One of the biggest buzzwords I hear at committees and meetings I attend is SUSTAINABILITY. Everyone has a general sense of sustainability: have a less negative impact on the environment, be kind to animals, have systems that can be successful long term, consider the economic impact, especially on low-income groups, etc. The idea became formalized in 1983 with the Bruntdland Commission which came up with the famous definition as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”. A Venn diagram (who doesn’t love a Venn diagram?) of the thought process is here

Because I’m Mike the Chicken Vet, and not Mike the Nuclear Physicist, I always seem to think about sustainability with respect to poultry production and welfare. I’ve asked sustainability specialists how we should prioritize each of these circles, and everyone seems to have a different answer, depending on their personal biases and preferences. The reality on the farm is that there are very few win-win situations left when we make changes. If you want to improve societal concerns, you end up worsening environmental impacts and increasing cost of food. Which should we focus on?

I’m really proud of the Canadian egg farmers for committing to improving animal welfare because we felt that it was important enough to commit billions of dollars of investment. We followed the welfare science and took into consideration the big picture of sustainability. We committed to the use of furnished cages or cage-free production. I see other jurisdictions where the industry did not lead the change but was forced into change by outside forces (activist groups or government organizations). Many of these jurisdictions were forced to adopt cage-free production because it looks attractive on the surface, and is easier to “sell” to the public as a welfare improvement. But most outside groups don’t have intimate knowledge of the knock-on effects of these changes on the rest of our sustainability concerns. I hope (and am planning on working hard in this area) that consumers and food service providers continue to support the decisions that the industry is leading through the NFACC code of practice process to keep laying hens sustainable on all fronts.

An Aviary Barn in Ontario
Dust Blowing out of an Aviary Barn

Where this affects my daily life is when I talk with my clients about changing housing styles for laying hens (remember, the Canadian industry is committed to phasing out conventional cages, so all my clients are having to consider this). Always, the question is whether to adopt furnished cages or cage-free systems. Both systems provide real improvements to animal welfare (see my last post, if you’re interested), but farmers have many other considerations when deciding on a multi-million dollar, decades-long commitment. When compared to furnished cages, cage-free systems result in more mortality, fewer eggs per hen, less feed efficiency, more manure, and a larger environmental footprint, similar to ABF broiler production. These effects are magnified further when you feed organic feed, and/or let your birds outside. I don’t have the numbers on the Canadian industry (I could give estimates, but nobody has done an extensive survey), but when you multiply these effects by the nearly 28,000,000 laying hens in the country, again, the effects will be widespread and significant. They also take many more workers, who work in more challenging environments, which results in more injuries and sickness. You can imagine picking up eggs off the floor or climbing up on aviary systems to free a stuck bird, when done many times per day can result in slips, falls, and repetitive strain injuries.

Furnished Cage

Does this mean that cage-free systems are bad? No. They have advantages too, with a wider range of behaviors available to the birds. But they definitely come with a significant cost to the environment, food affordability, and worker health and safety. There are also a limited number of consumers who are willing to pay the increased cost associated with producing cage-free eggs.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Why Canada Keeps Laying Hens in Furnished Cages

Summary of Welfare

Recently, there have been questions related to the adoption of furnished cages for laying hens in
Canada, rather than transitioning all birds to cage-free systems. First, I’d like to establish a fact of which
many people are not aware: Animal activists are not interested in reforming farming practices to improve animal welfare. Activists are against the use of animals by humans and are opposed to the use
of animals for their meat, milk, eggs, or fiber. They feel this is a morally defensible position, and usually comes from a legitimate place of caring for animals, but taking recommendations on the proper way to farm from a group of people who could never support ANY kind of farming is a fool’s errand. No matter how well animals are cared for or provided for on a farm, activists will always find fault and try to discredit the practices, because they disagree with the fundamental idea of livestock farming.

History of Conventional Housing/Cages

These cages are being phased out of Canadian Egg farms in favour of more welfare-friendly options

With respect to housing systems for laying hens, conventional or battery cages, which are wire enclosures that provide small social groups of chickens (usually 6-8 per cage), abundant access to food and water, and separation of birds from their droppings have been the standard housing system in North America since World War Two. This type of housing provides excellent disease control, efficient
feed conversion, and actually the smallest environmental footprint and the most inexpensive eggs. These advantages have come at the cost of birds’ abilities to perform activities that satisfy strong behavioural urges that are important to them. As our food system had become more reliable and affordable, the public has questioned whether birds experiencing this level of movement restriction and
frustration can have an acceptable level of welfare. Animal welfare is an important motivation for farmers and professionals that help farmers look after all agricultural animals, including laying hens.

