Farm Animal Welfare: Chickens

When studied in their natural environments chickens are intelligent, brave birds, with social hierarchies as sophisticated as those formed by dogs and other mammals.

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Laying Hens

Without a doubt, laying hens are the most abused animals in all of farming, living their lives in a space less than the area of a single sheet of paper.

The Life of a Battery Caged Hen

Laying hens are born in commercial hatcheries, hatched by the thousands in industrial incubators. Male chicks, unable to lay eggs and of a different strain than boiler chickens, are killed shortly after hatching. They are typically ground up alive, gassed, or thrown into dumpsters. About 260 million male chicks are killed by the egg industry annually.

Most of the surviving hens are beak-trimmed, a process deemed necessary by the egg industry to decrease cannibalism and other aggressive tendencies, and to reduce feed costs by preventing the flicking of food. Pictures of debeaking were not included here due to their disturbing nature. The procedure, performed without anesthesia, involves the slicing of the beak of a young chick with a hot blade.

The female chicks, called hens, spend their short lives (usually less than two years) confined in battery cages, in one 61 square inch spot. They are unable to nest, to bathe, to perch, or to spread their wings. Each hen is expected, on average, to produce 260 eggs per year.

As the hens age, their egg production naturally slows. To increase production, the hens are forced to molt (shed their feathers) through starvation or the use of low-nutrient food, until 30 percent of their body fat is lost. Then, their original diet is reinstated to restore feather growth, and consequently, egg production.

After their first or second laying-cycle, depending on the use of forced molting, hens are killed. Chickens are not considered animals in the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act and thus no law dictates their treatment at the end of their lives. Most farms opt not to slaughter the hens on-site. Instead they transport the hens to off-site slaughterhouses. If the hens survive the journey, they are killed without compassion, and often with full consciousness. These painful, premature deaths are the ends to painful lives.

On the Farm

The battery cage, the popular choice of American farmers, sentences almost 300 million hens a year to endless abuse. A typical farm contains thousands of battery cages, each housing three to ten hens with an average space allowance of 61 square inches for each bird. 95% of all egg-laying hens spend their lives in battery-cages.

While the United Egg Producers, representing more than 85 percent of American egg producers, encourages its members to increase cage size to a “recommended” 67 inches per hen, that recommendation is far from kind. Hens need 72 square inches just to stand, and 291 square inches to flap their wings, a figure almost five times greater than the UEP’s “humane” recommendation. While not always perfect, cage-free farms and other battery cage alternatives can fulfill the basic, natural needs of hens–room to perch, room to bathe, and room to nest.

While the mortality rates for battery-caged hens and cage-free hens are not significantly different, the quality of life for the hens is much improved when they are given the freedom of barns and the outdoors. Barn systems, a type of cage-free housing, allow birds to move freely indoors. They can be either single-level or multi-level structures. The environment of these barns, especially when multi-leveled, provide hens with the means to perch, nest and bathe in dust, behaviors impossible in the confines of battery cages. Free-range hens have both the protection of a barn and the access to the outdoors necessary to advance these natural behaviors. While it is cheaper to produce eggs with battery-caged hens, the costs of cage-free production are only marginally higher than the cost of the United Egg Producers’ certification program. Consumers are also willing to pay more than this difference to ensure the humane treatment and cage-free lifestyle of laying hens.

However, while cage-free hens escape the abuse inherent in battery cages, these facilities can not always be considered cruelty-free. The ability of these hens to walk and spread their wings, and to lay their eggs in nests, should not be underestimated, but there are further farming practices that need to be addressed. Cage-free farms still buy their hens from hatcheries that kill the male chicks at birth, and the hens are still subjected to the procedure of beak trimming or burning, performed to lessen the effects of aggression. While most egg farmers no longer use starvation to force molt hens in the hopes of increasing egg production, some still do, regardless of whether their hens are caged or not. Finally, the lifespans of laying hens across the spectrum rarely surpass two years, a number far below the potential lifespans of hens in their natural environment.

The Future of Battery Cages

Although Germany, Switzerland, Sweden and Austria have already banned battery cages, with the entire European Union following in 2012, only a few states measures in the United States have been successful. In November, 2008, California overwhelmingly passed The Prevention of Farm Animal Cruelty Act; it will phase out the use of battery cages, in addition to gestation crates and veal crates, by 2015. In 2009, Michigan legislature passed a ban on battery cages that included a 10 year phase out. In Ohio, there is a moratorium on permits for the construction of new battery cages as of June 2010.

Legislative Action and Litigation:

Various states have proposed bills to mandate that laying hens have enough room in their cages to spread their wings, but they have met with strong opposition from the egg industry. .

