Death is a part of life and when it comes, it comes for everything even chickens. Handing the death of a pet chicken can be distressing and it’s important to know what to do to minimize the impact on your own physical and emotional health and the health and welfare of the rest of your flock. With that in mind, we’ve rounded up everything that you need to know about when a chicken dies.
What To Do With A Pet Chicken When It Dies: A Practical Guide includes the top 5 causes of chicken death and how to prevent them, what to do with a dead chicken including the law, protecting yourself and your family, protecting the flock and investigating the causes. We also look at how to bury and grieve for a pet chicken. Finally, we touch on how to help your chickens deal with their loss too.
The Top 5 Causes Of Chicken Death
Before we turn to what to do with a chicken that has passed away, it can be really useful to understand the main causes of chicken death and how we can prevent them – after all, it’s better not to have a dead chicken in the first place, right?
This is a condition where the oviduct becomes infected because during the laying process, the yolk fails to be properly surrounded by an egg. This is typically caused by a hen becoming overweight, so you want to make sure that your chickens are eating a balanced and healthy diet and if you think that they’re getting a little portly, you might want to cut down on their calorie intake until they are a little less chubby.
Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Fever
You may have heard of “Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Fever” being referred to as “Scratch Fed Syndrome” and that’s because it refers to the fact that chickens, which are getting scratch fed, are much more likely to get this. It’s caused by too much sugar (carbs) in the chicken’s diet which results in fat deposits being generated in the body which end up being attracted to the liver. Liver failure is an unpleasant way to die and again, it can be prevented by examining how you feed your chickens.
The most likely way for any chicken to die, however, is simply at the hands of a predator. It’s not always possible to keep all predators away but you can reduce the odds significantly by using electric fences around the perimeter of your property. You can also invest in an “integrated predator management plan” which attempts to reduce risks by interrupting the flight path of predatory birds, brings in guard animals and uses long narrow pens to make it harder to interfere with the birds as they go about their business.
Yes, it’s grim but chickens are prone to a bit of cannibalism and the truth is that it’s (mainly) easy to prevent. You need to ensure that your coop has plenty of space for your chickens to wander about in and that they are not vying for space around feeder troughs, etc. You also need to ensure they’re getting a balanced diet because cannibalism is often a result of a mineral or vitamin deficiency. You can also ensure your chickens have plenty of fun and games during the day, so they are too tired to fight each other. If you find a chicken which is particularly prone to pecking you can buy it some pinless peepers which prevent them from pecking at each other.
Vent prolapse is caused mainly by problems in the housing of the birds, you should ensure that your perches are no more than 2 feet above the floor and no more than 2 feet apart in order to prevent them from injuring themselves (you will also be able to prevent Bumblefoot using this precaution too).
The best perches are also rectangular in shape. There is also some evidence that diet and even good natural light can help prevent this condition. It is also treatable if caught in time (see video below):
What To Do With A Dead Pet Chicken
You can take all the precautions possible, however, and chickens are still going to pass away. Sometimes, it will be from old age and other times for disease or other factors. This will be a sad time for you, but you must follow the proper processes in order to comply with laws and ensure you, your family and your birds remain as safe as possible.
State And Local Laws
It’s important to note that there is no complete guide to all the different states and jurisdictions around the world when it comes to the disposal of a deceased animal. You are normally going to be OK to bury the animal on your own land but if you want to cremate it or the animal may have died of disease or poisoning, you may have to follow a reporting process mandated by law.
For that reason, we would always recommend consulting a vet on how to be compliant with your local legal framework. You don’t want to end up mourning a chicken and facing criminal charges, do you?
Most diseases that infect chickens are not zoonotic (that is they can’t jump from chicken to person) but some are including the infamous avian flu which doesn’t pass very well from person to person, which is just as well because it is very, very dangerous to people and the mortality rate is shocking.
That means you should never handle a dead bird with your bare hands (in fact, you should never handle any dead animal with bare hands). Ideally, you should have a box of gloves hanging around just in case such an unhappy instance should arise – these should be the nitrile gloves you can pick up in any pharmacy.
If you don’t have nitrile gloves, you can wear two pairs (one over the other) of grocery gloves. You should take care to remove the exterior gloves with the interior ones before removing the interior gloves and dispose of the gloves in the waste as soon as they come off.
We’d also recommend investing in a breathing mask. Dust from chicken coops can cause infections in human being and it can also stimulate dust allergies, etc. Don’t take any chances and you are very unlikely to catch anything from your dead chicken.
Investigate Your Flock
If you don’t know why your chicken died, you need to turn a detective’s eye on the other members of the flock and that’s for two reasons:
- They may be the murderers. You want to make sure their beaks and talons aren’t covered in blood and they’re not suffering broken feathers, etc. If they are, you’ll want to examine their diet and change things up. It happens, you’re not to blame but you may be able to stop it from happening in the future.
- They may be sick. If the bird died of illness, it’s possible that other members of the flock are now looking unhealthy. If so, you should separate them from the rest of the flock immediately and then contact a vet for advice.
In most cases, you’ll probably find nothing at all. Chickens die and often there’s no obvious reason for it.
Examine The Coop
Once you’ve taken care of the flock, it’s time to turn your detective skills on to the coop itself. You’re looking for:
- Blood on the perch. This can indicate that there’s been fighting in the coop and that might mean the bird died in a fight.
