can you euthanize a bird

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:

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 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:

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… 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.

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.

There is no reason why euthanasia has to be a “do it yourself” procedure. Veterinarians will euthanize birds in most cases…. Even though they frequently don’t feel comfortable diagnosing or treating, they nevertheless carry out this crucial service I would much rather see you complete the task correctly yourself rather than rushing something as significant and sensitive as this if the cost, distance, or other circumstances prevent you from using a veterinarian’s services.

Additional considerations for decapitation euthanasia include the need for sharp blades and the need to remove the head in a single cut. The blade or scissors needs to be big enough to remove the head entirely in one motion. Scissors are helpful as they improve human safety. A stump with two nails hammered 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. Axes and knives work very well, but you must be careful!

I promise never to advise an owner when euthanasia is appropriate. You must base your choice on your morals, ethics, and past experiences. Regarding the humaneness of trying to heal a chicken with a broken leg, I have an opinion. You have your opinion. Our differing perspectives stem from how we weigh the worth of prolonging a life against the suffering experienced. We are both correct as long as we weigh the circumstances and decide what’s best for the animal. Of course, we are both wrong as well. Nobody, regardless of experience, ever euthanizes at the perfect time…. We try our hardest and must accept the choices we make.

Remember…. euthanasia is not about making the bird die…. it is about how they get there. I’ve heard of backyard poultry owners that use cruel methods such as poisoning, freezing, and drowning birds. I’ll go with the theory that they were unaware of more effective techniques, and I hope this post is helpful.

Now, some general information about euthanasia. I have given these facts careful thought, and I have studied and spent a lot of time persuading myself of these facts:

In each of the aforementioned situations, the severity of the wounds and the affected area may result in the bird’s inability to effectively hunt, feed, fly, or swim, as well as its inability to avoid predators, reproduce, or have other restrictions. The species makes a difference, as certain animals can function quite well with just one eye (e g. , parrots)—so always take into account the species and its natural means of feeding and hunting.

If you believe that the species is a good fit for placement in captivity for a breeding program or for display in a wildlife park, you should check with your local conservation contact person or office. In some countries, including New Zealand, there may occasionally be a placement in captivity for special cases. Remember that space and species limitations prevent these placements from being as high as they could be.

It is a sad fact in wildlife rehabilitation that many birds that come into care may not make a full recovery. When should you euthanize a wild bird? Rates of success for rehabilitation vary widely, but they generally fall between 40% and 50% of survivors to release. Sometimes it’s simple to determine whether a bird needs to be put to death right away. The goal is to lessen their suffering in situations where there is absolutely no hope, such as in severe trauma cases involving multiple fractures, severely broken beaks, amputations of legs, etc.

I am currently compiling and examining all published accounts of birds that have fared well in the wild despite severe injuries as part of my work at the NZ Department of Conservation to determine what can and cannot (in theory) be released. For instance, there are numerous instances of owls thriving in the wild with only one eye. This surprised me at first, but it’s probably because they use other senses to hunt at night. I will eventually share the review’s findings with you.

Unless you have permission from DOC or a veterinarian, you should not be euthanizing native, protected birds in New Zealand (ask about regulations in your home country). You should also avoid doing so for welfare reasons. Sometimes a conservationist will tell you to put a bird to sleep, but don’t hesitate to speak up if you don’t feel comfortable doing so.


How do you humanely euthanize a bird?

Just grab the bird’s head and twist it around and around. The skull will detach from the spinal column and kill the bird quickly. You have to actually kill the animal with your bare hands, but that’s better than letting it suffer.

Can you euthanize a pet bird?

If a bird has a terminal illness with no ready options, and it is in pain, euthanasia is appropriate. If a bird has a contagious and terminal illness for which there is no cure and/or inoculation, and which may infect an entire flock, euthanasia is arguably a choice.

When should you put a bird down?

In some cases, it is easy to tell if a bird requires immediate euthanasia. The purpose is to ease their suffering when there is no hope at all – such as a bad trauma case with multiple fractures, badly broken beaks, leg amputations, etc.

What drug is used to euthanize birds?

While euthanasia by sodium pentobarbital injection is recommended for many species by the American Veterinary Medical Association Panel on Euthanasia, this action requires follow-through on the part of your veterinarian to properly dispose of the animal once this drug is administered.