Monthly Archives: February 2017

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…..it 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.

pinch

  • 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

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…..by 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

 

 

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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

aw-guy

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”…..plus, 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