National Farm Animal Care Council Report

In 2017, the National Farm Animal Care Council released the Canadian Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Pullets and Laying Hens. An extensive scientific literature review was done by a committee of animal welfare experts who developed a report on the most up-to-date knowledge of welfare requirements of laying hens. This report was delivered to a code development committee which was a group of experts from the poultry industry, farmers, animal welfare experts, veterinarians, and the government.
The code development committee decided that conventional cages restricted the behaviour of chickens too much for acceptable welfare and should be phased out despite the excellent provision of health, and production of safe, inexpensive eggs. The Code of Practice committee decided that furnished cages (which house 30-60 hens), aviary housing, or free-run housing provide welfare conditions that are considered acceptable. Aviary and free-run housing may or may not include outdoor access. All housing strategies have strengths and trade-offs, but each provides for the multitude of needs of hens in a way that provides good welfare.

Enriched Housing/Furnished Cages

Furnished Cage with a yellow nesting area, perches, and a scratch pad

Animal activists are campaigning that the Canadian system has not moved to house all our hens in cage-free systems, claiming that furnished cages do not provide acceptable living conditions for chickens. The
reality is that furnished cages provide hens with the ability to lay eggs in a nest, perch, and forage on small scratching areas. They also provide excellent bird health and air quality due to the separation of birds from their droppings and limit the amount of aggression and cannibalism because of the relatively small
group sizes.

Free Run/Aviary/Cage Free Housing

Typical Canadian Aviary System

Free-run and aviary systems allow the bird more freedom of movement, and better opportunities to do activities of their choosing. There is more chance to move vertically, and the opportunity to forage and dustbathe is improved versus what is provided in furnished cages. This freedom comes at a measurable cost to bird health and physical well-being. Laying hens are clumsy flyers and bone fractures are extremely common in non-caged housing, with upwards of 80% of the birds suffering at least one fracture in most cases. Because the litter in cage-free housing is made primarily of feces, the amount of dust is very high when the litter is kept dry. If the litter is allowed to become damp to control dust, there is the risk of high ammonia levels and acidic conditions that cause foot lesions, lameness, and bumblefoot. Access to litter also increases the risk of diseases and parasite infections not seen much in caged housing systems. Because of the large group sizes in cage-free housing, birds have more aggressive interactions to establish and re-establish pecking orders as birds interact with new flock members. Aggression,
cannibalism and suffocation due to piling are some of the major reasons that mortality rates in cage free housing are much higher than the mortality rates in furnished cages.

Animal Health & Welfare

It has always been obvious that animal health is a crucial component of animal welfare. Both consumers and people involved in caring for agricultural animals recognize and are putting more emphasis on mental stimulation and freedom as a component of animal welfare as well. With current technology and best management practices, the fact remains that the more you provide for freedom and mental stimulation, the more you negatively impact physical health. A group chosen for their expertise in animal welfare, health, and management concluded that furnished cages and cage-free systems are equally able to provide good welfare and recommended that both housing systems be acceptable ways to keep laying hens. It seems obvious that this decision should carry more weight than the opinion of a group of people who disagree with the fundamental idea of livestock farming and will ultimately not support the keeping of laying hens in any type of housing system, regardless of how conscientiously farmers care for their birds.

Mike The Chicken Vet

Help Your Flock Spring Forward

Spring is springing in Ontario, where I live! I’m sad that skiing is dying, but I saw the maintenance committee at the local golf course starting work, so there is hope! (Plus, I bought a new (used) set of irons over the winter, so my golf excuses are all set for this season! I am also seeing chickens out and about, and “Eggs for Sale” signs getting dusted off and hung.

Probably my last day on the slopes 😦

Spring is an important time for backyard flocks. Weather is variable, runs are muddy, and chickens are starting to lay…..hard. Wet environments cause more stress on your flocks from things like coccidiosis and worms, who will be sporulating and hatching, respectively. Managing the change of season will help set up your summer to be hassle free and keep your chickens comfortable and healthy.

Spring is the season of bumblefoot, egg binding and impacted crops. Wet feet and dirty perches are the main risk factors for bumblefoot. Think of soaking in a bathtub for hours (or getting a flooded rubber boot first thing in the morning). Your skin gets swollen, and more porous, and eventually sore. Now, if you are a chicken with wet litter or wet runs, you settle in to sleep, with your feet locked around a perch….now small wounds occur and bacteria get in, resulting in very painful infections that often require minor surgery to fix the lameness that occurs. Preventing bumblefoot requires good drainage, and coop cleaning, and spring is the most crucial time for this.

