Farm Animal Welfare: Turkeys

Beyond Thanksgiving: In Defense of Turkeys

In the United States alone, nearly 300 million turkeys are killed yearly for meat. These birds rarely live past the age of five months, and never see beyond the cages of factory farms.

On the Farm

Turkeys raised on factory farms are hatched in large incubators, without the warmth of a nest or a mother. After a few weeks, they are moved to large, warehouse-like sheds, stocked in such high-densities that they are denied many important natural behaviors, such as the abilities to roost or even flap their wings.

These sheds, called “grower houses”, confine thousands of turkeys together. Grower houses are usually windowless, with temperatures controlled through forced-ventilation. To prevent the turkeys from injuring one another in such tight quarters, parts of their beaks and toes are removed in surgeries performed without anesthetics. Millions of turkeys do not survive the first few weeks of factory farm life, succumbing to “starve-out,” a condition in which young birds simply stop eating.

Bred for Meat, Not Health

Most turkeys raised for meat 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. Turkeys have been domesticated since at least the early 17th century in North America. For many years, turkey farmers bred their own small-breasted turkeys. In the last half century, however, the breeding industry has become so highly concentrated that almost 90 percent of all the turkeys in the world are heavy-breasted varieties supplied by only three primary breeding companies. This control allows for breeders to hatch turkeys with only the desired genetic traits, the most popular of these traits being fast growth.

If a human baby grew at the same rate as modern turkeys, it would weigh 1,500 pounds by the age of 18 weeks. This abnormal weight and size leads to numerous welfare problems. Many turkeys suffer from abnormal gait, as well as from hip lesions and skeletal disease. While the meat content of turkeys has increased, their bone structures have not, and the birds often have problems standing. These leg disorders cause turkeys to spend most of their lives lying down, where they contract other lesions, blisters and burns. The more deformed turkeys also have a high risk of being trampled to death by the other turkeys still able to walk. Fast growth has consequences even beyond bone disorders, including lowered immune performance, muscle disease, ascites, hemorrhaging, heart disease, and aortic rupture.

Some turkeys are born to be “breeders,” kept alive longer but subjected to the same abuses and genetic manipulations as those raised for meat. Each year in the United States, nearly 4 million turkeys are used as breeders. Like their offspring, breeder turkeys have been selectively bred for fast growth, and consequently suffer from similar skeletal disorders and heart diseases. If fed unrestricted diets, few of these turkeys would survive to sexual maturity. Therefore, turkey breeders are given as little as half the amount of food they would eat if they were raised for meat. Even still, the male turkeys develop such large breast muscles that natural mating is physically impossible, and turkeys are bred solely through artificial insemination. While breeders do get to live longer than five months, that added time is tortured and painful.

Physical/Behavioral Effects

The environment created by grower houses is detrimental to the physical well-being of turkeys. The confinement of large amounts of turkeys in inadequate space results in the rapid deterioration of air quality within the sheds. Turkey 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. 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

Sometimes, the psychological stress of living in grower houses is more damaging than disease. The unnatural environment forces turkeys into a vicious cycle; literally living on top of one another, the turkeys become increasingly aggressive. To curb the consequences of this increased aggression, farmers perform more surgeries, which only results in increasing the stress.

In the Slaughterhouse

In about five months, turkeys reach market weight. More than 2,000 turkeys can be loaded onto a single truck headed for the slaughterhouse. For the birds, the journey to the slaughterhouse is physically and psychologically abusive. Catching teams load the turkeys 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 turkeys suffer from the process. During transport, the turkeys are not given food, water, or shelter. The crates are often improperly covered, and the birds are exposed to high winds and cold temperatures. Many turkeys die during the trip from hypothermia, or from heart failure associated with stress.

Turkeys and other poultry are not protected by federal regulations during slaughter meaning they do not have to be rendered senseless before they are killed. Many turkeys are slaughtered without being stunned at all. Some 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. In the processing plant, turkeys are shackled by their legs and hung upside-down. The turkeys’ throats are slit on a circular blade before being placed in a scalding tank meant to loosen feathers. If turkeys 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, but the prevailing economic arguments encourage the continued use of inhumane methods.

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. Free-range turkeys are one great example of refinement. Refining your diet by choosing free-range turkeys helps ensure turkeys live a better life. Click here for information on where to find turkey products from farms that have higher standards of care for animals.


Grocery stores now have a large assortment of delicious turkey substitutes to replace those traditionally obtained from animals who are intensively confined. These vegetarian alternatives include tofu and soy products. You can find many of these alternatives in your local grocery store. There are also many wonderful and creative animal-free recipes available on the internet.


If we reduce the consumption of animal products by just one meal a week, approximately one billion animals would be spared the suffering that occurs with intensive confinement operations. Check out creative animal-free recipes available on the internet and try starting a no meat Monday policy in your household today!