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Thinking outside the cage: Achieving Higher Welfare for Egg-Laying Hens in Canada

October 3, 2017

In Canada, about 24 million hens lay 616 million eggs each year. More than 90% of those hens (21.6 million) spend their lives in small, cramped, wire enclosures called battery cages. They are housed in groups of four to eight birds.

Photo (right): Rows of hens housed in battery cages. Each row is stacked six tiers (housing levels) high with each tier having many cages. Each cage holds about 6 hens.

To understand just how crowded these cages are, picture a standard piece of printer paper. Now discard a quarter of the page. The remaining 3/4 of the page of paper represents the amount of floor space each hen has in a battery cage – it’s approximately 22 x 22 cm (9 x 9 inches) of space per hen. It is so crowded that they can’t open their wings or move around without bumping into one another. There’s nothing for them to do but eat and lay eggs. As a result, they commonly suffer from sore feet and legs, weak or brittle bones, stress, aggression and boredom.

Fortunately for the hens, battery cages are becoming a thing of the past thanks to Canada’s updated Code of Practice for egg-laying hens (external website). In this new code, the egg industry committed to a minimum of 85% of hens transitioned out of battery cages into alternative housing systems within 15 years’ time, and to phasing out the use of battery cages entirely by 2036.

The transition has already begun. As of April 1, 2017, no new barns with battery cage housing will be built. But this doesn’t mean hens are free of cages just yet. Producers have the option to install what are called “enriched” (or “furnished”) cages instead of going cage-free.

Photo (left): This photo shows of a row of enriched cages with two of three tiers (housing levels) visible. There are many cages on each tier and each cage houses 75 to 100 birds.

Housed in groups of up to 100 birds, hens in enriched cages receive only a couple more inches of floor space than those housed in battery cages – a total of 28 x 28 cm (11 x 11 inches) each. It’s still not a lot of space, but it is a slight improvement over battery cages. The problem isn’t just about the lack of space, though. It’s about whether the hens have what they need to achieve good welfare.

Today’s domestic hens evolved from jungle fowl, who lived in the jungle, as the name suggests. At night in the jungle, it was very important for hens to perch high up in the trees to stay safe from predators. Their feet were specially designed for perching with three forward facing toes and one toe pointing backward. This allowed them to grip onto branches. At night, they would perch up high as well, and crouch down on the branch to roost as they slept.

Modern hens have retained these features and tendencies. To keep safe from predators on the ground and in the air during the day, hens will perch somewhere high to stand guard and warn the rest of the flock of any approaching danger. At night the birds will seek somewhere high up off the ground to roost and keep safe as they sleep.

If given the option, hens would spend their days pecking and scratching at the ground to look for food (i.e. foraging), socializing with one another, and dust bathing to keep their feathers and skin clean, healthy and free of parasites. When they dust bathe, hens crouch down and vigorously scratch dust up with their feet to coat their bodies. The dust clings to the oils in their feathers.

After they are done dust bathing, which takes about 20 minutes or so, they shake off the dust and the old, stale oil flakes off with it. Then they preen, which is a behaviour in which a hen uses her beak to distribute new oil over her feathers. She gets the oil from a gland near her tail. This keeps her feathers waterproofed, conditioned and in a neat order.

Hens dust bathe at least once per day. They are strongly motivated to do this behaviour and they like to dust bathe together (see photo above).

The following video narrated by Dr. Ian Duncan, world-renowned poultry behaviour and welfare expert, discusses the importance of natural chicken behaviours like perching and dust bathing.

When a hen is ready to lay her egg, she’s highly motivated to seek out a dimly lit, secluded spot. This is because it’s built into in her genetics to lay her eggs somewhere protected and safe. So about an hour to an hour and a half before the hen is ready to lay her egg, she will look for a nest.

If she can’t find a nest, she will get frustrated and stressed and may try to hold onto her egg longer. This will affect how the egg looks, and you can easily see it on brown eggs laid by stressed hens.

Traditional battery cages are restrictive, crowded and lack the proper features that hens need to carry out these behaviours. They have no perches, nests, scratching or foraging areas, and there is no way for hens to dust bathe to keep their skin and feathers healthy.

Enriched cages do have some features to support natural behaviours. For example, hens have access to a private nesting area, perches (though they are only a few centimeters above the floor of the cage) and a small foraging area, but the space is still restrictive and limits the birds’ ability to benefit fully from these features. For example, a foraging area the size of a standard piece of printer paper will be shared by up to 20 hens.

Further, enriched cages fall short on options for dust bathing and miss the mark on the purpose of perching. This raises the question as to whether birds’ welfare is really improved in enriched systems.

Photo (above, left): Hens in an enriched cage share a scratching area on the floor (green pad) and you can see a hen perched upon a white perching rod in the upper half of the photo. She is forced to crouch down so her head doesn’t touch the ceiling.

You could argue that behaviours like perching, nesting and foraging are unnecessary in an environment where the hens’ most basic needs for food, shelter and safety are being met, but that doesn’t change the fact that hens are instinctually driven to perform these behaviours. Inability to do so has been shown to negatively impact the hens’ well-being by causing frustration, stress, aggression and overall poor health.

Photo (right): These hens are free run, meaning they are cage-free and housed indoors with no access to the outdoors.

Photo (below, left): These hens are free range, meaning they are cage-free with access to the outdoors. They are ranging in an unseeded dirt yard.

