The reality of chicken farming: short, painful lives

The reality of chicken farming: short, painful lives
play play

A chicken can be just 5 weeks old when he is killed for his meat, but he'll have the body of an adult bird and many of the ailments that come with it. This unnatural growth rate is the result of decades of selective breeding that has put industry profits ahead of the wellbeing of animals.

LAST UPDATED: 8 July 2021

In commercial chicken farming, the chickens have just one 'job' — to gain weight. And everything — from the conditions they're kept in, to selective breeding over generations — has been carefully manufactured to create a business model where chickens become as 'meaty' as possible, as quickly as possible.

The consequences of this rapid and unnatural growth are dire for many birds. As their bodies grow too quickly, walking and even standing can become difficult due to lameness or dislocated joints.

'Meat' chickens are killed at only weeks old. Their short lives are full of suffering.

Modern chickens are effectively born into a genetic prison. Their bodies are their cages. Their health and welfare are so compromised that their likelihood of survival (or not) is built into the economics of running a chicken farm.

The industry anticipates that 4% — or 26 million chickens annually — won't even survive long enough to reach slaughter weight.

For those who do, the sheds where they will live out their short, painful lives provide no space or enrichment to enable natural behaviours such as perching, or cleaning feathers by dust-bathing. Sheds typically hold around 40,000 chickens and industry standards allow birds to be kept at (approx.) 20 per square metre, affording each animal the space of about an A4 piece of paper (estimate based on the legally permitted 40kg weight per square metre of shed).

And carefully manipulated lighting makes it nearly impossible for the birds to properly rest. That's because it's often not dark for very long — but it's not very light either. The dim light is meant to keep chickens docile, as too much movement will exercise off their 'meat'. But sleep isn't 'desirable' either, because that's valuable time chickens should be eating and putting on more weight. Incredibly, even in the updated draft welfare standards for chickens, there is still no requirement to provide birds with an appropriate amount of time in continuous darkness.

The reality of chicken meat — thousands of young broiler chickens in a huge artificially lit shed
For the short, painful weeks they're alive, most chickens farmed for meat in Australia won't even feel fresh air or see the sky.

It's fair to conclude that this modern phenomenon of 'cheap chicken' has come at an enormous cost to the welfare of the birds. And not only those raised for their meat. Research has found that the parents of these chickens — called 'breeding stock' — live in a state of chronic stress. That's because they've been genetically selected to always be hungry, but laws allow them to be fed only every second day.

'Skip-a-day feeding' is an industry practice to extend the life and reproductive capacity of an animal whose body is a 'ticking time bomb' — and not designed to last for very long. Even 'meat' chickens rescued from factory farms will rarely survive beyond a year.

Standard factory farm conditions and selective breeding have combined to create the perfect storm of animal cruelty. But this method of farming chickens also presents a risk to human health. Disease is so common that many farms dose the water supply with antibiotics, risking the creation of antibiotic-resistant 'superbugs'.

The volume of antibiotics used in animals is continuing to increase worldwide, driven by a growing demand for foods of animal origin, often produced through intensive animal husbandry. Scientific evidence demonstrates that overuse of antibiotics in animals can contribute to the emergence of antibiotic resistance.Dr Kazuaki Miyagishima, World Health Organization

What about free range?

The question is often asked, 'what about free range'? While birds in free range systems may be provided with more space and enrichment, they are often still the same fast-growing breed with all the associated ailments and will still spend most of their life inside. That's because such young birds cannot regulate their body temperature so they must be 'fully feathered' before they go outdoors — usually at around 3 weeks old.  But as they will be killed between 4 and 6 weeks old, 'free range' chickens may only have access to the outside world for a couple of weeks of their life.

Ultimately, both 'factory farmed' and 'free-range' animals are trucked to the same slaughterhouses  — and for chickens killed for their meat, this process is particularly terrifying.

The reality of chicken meat — at weeks old but the size of an adult, chickens raised for meat will be sent to the slaughterhouse
At only weeks old but the size of an adult, young chickens raised for meat will be crammed into crates and sent to the slaughterhouse.

In terms of suffering, and sheer numbers, chickens killed for meat represent one of the biggest animal welfare issues in the world today. These animals have been born only to suffer. But it doesn't have to be this way.

You can help

Every person who replaces some or all of the chicken meat they eat with plant-based alternatives is helping to reduce the demand that has forced chickens to endure such suffering, bringing them a step closer to a kinder world.

And these days, it's easier than ever. Explore mouth-watering recipes at or order your FREE veg starter kit here:


[1] Hartcher KM & Lum HK. (2020) Genetic selection of broilers and welfare consequences: a review. World's Poultry Science Journal76(1): 154-167.

[2] Taylor PS, Hemsworth PH, Groves PJ, Gebhardt-Henrich S & Rault JL. (2017) Ranging behaviour of commercial free-range broiler chickens 1: Factors related to flock variability. Animals7: 54. Doi:10.3390/ani7070054

Lyn White, Campaign Director at Animals Australia, spoke to audiences across the country — and asked one simple question: 'Does history have to repeat itself or is it possible to have a kinder, more peace... Watch now » »

We all know that eating vegan is better for your health, animals and the planet. But sometimes you just want a big bowl of the hearty, familiar foods you know and love. These recipes are for you. Dig in » »

Love a documentary that opens your eyes and expands your mind? These are definitely for you ... Expand your mind » »

Our appetite for beef, dairy and fish is wiping out wild animals, and even threatening our own survival. Discover why » »

What contributes more to climate change than all the world’s planes, trains and automobiles combined? Hint: it’s not coal and it’s not good for humanity! Read more » »

What began as a basic love for animals led Ian to find a passion for rescuing roos and other beloved Aussie natives. Read more » »

Despite the nightly news doing its best to depress, from Australia to Brazil, China to Norway, there is one trait that unites humankind all over the world — kindness. Read on to discover some of the best animal... Be inspired » »

For the first time, an Australian organisation has been selected as a “standout charity” by U.S.-based Animal Charity Evaluators! Animals Australia has been awarded this evaluation in recognition of our efforts... Read more » »

Investigations have revealed widespread puppy factory cruelty in Australia. Discover the truth, and what you can do to help. Read more » »

The sun on their faces. The grass under their feet. A spring in their step. All animals deserve freedom. Watch the heartwarming video now. Watch the heart-warming video » »