Long-time pressure on wet/dirty feet predispose bumblefoot

Egg laying chickens need way more calcium than do non-laying birds. Your hens likely took a winter holiday, but are now coming back into lay with a vengeance as the daylength increases. Since Calcium is laid down on the shell overnight, and lay occurs in the morning, we are asking hens to expend a massive amount of physical effort when their blood calcium levels are at their lowest. Calcium is also crucial for muscle contraction. If you are on a marginal (or deficient) amount of calcium in your feed, you may not know it, since the hens were not laying regularly. But in the spring, you may well end up with a hen that forms a shelled egg, but doesn’t have the strength to push it out. If this happens, giving extra sources of calcium in the form of limestone chips, oyster shell or clean eggshells will help. Dissolving a Tums antacid in water and dosing the affected chicken can help as a treatment. If the egg doesn’t pass in the first 24 hours or so, this becomes a bit of an emergency, since the membranes inside the vent can stick to the shell and make it less and less likely that the egg will pass naturally. Using lube to help the egg come out, and eventually it may be necessary to break the shell internally and remove the egg in pieces. Please contact your vet early if you have an egg-bound hen, since the later we see the bird, the harder it is to help her.

Severe case of bumblefoot. This is very painful, and often needs surgical intervention to help it heal

The other thing to be watchful in the spring ins air quality in the coop. When the day is warm and wet, and the nights get cold, often the first response is to close up the coop to keep it warm. The problem with this is that wet litter (and wet feet….see above) increases the amount of ammonia produced through bacterial respiration. This can cause irritation to the respiratory tract, the eyes and the bird’s feet. Resist the urge to close up your coop….temperature should never trump air quality. Chickens can handle quite cold temperatures, as long as the humidity doesn’t get high.

Enjoy your spring, and eat lots of omelets….you should have plenty of raw materials!!!


Mareks Vaccine Info

As I talk to different backyard producers, and offer vaccines to keepers in my area, the number one issue that causes consternation and confusion is Mareks vaccination. Opinions range from “don’t vaccinate, it will make your birds sick”, to “vaccinated birds pose a risk to non-vaccinated birds”, to “vaccines result in hotter strains of Mareks Disease in the field”, to “don’t vaccinate, just breed for resistance”. When I try to discuss these opinions with the people who promote them, I get half-truths, misunderstandings and different philosophies on health provision. So, to decrease the number of times I explain my point of view on Mareks vaccine, here is a summary of what I know, and how I think the vaccine works. Keep in mind, I have looked after roughly 100 million vaccinated birds that have ALL been housed in places where large numbers of birds have been kept before, and have almost definitely all been exposed to Mareks Disease.

Vaccines work by exposing an animal’s immune system either to a weakened form of a disease causing agent, or a protein that mimics one that is produced by a disease causing agent, thereby tricking the immune system into attacking the agent the first time the body actually sees it. Every foreign protein that enters the body is separated and presented to the immune system by cells called macrophages. It is important to note first off that Mareks Vaccine CANNOT cause Mareks Disease, and CANNOT shed the vaccine to cause disease in other birds in the flock. Unfortunately, not sharing the virus with flockmates means that only the chicks that have been injected will have any immunity to Mareks.

Antibodies that are effective against a virus must be very specific. The common analogy is a lock and key relationship. Creating a key to fit a lock takes a long time, and a bunch of energy, but cutting identical keys is quick and easy. The proteins presented by macrophages are the templates for key production. Once the first key is produced, it is stored in the body for reference (called immunoglobulin M or IgM). If that same protein enters the body, IgM is used as a template to make tons of immunoglobulin G, which meet up with the protein, and cause it to be killed. (I hope you appreciate that entire text books are written on Immune function, and immune stimulation. This is a Cole’s notes version of a Cole’s notes version of immunology).

So, since this process is so INCREDIBLY simple, why the confusion and disagreement on Mareks vaccines? Well, unfortunately, with MD immunology, there is a wrinkle. The IgG that is produced by the body does not kill ALL the Mareks virus that enters the body. Much of the virus dies, and the amount that is available to be shed is very much decreased, but the IgG merely surrounds some of the virus particles, and keeps them from entering the cells of the vaccinated chicken, saving it from disease, but not preventing the bird from carrying the virus, and potentially shedding it. This is why the vaccine is described as “leaky”. Even vaccinated birds can harbour Mareks Disease Virus, if they are exposed to it. Most people have read this somewhere, and form strong opinions around it. Here is what many people DON’T know. The vaccine reduces the amount of virus shed to about 1/1000 to 1/10000 the amount that is shed in non-vaccinated birds. A study by Nair, et al. in 2010 found the following. 9/9 birds who got challenged with MD with no vaccine died. 0/9 birds with one vaccine, and 1/9 birds with another vaccine died. But the authors also measured the shedding rate of vaccinated and non-vaccinated birds:

Triangles are Unvaccinated. Squares are Vaccinated birds.