Free run birds are cage-free and are housed entirely indoors, in a barn or hen house. Free range birds are also cage-free and have a barn, hen house or covered area for shelter when needed, and they get to go outside when the weather is nice.

The type of outdoor area in free range operations varies from an unseeded dirt or gravel veranda to a pasture seeded with vegetation, but a pasture, specifically, is not required unless the farmer is making the claim that the birds are pasture-raised.

The 2017 Laying Hen Code of Practice (external website) requires that cage-free hens (both free run and free range) receive two-to-four times more space than hens in battery cages. The exact amount depends on the type of cage-free housing.

All cage-free birds are given some litter to permit scratching, foraging and dust bathing, but farmers are only required to provide litter on 15-33% of the flooring indoors – the exact proportion depends on the type of cage-free system in use.

Photo (right): These hens are also free range since they have access to the outdoors. However, in this photo, the hens are ranging in a pasture that provides them with vegetation to eat.

The revised Code also requires that cage-free birds be provided with more nest space than caged hens and have access to elevated perches that allow them to watch over their flock mates.

Because improving the caged environment has been the focus of laying hen research over the past 20 years, there has been significantly less interest in creating and maintaining a successful cage-free environment. What we do know is that hens need plenty of space and easy access to available furnishings to prevent competition for these resources, otherwise frustration, stress and aggression result, leading to negative impacts on hen health and welfare.

On Certified organic and SPCA Certified farms, cage-free is the norm and ample floor space that allows hens to stretch their wings is a must. Each hen receives four times the amount of space she would in a battery cage.

Hens are provided with perches of varying heights that allow them to exercise, building bone and muscle strength as they ascend and descend, and they can watch over their flock mates from higher vantage points.

These hens have access to plenty of nests and a litter-based foraging space suitable to accommodate the entire flock with ease. The litter area not only enables scratching and foraging behaviour, but also encourages dust bathing. There is little competition for resources in these systems.

Photo (left): Using a life-sized brown hen puppet, this image shows a comparison of the amount of space provided per hen in battery cages (red square – 432 square cm), enriched cages (yellow square – 750 square cm) and in a SPCA Certified free run or free range barn (green square – 1,900 square cm). On the left side is a standard 30 cm (12 inch) ruler for scale.

A well-designed and well-managed cage-free environment has much more potential to meet a hen’s behavioural needs than existing cage systems, enriched or not, but the transition from a system that is currently over 90% caged to one that is entirely cage-free will take time and careful planning.

Consumers can show their support for the industry’s shift to cage-free housing by choosing to purchase only cage-free eggs. Further, choosing certified eggs helps to validate the accuracy of label claims and are the best option for ensuring the highest possible hen welfare on farms.

Show your support for this change:

  • Look for egg labels that say cage-free, free run, free range, pasture-raised or Certified Organic
  • Look for animal welfare certifications from a credible organization to ensure even better treatment of hens (e.g. ‘SPCA Certified’, ‘Animal Welfare Approved’, ‘GAP’ step 3 or higher)
  • Be wary of labels like ‘nest-laid’, ‘Comfort Coop’, ‘animal-friendly’ and ‘natural’ that don’t actually mean the hens are cage-free or are treated any better
  • Only support restaurants, fast food chains and grocery stores that have eliminated battery cages from their supply chains. The Canadian Federation of Humane Societies has developed a list of cage-free retailers (external website).

Expand your knowledge!

The BC SPCA created a 30-minute video narrated by world-renowned poultry welfare expert, Dr. Ian Duncan, called Cluck! – The life of an egg-laying hen. Check it out, and show the kids too!

Email our farm department for more information.

Glossary

Battery cages: Hens living in these cramped, wire cages have less than a standard piece of printer paper worth of space each (432-484 square centimeters each, which is approximately 22 x 22 cm (9 x 9 inches) each). They are typically housed in small groups of 4-8 hens. Crowding prevents them from walking around or spreading their wings for their entire lives. This causes extreme stress and frustration because it prevents them from behaving as they would naturally. Battery cages are also called ‘conventional cages’.

Cage-free: Cage-free hens do not live in cages and have more space to move around their environment than caged hens. Cage-free hens are considered either free run or free range, depending on whether they have access to the outdoors (see ‘free run’ and ‘free range’ below).

Conventional cages: See ‘battery cages’.

Enriched cages: Hens living in enriched cages are housed in groups as large as 100 birds and have slightly more than a standard piece of printer paper worth of space each, which is only slightly better than what is provided in battery cages. They have 750 square centimeters of space each, which is approximately 28 x 28 cm (11 x 11 inches). In enriched cages, hens are provided with a nest, perches and the opportunity to forage in a small space, but these resources are limited and so is space, so not all hens will access them. Enriched cages are also called ‘furnished cages’ or ‘cages with furnishings’ or ‘colony cages’.

Free range: Hens live in a cage-free environment while indoors and have access to the outdoors in good weather. They have more space to move around their environment than caged hens. The quality of the outdoor area for foraging (i.e. seeded with vegetation vs. unseeded) is not guaranteed.

Free run: Hens live in a cage-free, indoor environment with no access to the outdoors. They have more space to move around their environment than caged hens.

Furnished cages: See ‘enriched cages’ above. Also called ‘cages with furnishings’.

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