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.


  1. Very, very informative post. It is a hard subject to cover, but you have, as always, been honest and to the point. I try to learn as much as I can about the “mechanisms” of chickens so I have a better knowledge and therefore better chance of knowing when something is wrong. Thank you for sharing this information – at the end of the day we should be prepared to do what is right for our animals and not let them suffer. Although it’s a hard decision, when keeping animals, it is one that sometimes has to be made.

  2. I agree with you Terry..I have not been brave enough to do any investigation into my sick hens….but I might try one next time…it always helps to learn…thank-you for sharing

  3. This sounds like a lipoma…a hard fatty tumor. Usually smaller, this one is very large and within the organs. I don’t know much about them, cause or treatment. But I agree you did the right thing…she has had this for a long time to get so large and it was in a disrupting place, rather than just under the skin. Stuff happens!

  4. So sorry you lost your wonderful Etheldred. I lost a 5 week old chick that just had failure to thrive and it was really hard. I took her to the local animal shelter after trying everything and they euthanized her for me at a low cost.

    • I, too, have had chicks die for failing to thrive. There are many things that can go wrong during hatching, and you don’t see the full results for a few weeks. There are also genetic deformities that don’t show up until you’re attached to the bird. I’m glad you found a way to let her go.

  5. Whew! That was difficult to read. Not because of the “gore” factor (I’m a nurse whose seen much worse), but because it brought back memories of a hen I had to euthanize two years ago. She was gasping for air and her comb was so pale it was almost white, but I was too distraught to open her up and see what had caused it. It was the first (and only) time that I’ve had to kill an animal of my own, and I cried for days. In retrospect, I know it’s because I viewed my hens as part of my family, but some years ago I lost a son to SIDS. It all connected in my mind and brought up some powerful grief. Because of a move, I’m currently without hens, but will probably start another flock in spring. Thank you for reinforcing the fact that no amount of love and proper care will guarantee that they’ll live long lives, but this does not indicate a failure on my part. Although….I now think that she may have had gapeworms, which, had I known, I could have treated her for.

    • You sound strong…..I know when my girlie girls are gone I can’t have any more…..I NEVER thought I would be so attached to my 4 girls :(

    • I’ve written this to rid my readers of guilt. What hens get is usually sudden (to us) and severe. I doubt that your hen had gapeworms (you can actually see them in the throat, and being a nurse, you would have noticed!) Also, a pale white comb is almost always a sign of a severe internal issue – often cancer. So, no guilt for you on that loss! There was no failure on your part. Grief is a difficult thing. It never goes in a straight line. My deepest condolences on the loss of your son.

  6. Terry, Thanks so much for posting the necropsy photos today of all days. I’m euthanizing my sweet Wyandotte, Francie, later this afternoon and a friend with experience is going to help me with the necropsy. Looking back to mid-summer, I can now clearly see the decline: her comb dulled, she wasn’t as active or noisy (Francie loved to chatter loudly, about everything, but she’s barely been whispering for the past two weeks.) I kept dismissing it as a tough early molt, or the effects of being at the bottom of the pecking order, but now it’s clear that something terribly wrong is going on inside her.
    For all the fellow flocksters who are reading this, Terry has provided very wise off-line counsel through this tough experience. What resonates most was this comment she emailed me: “I can tell you that after 20 necropsies, in hindsight I’ve never thought “I should have waited to euthanize” but I’ve always thought, “I should have done this sooner.”

    And a big PS: Please join me in springing for “coffee” if you read this regularly, so Terry can continue to provide this service. This is the blog I turn to first when I need no-nonsense advice that best serves my flock and I want her to be able to keep this up!

    • Thank you for mentioning the “coffee” and for being one of my supporters. Royalties on my published books don’t even begin to cover the hosting fees for this site. Ad money helps, but also doesn’t cover the expenses of doing this blog. I so appreciate contributions from my readers!

  7. Terry, did you find out more about that yellow tissue? I guess it makes no difference in treatment- or the need to euthanize- but it’s interesting in itself. It seems like it would be fatty, but would fatty tissue be rubbery? (Dealing with dead hens from the grocery store, fat isn’t ever rubbery, but then, these hens are not “fresh”)

    I’m sorry for the loss of such a beautiful hen, but I’m glad she was spared additional suffering.

    • Oops, I just re-read the article, “felt and looked like fat.” (I’m slow in the mornings….)

  8. I’m crying now, my Ella has been out of it and she let me cuddle her because her sisters were pecking at her….she eats but not aggressively…she’s lighter than a feather…wish there was an easy way out…..I can’t have pets, too hard when they’re hurting and nothing you can do…..there is SO much more in keeping chickens than just collecting eggs.