Other Successes:

Nationally, grocery chains such as Whole Foods Market, Wild Oats Natural, and Trader Joe’s have worked to convert their egg products to cage-free. Other corporations such as Burger King, Ben & Jerry’s, and Finagle A Bagel are moving away from eggs obtained from the use of battery cages. Also, companies such as AOL and Google use only cage-free eggs in their employee cafeterias and more than 150 American colleges and universities have enacted policies to decrease their use of eggs from battery-caged hens.

Radlo Foods, a major egg producer and supplier, has committed to phasing out battery cages for egg-laying hens over a ten-year period. Many corporate successes followed.  To see a timeline of progress on farm animal protection issues, visit The Humane Society’s website

Physical/Behavioral Effects

The use of battery cages, and the practice of factory farming in general, causes numerous physical disorders in hens. The inability of hens to move in their cages not only inhibits their natural inclinations toward nesting, perching, and bathing, but also prevents them from living pain-free lives. They suffer from bone weakness, bone breakage, and numerous diseases, including Fatty Liver Hemorrhagic Syndrome, the major cause of death in laying hens. In normal conditions, hens frequently bathe in dust to promote healthy feathers. On most egg farms, they are forced to “bathe” against the sides of the wire cages, leading to the loss of feathers. Finally, without the space to nest properly, and with the added stress of artificial lighting, laying hens are highly susceptible to uterine prolapse, a condition in which the uterus is pushed outside the hen’s body. The average hen produces 260 eggs per year, and without the protection of nests, the birds are completely exposed after each lay.

Psychological Effects

Psychologically, the worst torture for laying hens is the inability to nest. Unable to find privacy for the laying act in the confines of battery cages, hens will crawl over and under other hens to search in vain for cover and nesting materials. Hens will often pace and throw themselves against the metal sides of the cages, symptoms of severe frustration. The absence of perches in battery cages also interferes with the natural disposition of laying hens to form hierarchies, increasing aggression and decreasing normal social interactions.

In the Slaughterhouse

Once the hens reach the end of their laying cycle, the “spent” birds are killed, either on the farm, or in slaughterhouses. For those to be transported off-site, the process of catching the hens is both psychologically stressful and physically abusive. Human handling is a known stressor for hens, and the battery cages do not provide for easy removal. Hens are often held seven at a time in the hands of catching teams, and their legs and wings are often torn and broken when they are being removed. Only a few processing plants in the United States accept spent hens, forcing the birds to endure long journeys on overheated trucks. Many die from congestive heart failure due to the stresses of handling and transport.

Laying hens are not protected by federal regulations during slaughtering. They do not have to be rendered senseless before they are killed. In the processing plant, hens are shackled by their legs and hung upside-down. They are stunned through the use of an electric water bath, but the success of the stun is often reduced due to individual differences in birds. Many hens are slaughtered without being stunned at all. The hens’ throats are slit on a circular blade before being placed in a scalding tank, meant to loosen their feathers. If they are not properly stunned, they often miss the blade, resulting in the hens being boiled alive and conscious. Many alternatives to these inhumane slaughterhouse practices exist, but the industry is hesitant to adopt any of them.

More that Meat: The Lives of Broiler Chickens

In the United States, more than nine out of every ten land animals killed for meat are “broiler” chickens. Most broiler chickens live abusive lives, from the farm to the slaughterhouse, where almost one million are killed every hour.

On the Farm

“Factory farms”, known for raising large amounts of animals in minimal amounts of space, breed nearly 9 billion broiler chickens a year in the United States. These chickens spend their lives in warehouse-like sheds, stocked in such high-densities that they are denied many important natural behaviors, such as the abilities to nest, roost, or ever flap their wings.

These sheds, called “grower houses”, confine up to 20,000 chickens at a density or approximately 130 square inches per bird. Grower houses are usually windowless, with temperatures controlled through forced-ventilation. Barren except for sparse amounts of litter material on the floors and rows of feeders and drinkers, these sheds provide environments that only frustrate broiler chickens, decreasing their welfare and depriving them of natural inclinations. Many chickens will die from disease and stress related to these overcrowded conditions, however, profit margins encourage the continued use of grower houses.

The Life of a Broiler Chicken

Each year in the United States alone, almost 9 billion chickens are raised and slaughtered for meat. Most of these “broiler” chickens are selectively bred, a process perfected over many generations to produce the most meat on a bird in the shortest period of time, using the least amount of feed necessary. Modern broiler chickens reach market weight in half the time it took chickens in the 1950s, while consuming one-third the amount of feed.