What I want to point out is the scale. The non-vaccinated chickens shed around to 1 million virus particles per thousand cells while vaccinated birds shed less than 10% as much virus. So the leakiness of the vaccine is less than 10% that of unvaccinated birds. Even though Mareks can be carried and shed by vaccinated birds, the risk is reduced to less than 10% of the non-vaccinated birds….assuming the non-vaccinated birds survive.

In a way, that is probably the greatest risk posed by vaccinated chickens with respect to shedding Mareks Disease….they don’t die as young, so they survive long enough to be a source of virus longer. The problem is, most backyarders will replace the birds that die, and if the replacements are non-vaccinated as well, they harbour and shed vast amounts of the virus they pick up when they join the infected flock.

As for vaccines increasing the rate of mutation and the increase in virulence of Mareks disease viruses present, that is probably true. Anything that makes it harder for any biological being to survive will add pressure to evolve to be more successful. It’s why cheetahs run so fast….the slow ones died out during hard times. (Interestingly, the 3rd and 4th fastest animals on earth are the springbok and wildebeest, 2 of the cheetah’s main prey). But, when you consider the risk of a virulent virus developing in backyard flocks when compared to the evolutionary pressure of literally billions of vaccinated commercial chickens yearly, I think the risk is put into perspective. The odds of having to protect your flock from a virulent strain from somewhere else is astronomically higher than the risk of developing a highly pathogenic strain in your flock.

Finally, the arguement for selecting robust breeds of chickens that are naturally resistant to Mareks, rather than vaccinating. As a vet, I see that as an arguement to let any weak ones die. There is no way to predict what birds will succumb to Mareks. Often it takes well over a year for the tumors to cause symptoms in a chicken. So, is the answer to keep your chickens until they are 2-3 years old before hatching any chicks? By then, you may only have 10% survivability. You need 90% of your chickens to die a preventable death before you can even begin to select for resistance. If that was it, it might be doable. The problem is that the next generation is only slightly more resistant to Mareks than the current one. You have to sacrifices birds for generations to get a noticeable increase in resistance. And then hope the virus doesn’t mutate, and wipe out all your gains. Believe me, all the genetic companies are very interested in increasing genetic resistance to Mareks Disease, but they haven’t made significant progress.

So….there are my views on Mareks Vaccines. There are 2 types of chickens….those that have been vaccinated for Mareks Disease, or those that should have been vaccinated for Mareks Disease. I expect some of you will disagree, and I welcome any questions….I will answer them as clearly as I can.

Oh, and my experience with Mareks Disease in the 100+ Million vaccinated birds I have dealt with? I carry my phone with me, and take pictures whenever I find a bird with tumors….it’s rare enough that it is an event for me to find a bird full of tumors. Make of that what you will.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Mike The Chicken Vet V2.0

Hi Everyone!

Contrary to rumors (and certain people’s hopes, I’m sure!), I have not disappeared, died or been abducted by aliens. I have been busy working my job as a commercial laying hen vet, being surprisingly busy with poultry welfare projects, changing lifestyle (amicable divorce, dating, now re-engaged), raising kids, etc, etc. I know, nobody cares about that stuff. The other thing that many of you MIGHT care about is that I have started a relationship (not part of the dating fiasco…..professional relationship) with a staggeringly competent vet who has built a career doing small animal, exotic, and avian medicine. We bumped into each other on the opposite sides of an animal welfare investigation of a backyard flock. Neither one of us needed to be “right”, and worked together to solve the problems, help the owner and get the birds into a better situation.

Giving ILT vaccine via eyedrop to a Polish pullet

After the investigation, Nickey was telling me about HER backyard flock, and the lack of information readily available for backyard poultry, and the impossibility of getting/providing vaccines for small groups of birds. One thing led to another, and we got talking about both our opportunities, abilities and knowledge. She was competent and confident in all the aspects of individual bird care….surgeries, diagnostics, work-ups and hospitalization. I know disease transmission, vaccines, biosecurity, behaviour, nutrition and post-mortem examination. My new fiance made me watch some romantic movie and somebody said “you complete me….” as sappy music played (I might not have been watching closely). It was sort of like that with Nickey.