    • I’m sorry that you recognized in my story something going on with your flock. But, in order to care for them, one must face these things! I’m sure that you’ll do right by your Ella.

  9. Thank you, Terry, for helping us to understand this unknown territory we’ve danced into, with your clearly stated information and compassion for living things. You are much valued.

  10. After two and a half years of chicken keeping and three a half years of following your blog I have become more experienced with spotting a problem and dealing with it quickly. Five weeks ago Emerald, a bantam game bird, started gaping and shaking her head. I immediately thought of gape worm and googled it. I started all the girls (eight mixed bantams) on flubenvet (worm powder) the same day for seven days. I saw no worms in the poop but after day two the head shaking had stopped.

    After the seven days she was still gaping and becoming weak has she had stopped eating pellets. I hand fed her anything that she would take, chopped grapes, chopped spinach, sunflower hearts, corn, scrambled egg, tuna, this was all she would eat.

    I talked to a vet and he gave me Tylon (antibiotic) in case it was a throat infection to be taken for seven days. There were no respiratory symptoms only the gaping. The hand feeding built up her strength again and was she was eating, drinking, poop was normal and dust bathing, scratching and preening and eating pellets again.

    I followed up with the flubenvet three weeks later. It has now been five weeks and the gaping has almost stopped (just occasionally now) and she is back to normal in every other way. I nearly e-mailed you, Terry, but looking back at your blog I couldn’t find an instance when you have had to deal to gape worm.

    I am just putting this here now in case it helps you or anyone else in future. The vet didn’t know any more than I did and I can’t be sure if it was gape worm but Emerald has come back from looking like I was going to lose her to full health again.

    Sorry to be so long winded but your blog is such a useful tool for us all to help each other with our shared experiences. I value so much all the information you share with us.

    • I didn’t know that you have gapeworm in the UK. It’s rare here, and more likely seen in the south. My guess is that your hen did not have gapeworm, but that possibly the antibiotic has cleared up or stabilized some unseen issue. If she once more gets ill, I’d leave her be as I suspect that there’s something going on inside of her well beyond a problem in her throat.

  11. I have just gone through (and still going through) an interesting deal with my hen – her crop became large, watery… SOUR. of course it was friday when i realized this, but i treated it like thrush, to no avail, and took her to the vet on monday. something i swore i would never do. but i know my chickens (she is 2 1/2 and my top girl) and was baffled by her condition. she had severe lead poisoning – higher than the test would read. this cause her organs to stop. she went through EDTA shots and is pulling through, but there could be permanent damage to her organs that we have yet to see. Lesson learned : crop issues are serious and signs of something else that is even more serious! So glad to see you write about an experience you had as this stuff can be scary to deal with. Thank you for your pictures, too, to give a realistic idea to what we deal with as chicken owners.

    • I’d be more worried about you than the hen. Have you been eating her eggs? Have you tested your soil? Do you have a veg garden? Have you tested the other hens? I know city chicken keepers who have had to remove all soil, a foot down, and replace it with fresh, in order to have lead-free eggs, and those hens cannot free-range.

      • Oh yes. Believe me – I went through quite a panic about those exact things as I have a huge garden and shelves of veg I just canned. Thankfully she was at the end if a bad molt and hadn’t laid an egg for almost two months. We tested soil spots and found nothing. We live in an 1898 victorian and we just barely had the house painted and the windows touched up. While they were super super careful I’m guessing Henny Penny found something she shouldn’t have. One tiny mistake to a human could mean fatal lead poisoning to a chicken. So far all my other hens are just fine. I am now keeping them 100% confined to a backyard space away from the house! It’s been an interesting few weeks. I’m hoping she’ll pull through. And now I know things aren’t always cut and dry and I will be keeping a close eye on everyone for a while.

  12. Thank you Terri, I have learned so much from you, you don’t sugarcoat and that’s what is needed. nothing about chickens is easy, but I have never regretted starting with them. after watching Steve do the demo at your workshop, I wonder if I can/will be able to do it. may have to find a chicken keeper nearby to do it.

  13. I am very sorry that you had to make the decision to euthanize Etheldred, but I do want to thank you for sharing your findings!

  14. Thank you for making a clear statement in favor of quality of life. I, too, have learned that fighting to keep an animal alive just for the sake of keeping it alive causes more suffering, not less. It is unfortunate, however, that our society deems that to be worthy we must fight to keep our pets alive till that last breath. If you don’t, you’re an awful person who should not be allowed near animals. If they could only understand that it is for themselves they are keeping these animals alive. And that quality of life is much more important than how long you can keep them alive.