While increasing productivity, selective breeding severely jeopardizes the welfare of broiler chickens. At six weeks of age, most broiler chickens have such difficulty supporting their abnormal body weights that they spend almost 90 percent of their time lying down, usually in their own waste. Selective breeding can also lead to lameness and other fatal defects such as respiratory disease, big liver spleen disease, weakened immune systems, ascites, and acute death syndrome. Ascites, a condition in which the heart and lungs do not have the capacity to support an overgrown body, is common in broiler chickens.

Some chickens are born to be broiler “breeders.” These chickens have the same genetic predisposition for fast growth, as well as the painful conditions of lameness and heart disease. However, to limit their growth rate, they are fed only a quarter of the amount of food of broiler chickens, leading to undernourishment and nutritional deficiencies. If provided an unrestricted diet, most breeders would not survive more than one year. Breeders are also limited to as little as six hours of light per day, to both reduce costs and to control the age of sexual maturity. The darkness not only increases stress and frustration, but often causes blindness in the birds. To reduce the effects of confinement, breeder chickens undergo a serious of mutilations. This includes the removal of beaks and toes, as well as the removal of combs and leg spurs on males, to minimize the increased aggression related to confinement and starvation. These surgeries are usually performed without anesthetic. Breeders are kept alive significantly longer than their offspring, 16 months versus 7 weeks, resulting in much longer suffering. The leg deformities and skeletal disorders that develop before death in broiler chickens become life-long conditions for breeders. So severe can the failures of bones, ligaments and tendons become that almost 50 percent of breeders most be slaughtered prematurely due to complete lameness or infertility.

Physical/Behavioral Effects

The environment created by grower houses is detrimental to the physical well-being of broiler chickens. The confinement of large amounts of chickens in inadequate space results in the rapid deterioration of air quality within the sheds. Chicken excrement accumulates quickly on the floors, and as bacteria break down the litter, the air becomes polluted with ammonia, dust, and fungal spores. High ammonia levels can cause painful skin conditions, respiratory problems, pulmonary congestion, swelling, hemorrhage, and blindness. Ammonia also destroys the cilia in the chickens responsible for preventing other bacteria from being inhaled. During winter, when the ventilators are closed to conserve heat, ammonia levels may reach 200 parts per million; healthy ammonia levels should never surpass 20 parts per million.

Psychological Effects

Broiler chickens live stressed and frustrated lives, confined in sheds that cannot offer even enough space to stand, turn around, or spread their wings. The ammonia levels created by the poor ventilation in grower houses limit the broiler chicken’s sense of smell, rendering them unable to truly perceive their environments. Metaphorically, they are forced to look upon a dark room through dark glasses.

In the Slaughterhouse

Broiler chickens spend an average of 45 days in the grower sheds. Once they have reached market weight, they are transported to outside facilities for slaughtering. For the birds, the journey to the slaughterhouse is physically and psychologically abusive. Catching teams load the chickens at rates of up to 1,500 birds an hour, injuring many in the process. From dislocated hips and broken wings to internal hemorrhaging, the chickens suffer due to the lack of care on the part of the catchers. During transport, the chickens are denied food, water, and shelter. The crates are often improperly covered, and the birds are exposed to high winds and cold temperatures. The unfeathered parts of their bodies become red and swollen, and sometimes even gangrene. Many chickens die during the trip from hypothermia, or from heart failure associated with stress.

Broiler chickens are not protected by federal regulations during slaughtering. They do not have to be rendered senseless before they are killed. In the processing plant, chickens are shackled by their legs and hung upside-down. They are stunned through the use of an electric water bath, but the success of the stun is often reduced due to individual differences in birds. Many chickens are slaughtered without being stunned at all. The chickens’ throats are slit on a circular blade before being placed in a scalding tank meant to loosen feathers, but if they are not properly stunned, they often miss the blade, resulting in the birds being boiled alive and conscious. Many alternatives to these inhumane slaughterhouse practices exist, from the use of mechanical harvesting or herding, to a more caring, gentler way of manually catching chickens.

Environmental Consequences

Broiler chicken factory farming produces waste that has environmental consequences; read more from the Pew Environment Group.

What Can You Do?


More and more producers are raising animals in a more natural setting, allowing animals fresh air and more room to perform natural behaviors. Refining your diet by choosing products from humanely raised animals instead of conventional products from intensive farm operations helps ensure laying hens live a better life. Free-range chickens are one great example of refinement. Refining your diet by choosing free-range chickens helps ensure chickens live a better life. Click here for information on where to find chickens from farms that have higher standards of care.


Grocery stores now have a large assortment of substitutes to replace those traditionally obtained from animals who are intensively confined. You can find many of these alternatives in your local grocery store.


If we reduce the consumption of chickens by just one meal a week, approximately one billion chickens would be spared the suffering that occurs with intensive confinement operations.