It is the million dollar question….not for chickens, but for all animals. People talk all the time about how animals are, or are not, happy. Animal activist groups demand that animals be allowed to feel happy. Everyone involved with animals (unless they are either a psychopath or sociopath) want their animals to be happy. It ranks right up there with world peace.
The question is, how do you know? I spent a semester in an upper level university course, where a very well-respected animal behaviour expert explained to us the latest and greatest findings in the relatively new field of animal ethology (animal behaviour and welfare). Any conclusions made with regards to affective emotions are hotly disputed, even among ethicists. Since the only way to know that people feel pleasure is for them to say so, it is daunting to develop some kind of test for an animal that doesn’t sense the world in the same way we do, and doesn’t communicate in the same ways we do. There is evidence that animals feel pleasure….shown by giving them access to mood altering drugs, and see if they behave the same way they do when we think they are happy. The question remains whether the drugs have the same action on the animal’s brain….but there is evidence that they do.
Keeping this uncertainty in mind (how much pleasure animals feel, how do we know?), there are a lot of measures of contentment. They mostly measure the absence of stuff…..pain, fear, discomfort, stress….things that can be observed or measured. Now….keeping THIS uncertainty in mind (how accurate are our measures, are we measuring enough things, or the right things?), how do YOU know YOUR hens are happy?
There is one more wrinkle to keep in mind….chickens are prey animals. Prey animals are described as “stoic”. Imagine you’re an impala in the African veldt….there is a lion in the grass, and yesterday, you pulled your hamstring. Do you act like a Saturday morning hockey hero?….limping around, holding the affected limb, and telling everyone about the incredible play that caused the heinous injury? Or do you do everything you possibly can to hide the injury? Chickens do the latter….extremely well.
So….to keep your chickens “happy”, you need to know, pretty accurately, how your chickens act when they are not stressed, sick, hurt, cold or hungry. Usually anything that affects a hen negatively will result in her being
“quieter”….”duller”….”down”….or “depressed”. She will sit around a lot, her feathers will often be “puffed up”, and her comb and wattles will look wrinkly and limp. It is important that you know what normal is, since birds on their deathbed will only look a little bit quieter or depressed, especially to the casual observer. If you see one of your charges lazing around, or sitting in a corner when she characteristically wouldn’t be, don’t hesitate to go over to her and check on her….she may never give you much more indication that things are not right.
Obvious things should be watched for too….if the hens are all laying on top of each other, they may be cold….if they stop laying eggs, they may have an infection….if they have nasal or ocular discharge, or diarrhea, veterinary examinations may be in order…..if she is limping, she likely has a “lower body injury”…..or maybe she just scored an incredible goal in the Saturday morning chicken hockey game.
The most important thing to do, to keep in tune with your flock, is to spend time with them, and get to know them, so you can notice subtle signs….remember, you can’t correct problems you are not aware of.
Mike the Chicken Vet