be taken to the vet, because I can not ease them into the next world, it’s too painful. I’d rather pay someone to administer a shot while I hold the old girl and tell her how much I love her and that she was a great hen and my favorite (they are all my favorite). Thank you.

  3. I’ve noticed that Twiggy seems to have become attatched to Buffy. I often see them together. At first I thought it was your other white hen but there is a noticeable differnce in size between them. I know that friendships can form–even with chickens. I wonder what Twiggy will do when Buffy goes on to her reward?

    • Twiggy does like to be near Buffy. My most energetic hen, next to my slowest. Funny, isn’t it? I’ve never known a hen to mourn another. They move right on, sort out the new pecking order, and get on with life.

  4. What a comforting post you’ve written. Thank you. I too want to let my hens live out and enjoy their lives when they come to the end of their laying lives.

  5. Sweet, sweet Buffy. I’m so glad she has you to care for her in her old age. <3

  6. Perhaps Buffy isn’t “glaring” at you (or us)…it’s just that her smile muscles are too old to work…

    She sure seems to appreciate her spa day! Thanks for the update…I always try to keep an eye on her & how she’s doing…especially with all those “youngsters” in her coop now.

    • There is a name for the mean expression on Buffy`s face. It is called RBF(resting b…. face). A lot of us old birds can be accused of this.

  7. I will miss Buffy when she does go, but she and Twinkydink have had good lives. And then you get Edwina at nearly nine running around with hens six years younger, is she still at the bottom of the pecking order of the gems ? Or has she tolerably made a companionship with one of the gentler tolerable hens like Pearl or Opal ?

    • Edwina has been accepted by the flock. She doesn’t boss them and they don’t harass her. It’s settled down quite nicely! Of all of my old hens, Edwina shows the fewest signs of aging.

  8. I remember how Buffy was not getting on the roost last winter and I was hoping that it was just the return of the cold weather that was making her unable to jump to her rung. But I know that she and Twinkydink are ancient and won’t live forever. I’m so glad that they have you as their true “patch of sun.”

  9. Poor Old Buffy! I love that she is still able to give you the stink eye!

  10. Thank you for this post. I just recently found your blog. This post and the one you referenced answered a lot of questions I’ve never seen anyone address. They are much appreciated, in fact, I have given two of my hens your ‘spa treatment’.

    I’ve had my hens for three years, and have lost two to illness. It was so hard, as mine are pets, too. Can’t imagine having to Euthanize. It’s good to know what to expect as my hens get older. It always helps to be prepared.

    Thank you for being so kind and humane to your older hens. The way I look at it, they work hard for us, giving us all of those nutritious eggs, and they deserve to have kind retirement years. :) I guess I’ll never be a ‘real’ farmer.

  11. I feel so stupid! This is the first blog I have ever posted on, and have been posting over a year now. I JUST NOW realized that I should be posting my comment right after the one I am commenting about! Ha! I am bad about not reading EVERYTHING! I now know that REPLY is after each post! I assumed I was supposed to post at the bottom! So sorry! Live and learn! I really love Hencam, and I will now be a more responsible blogger!

  12. Helpful and thoughtful information-thank you Terry. I have three “old” girls, but perhaps not so old at 5 years. :)

  13. Yes thank you for this post. Very nice . I also want to have my hens live comfortably into old age and it was nice to see how you determine if they are doing well r not. Very helpful. I don’t think I ever noticed that Buffy doesn’t have a comb? Also off topic – is it normal when the flock is molting and not laying that combs are pale?

    • I was given Buffy because she was being bullied in a flock – her head was bare and bits of the comb was gone. Over the years, even in my own flock, she has been picked on (to know this tale, read through the archives) and has been sick and her remaining comb shriveled up. There’s little left!

  14. Buffy is always the first one I look for when I come to hencam. I’ve noticed lately she’s not doing as well. I’ve been a little anxious when first signing on in the morning afraid of the post that will let us know Buffy is gone. Like everyone else, I’m glad she has such a good caregiver. All of your hens are like part of our family now. Half the time I call my Leghorn, Dotty, Twiggy. We just didn’t know that a person could get as attached to a chicken as a dog or cat. We are there. We love our seven girls. Thanks for helping us with our chickens and thanks for taking time to give some kindness to one of God’s sweet little creatures named Buffy.

  15. So happy to hear of all your efforts with old lovely Buffy. I love that hen.
    We are having a problem with our chickens at the farm. They seem to be ..err ..ah..well.. murdering each other. There have been two deaths recently. Farm staff came upon both scenes shortly after things seemed normal as usual. We don’t know if the birds were sick (didn’t appear to be) or if they were bleeding. Many of our hens seemed to have sustained permanent feather loss from the now exiled rooster. Maybe with the cold weather setting in their bottoms chaffed? And bled? Have you ever had something like this happen?

    • Once skin is exposed and there’s red, hens will go in for the attack. Spray all of the raw places with blu-kote, which will color them a dark purple. It’s also an antiseptic and will help healing. Also, distract them with several pumpkin halves. (Do an archive search for blu-kote for more info on it – and wear gloves, or your hands will be stained, too!)

  16. Thank you for sharing. I’ve often wondered how long the average chicken lives. Our oldest ones are3+ yrs. I had to put one of my hens down, and it’s comforting to hear that what I did (snap the neck) was an ok way to do it. It was so hard to bring myself to do that, but it was right thing to do. Our chicken was in pain.

  17. Oh Miss Buffy, such a trooper! Makes me happy to see her sitting in the sun. I really appreciate how you take care of all your animals!

  18. I never thought this far ahead about my hens. Unfortunately, in the past, all of our chickens got killed by foxes. Now, after much redoing the coop and yards, I am 99% sure they cannot get inside our chicken’s living area, so I will have old hens in a few years. Now I know what to watch for

  19. I have an Orpington named Dallas and she got arthritis in her hips at 2 years old, I redid my chicken house put in ramps and so there is no hopping for her and she has adjusted. Thanks for the information on lice I am checking my girls tonight when they get ready to go to bed. I got a fold away child’s play pen for sick chickens, large trash bags just fit to cover the mattress bottom (easy clean up) and the chickens can be cared for until they get better. I use this when they are sick, or in need of 24 hour feeding during molting (at night they have a dim light with food , water, and can sleep in a nest box) or while doing a good dusting of DE on tail feathers is required. The hens get used to it and are not scared and it folds up nice for storage to put away. Cost -$2 garage sale.

    • The playpen sounds useful – I do hope it’s outside and not in your house, though! BTW, recent research showed that chickens do best when they have periods of full dark for sleep. Even a molting hen doesn’t need to eat 24/7. My molting hens would be totally stressed being removed from the flock. But, each hen is different, so perhaps yours enjoys the solitude?

  20. This is such a tender story. It is hard for me to ask this question, but what do you do when you euthanize a hen?

  21. I never think of Buffy as being done in… I think of her as getting the most out of life. I will not mourn her passing when it comes. I will celebrate her tenaciousness to live life at its fullest. She is truly a grand “Lady”. You go girl!!

  22. Thank you again for sharing your knowledge and tenderness. It’s a beautiful story.

  23. Thanks for this post, Terry. My husband and I are new to chickens. We have a young flock, so we haven’t had to deal with anything major yet, but I’m glad to have some sense of what to do if anything should ever happen.