So, you’ve done everything right. You’ve maintained your flock well; they’re healthy, fat, and happy old women. You should certainly give yourself a pat on the back . . . you’ve done a good job caring for your chickens.
In memory of Henry.
It’s been somewhere between five and ten years since you started your flock. They were adorable chicks, and now they are adorable elderly ladies. What you aren’t expecting at this point is another disaster, but one morning, you go outside to feed them and one of your girls is lethargic and extremely thin. What did you do wrong? How could this have happened?
This is something that I have personally had happen several times. When a chicken dies of old age, there are several stages that are fairly common. If your hen is exhibiting these signs without any hint of illness or injury, don’t be angry at yourself. This is natural, and it is the best and most peaceful way that a chicken can pass away after the good life you’ve given her.
Rest assured, if this happens, you have done everything right. This is natural, and it is a painless way for a hen to pass away. If you keep chickens long enough, don’t be surprised if you have to go through the experience of having your ladies die from old age. Although difficult, staggering your flock with younger chickens of different ages can help with the transition. It is always comforting to know that you gave your hen the best life she could have. Having a chicken pass away due to old age is a testament to your good care and hard work.
- Usually, you won’t notice this first stage. Chickens are prey animals; this means that they are wired to hide all signs of weakness to avoid being targeted by predators. A hen that is aging will stop eating gradually, although she will probably still drink water. She will act normally and seem interested in life, but her weight will quickly decrease to the point where she is very thin. The way to check for this is to feel your hens’ underside. There is a bone that runs from the wishbone (where the crop is) to her abdomen. A chicken that is at a healthy weight will have a solid amount of muscle on either side of this bone. While different breeds have different amounts of muscle here, if you make it a habit to know how filled-out each of your hens is when they’re young, you will notice a drop in muscle mass when your hen starts to age. When she is at this final stage of life, her lack of muscle mass will be very noticeable. It will seem like she is starving. This is the body’s natural reaction to death. She isn’t starving the way a younger chicken would be at that weight; her body is just shutting down processes that it doesn’t need anymore. It’s perfectly natural, and any attempts to force her to eat won’t necessarily work.
- This second stage is lethargy. This is about the point where she is close enough to passing away that it doesn’t matter if a predator finds her. She will sit away from the flock, but she will not necessarily move away if any of them come over to her. If you have a rooster, he might pay more attention to her and sit with her. She may be just tired in the beginning, but she will probably start sleeping most of the time. She won’t show much, if any, interest in food, even treats. She may drink, but probably not a lot. At this point the best thing to do is just to keep her comfortable. I have brought chickens into the house to keep them warm at this stage. Since she’s not eating, she probably won’t have a lot of waste, so the smell will be less of an issue.
- When your hen dies from old age, she will just fall asleep for good. It’s a very peaceful way to go. There is no pain or trauma associated with it. After a chicken dies, the brain fires randomly, causing sudden muscle contractions. It will look like she is having a seizure, but don’t worry. At this point, your hen has just passed away. These seizures are a natural process and should be expected. Sometimes, they don’t happen, but they can look very violent if they do. There can even be some fecal matter expelled from the vent and liquid from the beak. I like to hold my chicken at this point, until the muscle contractions stop. It just seems like the right thing to do.