Oral vaccines for a chick

So….long story short, we have found a way to provide vaccines, advice and medicine to backyard flocks. With all this exposure to small flocks, I am facing a TON of questions about backyard chickens that I am actually surprised are not more easy to answer. So, I thought I would resuscitate the blog with a bit of a new focus on backyard hens. I will still try to explain and expose what commercial farms are like, and may rant about other things occasionally, but will use this as a space to try to explain some of the misconceptions out there about backyard flocks.

Hope you guys come along for the ride.

Mike the Chicken Vet

Avian Influenza Is Back

As you may have noticed through the news lately, Avian Influenza has been found in North America again.  Tennessee, Alabama, and most recently Georgia have had isolations of Avian Influenza.  In Ontario, the Ontario Animal Health Network is a group of veterinarians who work together to coordinate animal health strategies in Ontario.  We have produced a podcast where Dr. Tom Baker, the director of the Feather Board Command Centre, an industry group that takes charge of disease outbreaks if they occur in Ontario.  The podcast covers information that should be of interest to small flock keepers.  There is a huge amount of expertise in the 20 minute interview that follows.  I hope you find it valuable.

Mike the Chicken Vet


Euthanasia for Backyard Birds

This is a post I have been wanting to write for a long time, but hesitant to take on.  I have done A LOT of work with the professional poultry producers in the past couple years, teaching the best euthanasia techniques and procedures.  It is possibly the biggest contribution I will make in my career to animal welfare.  I believe that it is part of the responsibility of any animal owner to reduce the suffering of any animal in their care, and euthanasia is an important part of that.  I have also been asked by many of you in my comment section for advice, and have seen a LOT of questionable things floating around on the internet.

One thing I will never do is tell an owner WHEN it is appropriate to euthanize.  You need to make that decision based on your values, ethics and experience.  I have my opinion of whether it is humane to try to set a broken leg on a chicken and try to get her to recover.  You have your opinion.  Both of our opinions are based on how we compute pain endured vs the value of extending a life.  As long as we both consider the situation, and make the decision based on the welfare of the animal, we are both right.  Of course, we are both wrong as well.  Nobody, regardless of experience, ever euthanizes at the perfect time….we do our best and have to live with the decisions.

Euthanasia definitely does not have to be a “do it yourself” process.  Veterinarians will euthanize birds in most cases….often they do not feel comfortable diagnosing or treating, but will still perform this important service.  If the cost, distance or circumstances preclude you using a vets’ services, I would far rather see you do the job properly yourself, than botch something as important and emotional as this.

Now, some general information about euthanasia.  I consider these facts, and have spent a lot of time and study convincing myself of these truths:

  1. Euthanasia is an effective tool in improving the welfare of an individual or group of animals
  2. Euthanasia is more often performed too late, rather than too early.  More birds suffer needlessly because their keepers aren’t willing to perform the job than suffer a needless early death.
  3. Euthanasia is NOT about making a bird dead.  The crucial part is making the bird unconscious quickly.  I can soak a bird in kerosene, and light it on fire… will ALWAYS end up dead, but this is NOT euthanasia.  Once a bird cannot feel pain or fear, the method used to kill the body is almost irrelevant, for the bird’s welfare.
  4. The “appetizing” factor in any method of euthanasia is not relevant to the bird’s welfare.  If the bird bleeds, or goes through convulsions, or the act looks violent, the method may still be very humane.  The “yuck” factor is an important component of the effect on the “doer”, and this is something to take into consideration, but doesn’t necessarily affect the well-being of the bird.
  5. Treating an animal with respect will always result in better welfare for both the animal and yourself.  If you are doing the best technique you can, and making decisions based on what is best for the bird, you can feel good about what you do.

With these truths in mind, I am going to describe two methods of euthanasia for backyard poultry keepers to consider.  They should be appropriate for the vast majority of people who raise chickens on a small scale.  I will describe them in gory detail, and will tell you HOW they work, and why they are humane.  There are other methods that are humane….I have chosen the most accessible methods that I think will be most useful for small flock owners.  If you are squeamish, you may want to stop reading now.