- The bird’s droppings. You’re looking for worms, blood or anything that seems unusual about their discharge – this can mean that they’re suffering from sort of disease.
- The windows, doorways and any vents. Any sign of a draft might mean that the chicken died of exposure.
- The food and water. You want to make sure this is fresh, healthy and is not contaminated by rodent droppings or urine, mold, or other unpleasant items.
- The smell of the air. An ammonia-like smell can mean the bedding is decomposing and may be breeding bacteria and/or mold.
- Check the walls and floor. You’re looking for any gaps that a predator might be able to force their way into.
Again, it’s entirely possible that your investigations yield no useful clues as to what has happened, but they might, so it’s worth looking to be sure.
Post-Mortem Flock Care
It doesn’t matter why the bird died or whether your investigations yield any tangible results, it does matter, however, that you take some basic steps to protect the rest of the flock from potential contaminants from the dead bird:
- Rake and remove any bedding in the coop. If the chicken was sick or began decomposing in their bedding it won’t be healthy anymore. It’s contaminated and it’s not optional. We know that in the middle of winter this can be a fairly awful job, but it has to be done.
- Get rid of all food and water and replace them. You want to ensure that you clean and then disinfect the containers before refilling them too.
- Patch any holes you found in the coop before allowing the birds to return. There’s no point in inviting in predators – so seal up any spaces that might lead to problems.
Get Professional Help
If you can’t work out why your chicken died, you really need to involve a veterinarian to arrange a “necropsy” (which is what they call an autopsy when it’s for animals). You may have to ring around a few different vets for this service because it’s quite an unusual thing to offer (believe it or not).
This will allow you to ensure that if your chicken died of disease that you can take the best steps to protect the rest of the flock from it.
How To Say Goodbye To A Pet Chicken
Pet chickens are a part of the family and while they may not evoke the same strength of emotion for everyone, in some families their loss will be felt keenly. So, we’ve got a process that might help with saying goodbye to your loved one.
An Exercise For The Children In The Family
Small children that haven’t encountered death before may take the loss of a pet rather harder than the rest of the family. It can help to get them to draw a picture of their chicken as they cross the rainbow bridge or if you are a religious family and believe that pets go to heaven, heaven is also fine.
Then they can either keep that picture with them to look at when they feel sad or they can bury it with the chicken to help them keep the chicken safe on its journey.
Mourning For Your Chicken
It is OK to mourn a pet and it can help to remember the following as you do:
- Grieving happens at its own pace. Some members of the family may move on quickly, others may need more time. You can’t force this process to speed up.
- It’s completely normal to mourn your pet. Sadness, shock, loneliness, etc. are common emotions after the loss of a chicken that you love and are nothing to feel ashamed of.
- It is better to mourn than bury your emotions. Bottling up our emotions appears to lead to bigger problems emotionally at a later date – it’s better to embrace and acknowledge your grief and to work through it.
In most families we feel that burial is going to be appropriate for your chicken and assuming this isn’t breaking your local laws, you can follow this process:
- Dig deep – you should be at least 3 feet and ideally more before you inter your bird. This will stop predators from digging up the corpse. If the bird had to be put down, we’d say go even deeper, the chemicals used might leach into the soil otherwise.
- Wrap the bird – use a newspaper or a cotton towel for this, you don’t want to interfere with the decomposition process. If you don’t want to wrap the bird, it’s not compulsory but it can help prevent distress in little ones.
- Fill the hole with earth to the top and tamp it down once the burial is finished.
If any part of you or your clothes came into contact with the dead bird, you should wash yourself or your clothes thoroughly before eating, drinking or undertaking any other activities.
Reflection For Your Chicken
It can help to set aside a few minutes to talk as a family about how you feel about your chicken’s passing and to share some fond memories of the bird. This can aid in the emotional healing process. You may also want to start planning on how to add a new bird or birds to your flock at this time.
Chickens And Death
It is also possible that your chickens will go through a period of emotional trauma and/or mourning following the death of a flock mate and we’ve got some advice on that too:
Dealing With Chicken Trauma
Chickens are fairly simple creatures and often the easiest way to comfort them is to give them food (ideally the food that they like the most). This will bring them together and as social creatures, it will allow them to offer each other comfort and emotional support.
It will also help them come to terms with the fact that the pecking order of the flock will have changed following a loss and to re-order things as necessary for the overall social welfare of their family unit.
Dealing With Chickens Mourning
After a hen dies, it’s not unusual for their closest friends to undertake what appears to be a period of mourning. Their body language appears to be sad and repressed. They call out over and over “where are you?” (or at least, the chicken equivalent of this phrase) and appear disappointed when there’s no response.
Mourning chickens will often remove themselves from the vicinity of the rest of the flock until their mourning period is over. There is no way for you to assist in this process, but most hens will eventually get over their loss and return to the life they had before.
It has been known, however, for some hens to become depressed, withdrawn and eventually stop eating and die from the loss of a friend. It’s unusual but not impossible.
We hope that our “What To Do With A Pet Chicken When It Dies: A Practical Guide” has been useful to you and that if you do lose a chicken that this sad time is something you will be able to handle more effectively, now. Chickens are wonderful pets and their passing is something that is a part of life but can be very distressing for the owner unless it is death with correctly.
Here are some of my favorite products for chickens and their coops: