- Who We Are
- What We Do
- Take Action
Photo: Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media
Chicken meat is a dietary staple for many millions of people worldwide, and eggs are a standard breakfast for many of us. However, the true cost of these proteins includes the suffering of billions of living beings. This suffering is largely due to intensive breeding programs that prioritize profit over the welfare of chickens, leading to genetic predispositions that plague birds with ill health and short lives.
Chickens raised for meat, known within the industry as broilers, have been bred to grow extremely quickly. They the result of intensive hybrid breeding programs that use industrial-scale operations to isolate specific genetic markers to emphasize characteristics that are desirable for factory farming. Chickens raised to produce eggs, known within the industry as laying hens, have been bred to lay an excessive number of eggs.
The lifespan of a chicken raised for meat can vary depending on his or her intended purpose. Yet the vast majority of chickens are slaughtered at less than 10 weeks, and sometimes as little as 5 weeks of age, weighing between 4.5 and 7 pounds. These fast-growing chickens are genetically engineered to prevent them from feeling sated, and many develop severe health problems by the time they are slaughtered as a result of overeating.
The lifespan of a laying hen is tied directly to their rate of egg production. Laying hens are most productive in the first two to three years of life. On commercial farms, hens are slaughtered when their productivity begins to decline, and often only after just one year.
Chickens raised to produce food on factory farms are very different from wild fowl who are genetic predecessors or feral chickens that live in some countries.
Undomesticated chickens live from four to seven years on average. Undomesticated chickens enjoy other advantages over their domesticated cousins: wild individuals get to express their natural behaviors throughout their lifespan, roam free outdoors among family and friends, and raise their own young.
Junglefowl, native to Southeast Asia, are a group of four species of wild birds in the same family as chickens. They tend to be much smaller than chickens and are naturally shy of human interaction. The red jungle fowl, the best-known species, tends to live for around 10 to 14 years.
The lifespan of backyard chickens varies according to a variety of factors, such as whether their keeper plans to slaughter them once their egg production drops, whether they are receiving proper medical care and nutrition, whether they have access to safe and sufficient housing, and above all the breed of the chicken. Different breeds can have wildly differing lifespans—with breeds that have been more modified for factory farming dying earlier—but backyard chickens kept to lay eggs who receive adequate care and are allowed to live out their full life can mostly be expected to live six to eight years or more.
Choosing to keep a chicken as a beloved household companion can provide over a decade of love and affection. Some chickens have been recorded as living into their teens or even twenties with appropriate care and attention. Chickens are intelligent creatures who are able to grasp the concept of time, for example, and are also extremely social with unique and complicated communication patterns. Each chicken has their own personality and when cared for as pets they tend to be very affectionate.
The vast majority of chickens—those raised on factory farms as food—are killed when they are still extremely young, usually only a few weeks old. If an industrial hybrid bird were raised outside of a factory farm most would fall victim to their own genetics, as they are the result of decades of intensive breeding geared toward increasing their productivity with little regard for their welfare. In the case of chickens raised for meat, they have been bred to grow so quickly that their bodies are putting on up to 100 grams of weight every single day—that would be like a human baby gaining weight so quickly that they’d weigh as much as an adult male before their first birthday.
This exceptional growth means that while chickens are slaughtered younger than in the past, they grow to larger sizes. The speed at which they grow places the birds at greater risk of developing health problems, as their skeletal systems and organs are not adapted for them to grow so quickly. In fact, 57 percent of such chickens have severe walking problems due to their growth,1 causing them to live in excruciating pain in the days leading up to their slaughter.
Laying hens also experience suffering due to their genetics, as they have been bred to produce a greater number of larger eggs than their bodies are capable of handling. A modern laying hen can produce 300 eggs during an extended laying cycle, generally between 20 and 72 weeks of age. The eggs require calcium for the formation of the shell. Due to the sheer number of eggs being produced, calcium is taken from the bones of the mother hen resulting in bone loss and weakening. This increases the likelihood that a hen experiences fractures, specifically to her keel, the flexible wedge of cartilage connecting her breast muscles.
In addition to the suffering experienced by mother hens, male chicks also fall victim to the egg industry. Considered a byproduct by commercial hatcheries, male chicks are slaughtered soon after hatching. Because they have not been selectively bred to grow as quickly or to become as fat as chickens raised for meat, it is simply not economical for the farmers to feed them to slaughter later for food. Every year in the United States roughly 300 million chicks are killed by the commercial egg industry.
Chickens raised for meat, or broiler chickens, are generally slaughtered by the time they reach 5 weeks of age, and almost all by 10 weeks of age. In the United States alone, over nine billion chickens fall victim to the industry, accounting for 9 out of every 10 land animals killed for food in the country. The average young chicken slaughtered in 2019 had grown to be 6.39 pounds prior to their slaughter, due to the intensive breeding that prioritizes profit over the birds’ welfare.
The genetics of chickens on factory farms have been selected for fast growth, leading to terrible animal suffering. Healthier genetics are found in heritage chicken breeds, which existed before the hybrid birds found on factory farms. To be classed as heritage, a bird must come from a breed recognized by the American Poultry Association, mate naturally instead of relying on artificially insemination, have the genetic ability to live a long life outdoors, and not reach slaughter weight before 16 weeks, allowing birds the time to develop strong skeletal systems capable of supporting their mass.
Chickens’ lifespans are impacted by a number of factors relating to both them as individuals and the environment in which they are housed. Below we discuss the lifespan for modern hybrid chickens raised to industry standards for meat and eggs.
The sex of a chicken plays a role in determining their lifespan. A hen being raised to produce eggs is likely to be kept alive for one lay cycle, then killed when her productivity declines at around one year of age. Male chicks of the same breed are likely to be killed shortly after hatching due to their inability to lay eggs.
Diseases often cut down the life expectancy of a chicken dramatically. The ongoing 2022 highly pathogenic avian flu outbreak has affected more than 40 million chickens in the U.S. The USDA guidance for handling infected chickens is to “eradicate the disease,” a goal that is frequently accomplished through mass slaughter. Other diseases, such as coccidiosis, are endemic in industrial poultry production and often shorten the lives of birds.
Housing is likely to play a role in the life expectancy of birds. Birds that have ample space to move around, are protected from predators, and have a clean environment are likely to live longer than chickens that do not.
Chickens in commercial production systems today are hybrids that are only able to survive for a very short amount of time due to the strain their genetics place on their bodies. There are specific breeds known as heritage chickens that are able to live longer, healthier lives due to their slower growth rate and better genetics, but these birds are not used in industrial animal agriculture.
The environment a bird grows up in has an impact on his or her life expectancy. Though the mortality rate for chickens on factory farms is always high, it can be affected by the season, for example, with deaths more common in periods of heat stress or cold weather.
Diet and nutrition play an important role in the health and life expectancy of chickens. If chickens are offered a well-balanced diet rich in nutrients they are likely to live longer than birds offered diets high in calories intended to help them grow larger.
Providing proper veterinary care for chickens is an essential part of helping them live a full and happy life.
The vast majority of chickens being raised in the United States today would fall victim to their own genetics if they were not slaughtered at a very young age. Chickens raised specifically for meat grow so quickly that their bodies are not able to support them. Their genetic predisposition for rapid growth leads to conditions such as ascites, an inability of their heart and lungs to supply enough oxygen for their body. This condition leads to heart attacks as the chickens’ hearts attempt to work overtime to pump oxygenated blood through the overgrown body of the birds.
Slaughter is the definitive end to life for billions of birds in the U.S. alone every year. For chickens raised for meat, slaughter takes place at around 7 weeks of age. For hens raised to lay eggs, slaughter usually happens after the first laying cycle, around the time the birds turn one year old..
The first chicken to receive the designation of World’s Oldest Living Chicken by Guinness World Records was Matilda, who lived to be 16 years old. It was speculated that she lived so long because she was kept indoors and never laid eggs. She was dethroned by Muffy from Maryland who died in 2011 after reaching 22 years old.
Chicken breeding, not only in the United States but around the world, is primarily controlled by just two companies: Aviagen and Cobb. These companies breed chickens to maximize their profit with little regard to the welfare of the birds themselves. As a result, the chickens often endure horrendous suffering during their short lives. By choosing to raise heritage breeds instead of hybrids, these companies could improve the welfare and lifespan of billions of chickens every year.
Choosing to reduce our consumption of meat as far as possible is essential if we are to reduce the massive suffering that farmed chickens experience and the negative effects that large-scale animal agriculture has on society and the environment. If we do choose to consume chicken, it’s best to purchase from farms that raise heritage chickens with meaningful welfare certifications, and to be aware of the humanewashing that risks giving unsustainable industrial chicken farming a new lease of life.
De Jong I.C., Perez Moy T., Gunnink H., Van den Heuvel H., Hindle V., Mul M., Van Reenen C.G., “Simplifying the Welfare Quality Assessment Protocol for Broilers,” Report 533, Wageningen UR Livestock Research, Lelystad, November 2011, https://edepot.wur.nl/196648.