Cervical Dislocation

Cervical dislocation  is humane, if done properly.  The benefits of this method is that it can be done immediately after identifying that a bird should be euthanized, and needs no tools.  It causes unconsciousness in around 40 seconds after being applied, and is very repeatable….that is, it works every time it is done properly.  The way cervical dislocation causes unconsciousness is by stretching the neck, dislocating the joint at the base of the skull.  This causes the spinal cord (which is very elastic) to snap, and the resulting recoil causes brain damage and unconsciousness through concussion.  It causes death by breaking the blood vessels (carotid arteries and jugular veins) so that the brain runs out of oxygen.

Cervical dislocation is NOT effective if the dislocation occurs far down the neck (figure 2), if the neck isn’t stretched lengthwise (“breaking the neck” doesn’t make the bird unconscious….it will die, after several minutes), or if bones are crushed in the process. Spinning the bird (referred to sometimes as the “helicopter” method) is unacceptable, and the “broomstick” method is questionable, depending on technique….if you put too much weight on the broomstick, or stand on it too long, you are causing unnecessary pain and discomfort.  The technique that works best, and is recommended by veterinarians and welfare associations is as follows:

  • Hold the bird by the legs, tight to your bodyposition
  • Grasp the bird by the head, either between the two fingers of the dominant hand, or by the thumb and first finger around the neck

hold1                 hold2

  • Tilt the birds head well back, so it points towards the tail of the bird (this position aligns the joints so that it is much easier to dislocate the head from the neck)
  • Firmly push the head away from your body until you feel the head separate (you will definitely feel the joint let go)
  • Pinch just behind the head to ensure that the head has separated from the neck.  You will feel a definite gap, and it will feel like there are 2 layers of skin between your fingers.


  • The bird will convulse and go into spasms….this is normal, and results from the loss of central control over the muscles.  The movements do NOT mean the bird is conscious or suffering.
  • Always ensure that the euthanasia has been effective by monitoring the bird until after convulsions stop and you can observe lack of breathing and that you cannot hear a heartbeat, either by listening to the chest with a stethoscope (if you have one), or by placing your ear against the birds chest.


Decapitation is an effective, humane method of dispatching a suffering animal.  It is NOT instantaneous, but very quick, with unconsciousness usually occurring within 15-20 seconds.  Unconsciousness occurs when the head is removed, and the Cerebral Spinal Fluid (CSF) escapes from the cut spinal cord.  CSF is a fluid that acts to keep the brain and spinal cord “floating” inside the skull and spine… letting this escape, the brain will come in contact with the skull, causing concussion and unconsciousness.  Obviously, death will follow because of loss of blood flow to the brain.  An important factor in this method is that the head MUST be completely removed.  Cutting the major vessels and bleeding the bird out is not humane.  Yes….the backyard slaughter method used by many small flock owners is NOT acceptable.  If you cut all the blood vessels in the neck, the bird will stay conscious until the oxygen in the brain runs out…..3-4 minutes later.  It is called exsanguination (or “bleeding”), and is identified as an UNACCEPTABLE method of killing a bird by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association).  If you want to bleed a bird (ie for slaughter), you must make it unconscious first.

Other things to consider when euthanizing via decapitation, are that the blades used must be sharp, and the head must be removed in one cut.  The blade, or the scissors must be large enough that one motion completely removes the head.  Scissors are helpful as they improve human safety.  Axes and knives work very well, but you must be careful!  A stump with 2 nails driven in about an inch apart is a good way to hold the head safely, and cutting cones are very helpful to hold the bird still and keep your fingers away from the blade.

cutting-cone3              cleaver

There are other humane methods that can be used, but for various reasons, I don’t think are valuable to describe here.  Blunt force trauma is very difficult to do properly, and emotionally disturbing for the person delivering the blow…..the odds of mis-hitting among people who rarely do it are too high for me to recommend it to you.  But, in the hands of an experienced, effective operator, this method is extremely humane, despite the violence of the act.  Carbon Dioxide gas, captive bolt devices, Low Atmospheric stunning, and electrocution are all humane, and you may hear of them, but need far too much equipment, are often too dangerous and need a lot of training to be done right.  Any of these methods, done incorrectly, are inhumane.

Remember….euthanasia is not about making the bird die….it is about how they get there.  I’ve heard of backyard poultry people drowning birds, poisoning them, freezing them and other methods that are NOT humane.  I choose to believe that they didn’t know of better methods, and hope this article helps.

One last point.  Consider what your bird is going through as you are deciding when to euthanize.  Remember that chickens hide pain, even severe pain, very well.  It’s important to realize that it takes a LOT of discomfort for a bird to stop eating and act sick….hunched up in a corner of a coop.  Very often, I feel that more suffering is caused by waiting too long to euthanize than even by people who euthanize incorrectly.  It is part of your responsibility as an owner to care for your birds, and if her situation is painful and seems hopeless, it is time to start seriously considering euthanasia.