  15. I’m so sorry about Etheldred. After viewing these pictures, anyone can see you did the right thing at the right time. Thank you for this post and photos. Good information. I, for one am glad you don’t sugar coat things.
    RIP Etheldred.

  16. Thank you, Terry, a really, really helpful (and brave) post on this difficult topic.
    I just wish the actual act of euthanising was less brutal. I know the theory, that Its just the central nervous system shutting down, that the heart actually runs on its own set of nerves and blood supply from the brain and the hen isn’t actually feeling anything. But I am always distressed in case it is not so and that is the worst thing about chicken keeping, I hate it, I always feel like I have done something very very bad.
    My girls are all between 3 and 6 years now so I know I have quite a bit of this to come. I am not getting any more chickens because I find the euthanasia so hard.
    I totally agree with you that it is an essential and important part of caring animal husbandry. But I am crap at it.

  17. You have a stronger stomach than I! I could not perform the necropsy. However, I do believe in humane euthanasia when it’s necessary and I think you chose the right time to end her suffering. Two hens of mine died within days of each other two years ago.. they looked perfectly healthy until I found them stretched out laying down.. dead.. on the lawn while they were out free roaming. No marks on them, no feathers amiss. Very odd. Both were stretched out, like they had suddenly been very uncomfortable. Three days apart. The rest of my hens were fine. Then, last year I had a cochin develpe a large round mass near her vent. She never looked uncomfortable, but the mass remained.. and grew. I had the vet out for the horses and had her look at the cochin… and she had no idea but recommended I euthanize her. She gave her an injection, as I do not have what it takes to break their neck and neither does my husband. I’m afraid we’d get it all wrong and mangle her inhumanely.

  18. Not just hens…I’ve had dogs, cats and all the pets the kids came home with over the years (ferrets, hamsters, wounded birds). When you get really attached it’s horribly selfish to keep them going no matter what the cost to the poor creature. It bothers me that when a cat is 21 years old, down to four pounds from her normal seven, that the vet recommends more treatment. I apparently don’t have the strength to say, “enough.” Or I didn’t. I’ve got a new vet and stronger resolve now, and thank you for affirming that when its time to go, it’s time.

  19. Thank you SO much Terry! You are my ‘go to’ for the real hard facts and I appreciate your straightforwardness and honesty. And I agree with Marty (above), I would encourage everyone to sit down and have a cup of virtual ‘coffee’ with Terry! Thank you, thank you for sharing your wisdom and advice! I appreciate it more than words can say….

  20. I need to face the fact that my beloved Ella won’t be seeing better days……Some say she’s just a chicken, and I say she’s part of the family, regardless, she’s drinking water, eating small bites but keeps her eyes closed most of the time, I cuddle her which she seems to enjoy (me not the poop)…..her crop feels fine, she’s just lethargic, do hens get the flu?

    • What she has she won’t recover from. You have to be the judge of her quality of life. Drinking water is a good sign. If her manure is runny and green or yellow, it’s time to let her go.

      • THANK YOU so much for all your knowledge that you share………there is a vet not too far away who will euthanize her for $30.00….I feel she knows she was loved from the cuddling, special treats and attention she got……that’s all we want, whether humans or animals, just to be appreciated……

        • As hard as it was… baby, my Ella is gone, I didn’t want her to suffer….. took her to the vet……I still want to cuddle her and make her feel safe……wish I wasn’t so attached to my pets

          • We should all be attached to our pets – it’s that attachment that makes us be thoughtful caregivers, and that knows that sometimes the right thing is to let them go. Condolences.

  21. I’m sorry to hear you lost another hen. I’m glad to hear that she didn’t suffer. This post was very informative…thank you.

  22. Thank you for this post Terry. Once again your information is very valuable to all of us.

  23. Thank you, Terry, for the extremely relevant information. My husband and I are first time chicken keepers and know that we need to get prepared to euthanize two of our three girls. They both have the same symptoms as Etheldred with hard balls for crops and bad or no poo for the past month. Olive oil has not helped. They still have red combs but stand around in that huffed up position, eyes closed. It is hard to reconcile caring for and protecting them with having to take direct action to euthanize. We both appreciate your advice and experience. Thank you.

  24. Excellent, helpful post, Terry: many thanks indeed, not just for the information, but for enabling others to share their experiences, which can be a help to us all.