Mike the Chicken Vet



Is Animal Welfare a Real Priority for Consumers?

I have been involved firsthand in many of the changes that are being required of agriculture to respond to animal welfare demands by consumers.  I have noticed a few things that I think are very interesting, and, frankly, movie-worthy.

Consumer pressure has pushed for the removal of gestation stalls for sows and caged housing for laying hens, pressure against fast growing broiler chickens, and removal of antibiotics, hormones and growth promotants in all animals.  We can debate the end result of many of these requests, and whether they actually result in improved animal welfare, or whether the gain is worth the loss in other areas such as environmental impact, human health or economics.  That is interesting, but the question I keep running up against is whether the public ACTUALLY WANTS the things they are “asking” for.

Huh?  I know you are asking yourself if I’ve bumped my head or drank too much (questions I’ve had to face far too often in my career), but bear with me.  I am going to use caged chickens as an example to show you what I mean (the blog is not Mikethepigvet, after all).

Don’t get me wrong….I understand that animal welfare is a big concern for some people, and those people have been making choices of what to buy based on their values for years.  And I believe that almost everyone has a desire, all things being equal, that animals be treated well.  BUT, remember that improving animal welfare makes eggs more expensive…cage free eggs will always be more expensive than caged eggs, and organic eggs will always be more expensive than both.  Does the general public want welfare improvements enough to pay for them?

Think back a couple years….on TV is a lovable guy who works for A&W, and he is telling you that you can get a burger that is free of hormones, antibiotics and guilt (I might be paraphrasing).  This ad campaign was hugely successful, and A&W became a  much bigger


Yeah, this guy….how could you NOT believe him?

player in the fast-food arena, despite not bringing back the drive in.  A&W had identified a concern held by some of the consumers, and addressed it.  They were seen as good, responsive corporate citizens, and gained trust and goodwill.

Other restaurants had to respond…they were losing business.  Enter McDonalds.  They had been struggling with their image as the prototypical fast-food outlet and blamed for singlehandedly causing the obesity trend in the world.  In response, they rolled out all day breakfast and pledged to source eggs from only cage-free hens.  They had a very solid response and uptick in business and image.

In Ronald’s eyes, the public really WANTED cage free eggs….the switch was in response to public values.  People responded to McDonald’s doing something that made them seem like “good guys”…, Egg McMuffins are delicious.

Other restaurants saw a behemoth like McDs moving to cage-free and followed suit, because the public wanted it.

Around the same time, surveys were done by activist groups that showed that 90+% of people felt it was important to treat animals kindly and that confinement was not kind.

So….come to my part of the world.  Over the past few years, more chickens have been housed in aviaries and other cage-free houses in Ontario….to meet the commitments made by the big retailers.  Everyone built a little bigger than they needed to, because – hey, the public wants cage-free eggs, and the market would do nothing but expand, and eggs that didn’t go to the food retailers would sell like hotcakes (also delicious) in the grocery store.

Why, then, are there thousands of dozens of eggs being produced in aviaries and floor barns in Ontario being sold as regular eggs….without earning the premium price that is necessary to pay for the more expensive method of production?  There are cage-free eggs front and center in every egg display in every grocery store in the province…..I have trouble finding the regular eggs that I buy (they are at knee level, near the back of the cooler).  I thought the public WANTED cage-free eggs.

Why, then, has the demand for specialty eggs not increased noticeably?  It continues to creep slowly upwards, but the number of organic, free-run, and cage-free eggs bought in the store is essentially the same, and well less than 10% of eggs sold.  (I don’t count omega-3 eggs in this, because they are produced by changing the birds diet, and are laid predominantly by chickens in cages).

Consider this…..are consumers responding to the willingness of the restaurants to show that they are responsive and “good guys”, more than an alignment with specific animal welfare priorities.  Consumers “accept” the changes in the restaurants, but don’t “choose” those same eggs in the store.

The implications for farmers are huge….they are going to change their way of housing birds, but if they invest millions into non-cage systems, but the public doesn’t want to buy them they will literally go broke.  If they invest millions in the new furnished cage systems, and the public DOES demand cage-free in the store, they will go broke.  Makes me glad I’m not making the decision right now, but it does make me worry for the friends I have in the industry.


Mike the Chicken Vet




















I’m Back!

Hi Everyone;

I have been away for too long.  I apologize, but have a good excuse…..well, several excuses, actually.  I accidentally overbooked myself into several projects to do with animal welfare, backyard chickens, advances in commercial egg production, and all the personal stuff that comes from having 2 kids that keep all the rest of the projects in perspective.

I think these past couple years have given me new perspectives on the poultry world that hopefully will make my blog posts a little more insightful.  Many of my projects have been at the national level and have made me think about bigger issues in bigger ways.  Conversely, I have done some projects that involve backyard flocks, which makes me think about smaller issues, in smaller ways…..equally challenging, surprisingly!

The things that sidetracked me from writing here over the past year or so have included being a member of the National Farm Animal Care Council committee to develop that Code of Practice for Poultry (Layers).  This document is basically a set of rules that define what is considered humane treatment for egg laying chickens in Canada.  It is a national standard, that is going to be implemented across the country.  As you can imagine, this was a VERY complicated process, and involved finding a middle ground that retailers, researchers, vets, humane societies and producers could all agree on…..I think we should take on the Palistine situation next….it couldn’t be a lot more complicated.  The code we produced, which will be published this March, is one that I am very proud to be a part of….it truly improves the welfare of millions of chickens, while still being practical.  I will tell you more about the process in a later post.

I have been very involved in developing and delivering a euthanasia course to all the laying hen producers in Ontario (yes, every one), and to a large percentage of the producers across the country.  Euthanasia has been one of those subjects that everyone wonders about but people don’t want to talk about openly (kinda like that funny looking nephew at the family reunion…..admit it…).  All producers, from the small backyard keeper to the largest professional farm need to have a plan in place to deal with an injured or sick chicken.  The decisions around when and how to euthanize are personal, emotional, and difficult, no matter what the size of your operation.  It is a subject that has been poorly communicated historically, and the course we made and delivered has been really successful and well received by the producers that attended.  I hope to explain practical methods of euthanizing to this audience as well.  I hope that you can understand the process, if it is valuable to you, or at least understand what chicken farmers face when they have to deal with euthanasia.

I have been involved with teaching how-to courses to backyard chicken keepers near me in Ontario, and being part of developing a course for non-poultry vets to give them the basics of chicken medicine so that they can be of service to backyard producers or small flock farmers in their area.  It was fun to explain some of what I do to some old colleagues, and it is definitely valuable to get some more vets out there that are willing and able to service small flocks.

I was also involved in developing a hatchery welfare program that is being implemented in the hatcheries across the country.  Again, the hatcheries have somewhat “fallen through the cracks” with respect to programs.  Don’t get me wrong, the welfare of the birds is very important in our hatcheries, but now we have a program that ensures that we are all measuring welfare in the same way, and trying to improve our processes as a group.  There are several new technologies and processes that are improving the welfare of all chicks in the first day of life.  I am continuing to work on these issues, and will share these advances in the next little while in the blog.

Finally, I have been very involved in the health of the laying hens in Ontario.  This means that I was busy helping to recover from Avian Influenza over the past year.  Understanding how the disease is spread, and the things that a country has to do to regain the status of being “free from Avian Influenza”, and the importance of that distinction gave me a new understanding of this devastating disease and the repercussions.

So, in summary….I am back….I have missed writing this blog, and am very glad to have the time to get back to it.  I hope there are still those of you that are interested in what I have to say, and I hope that I can share some things that are of value to you.

Thanks for reading,

Mike the Chicken Vet.





Avian Influenza Hits Ontario

It has happened.  The event that poultry vets, suppliers, farmers and supporting industries have been preparing for and dreading for years….Avian Influenza has been isolated in Ontario.  As you can imagine, this is a very busy time for those of us in the industry, putting in control measures, routing deliveries, sampling to identify any other flocks, and implementing our emergency procedures.  We are working closely (and surprisingly well) with govornments at the provincial and national levels to minimize the impact and the number of birds affected.  This virus is also a risk for backyard and hobby farmers as well.  Ironically, we had produced an information sheet on Avian Influenza for small flocks because of the prevalence in the US, and concerns it might come here…..well….here it is…OAHN poultry small flock PRODUCER REPORT avian flu FINAL

This is an information sheet with some useful stuff for small flocks.  It will be valuable for anyone in any area where avian influenza is present.  Our group will also be developing a webinar for small flocks in the next little while, to help you develop a strategy to keep your birds safe.  Feel free to share this with anyone who might find it useful.  I will try to keep you updated as I can on things that may be useful to you.

If only they'd keep the darn things ON!

Mike the Chicken Vet