  25. This post is very good-I know you have spoke about euthanasia many times and how you have performed necropsys on your hens. I just didn’t understand how you could/can do this on your own animals-now I get it. In my beginning years of chicken keeping about 6 years ago-I had to deal with a lot of “sick” chickens and there wasn’t alot out there available to help with “what to do” about ill chickens. I turned to a veterinarian and spent many dollars to try and “save” them. Unfortunately, all 5 of them still passed, all had different ailments. I wanted to respond because money can not buy a healthy chicken. It’s hard to know when to make end of life decisions and sometimes harder when the animal is young-all of mine were less then 2 years of age. So, I truly appreciate you Terry for being someone that is out there that does have knowledge from her own experiences to write about chickens! Thank you!

    • Cassie, thank you for supporting me over the years so that I can do this work! Every necropsy teaches me something new and gives me much to think about. Very few chickens die peacefully of old age. Keeping chickens past the age of 2, as pets, is a new phenomena. Vets don’t understand what’s going on inside of the hens. I wouldn’t take a chicken to a vet unless they’ve done at least a dozen necropsies on chickens.

  26. I agree so much with you that a hen that is unwell should not be allowed to suffer just so people feel better. We’ve done your “spa treatment” on a few of our hens over the years, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. I’ve also given antibiotic shots to an internal laying hen. It did prolong her life but eventually, it seemed more humane to euthanize her. People need to see pics of the necropsy too, it helps understand what is going on. Thank you for raising awareness.

  27. I really appreciate you following on our conversation with this post Terry. It’s been a tough week here: I’ve had to kill 3 very ill elderly hens, Martha, Little Dot and Took, and was talked through doing postmortems by a vet pathologist friend via Skype! Terry’s support helped heaps too. I’ve learned such a lot. Undoubtedly this knowledge will change how I attend my beloved hens as they age, I hope by responding humanely sooner rather than later. I do think now that as humane, loving keepers we should all have an “exit plan” for our aging hens as part of our good husbandry toolbox. I’m not suggesting everyone has to do necropsies or euthenase hens themselves, but it sure has changed me.

    We’ve kept a back-yard flock for over 15 years who have all the good things in life, free range, and live long happy lives. All three hens were slowing down, no longer laying; still perching at night and eating: what we generally call “old age” and gently nurture along until they quietly die in the night. Sound familiar?

    I’m sorry this next bit’s graphic, but it highlights what I’ve been missing in my sick-elderly hen decision making. Remember, they looked fine though sad. However looking inside showed me each was different, and none were “quietly dying in the night.” Poor poor creatures…

    Martha, a lovely sweet giant Orpington, had a huge solid yellow plastic mass filling her abdomen entirely, with her gut glued into it. Having now learned how birds breathe (look it up, it’s fascinating ) I can’t for the life of me see how she was able to breathe with no abdominal air sac.

    Little Dot’s oviduct and gut were a great twisted lumpy mass of cancer in a huge mass of yellow liquid. Again, she must have really struggled to breathe, and it must have hurt terribly.

    I found Took’s innards had lots of coagulated eggs in fluid, pus and terrible grey, bloated intestines; identified by Kelly as egg yolk peritonitis. I wished so much we’d killed her sooner.

    There’s a lot more going on inside our birds then ever shows on the outside, Thank you.

    • Kuini, thank you for sharing what you found. What surprised me (at first, no longer!) is how the external symptoms can look the same, and yet inside the hens can have experienced very different (and terrible) ailments. This is why, when I hear someone declare “your hen is egg bound” that they don’t know what they’re talking about. You can’t possibly know. What you do know, is that if they don’t respond to a spa treatment or antibiotics, that it’s time to let them go. If you have photos, please email to me. Every necropsy teaches me something new.

  28. PS, I’m incredibly glad I’ve finally had to learn how to break a neck properly; there’s a very good method we shorties can use; I’ll look for a link to it. too often hens suffer too long because we can’t face killing them. I’m guilty of this, being so scared of stuffing up that I always been forcing the decision onto my husband, or hoping the hen will die “quietly in the night.”.

  29. After reading this post and all the comments, I’m in the acceptance phase, and no longer in denial, that our Golden Comet hen is not well and should probably be euthanized. Her comb is dull, she has been ‘puffed up’ for weeks, and she is no longer as active or ‘verbal’ as she had been all along. She stopped laying about 2 months ago; prior to that she was laying eggs with little to no shells for a few weeks. She’s just over 2 yrs old so I thought that was a normal progression. My problem…. I’ve never done this before, and don’t think I can bring myself to euthanize her. Is there anyone out there that could help me? I’m local to the Carlisle area. Thank you.