Why Farm Animals Are So Unhealthy

Farm animals are more likely to fall ill than animals in the wild for several reasons.

First, stocking densities tend to be so high that parasites, for example, spread easily and quickly and become endemic.

Second, animals kept on farms are unlikely to have proper opportunities to exercise. Many, who live indoors, are even denied the health giving properties of sunshine and fresh air. Farm animals may be exempt from the worst excesses of drought and starvation but their lifestyle is far from healthy. Inevitably, the circumstances in which animals are kept mean that psychological problems abound too.

Third, animals are unlikely to be able to enjoy the sort of range of foodstuffs that would be available to them in the wild. The diet farmers give to captive animals bears no relationship to the diet they normally live on. So for example, farmers often give animal waste to vegetarian animals. In the USA chicken excrement is fed directly to cattle (`to give them protein'), and the French Government has admitted illegally feeding human sewage to French cattle. Farmers in Britain routinely feed their cattle the ground-up brains and spinal cords of other cattle. (It was this that caused the disastrous outbreak of mad cow disease). Farmers ignored the fact that herbivorous ruminants don't eat meat and never engage in cannibalism.

The inescapable fact is that farm animals are bred for profit and, in general, the health of the animals is only of concern if it restricts the farmer's ability to add the animal to the food chain and, therefore, interferes with profitability. Farmers may, indeed, be tempted to hide and cover up illness if this threatens to restrict their ability to add the animal to the food chain. An animal which needs special drugs may be excluded from the food chain on safety grounds - even though healthy animals are routinely given a wide variety of `acceptable' prescription drugs. For example, far more antibiotics are given to healthy animals than to sick human beings. Antibiotics produce muscle growth in animals and more muscle means more meat which means more profit.)

In wild or semi-wild conditions chickens live in forests in small groups, they scratch around on the forest floor eating worms, insects and bits of fresh plant. They use the dust and the sun to keep their feathers bright and they bathe when it rains. At night they roost in trees (their claws are adapted for hanging onto branches even while asleep) so that they are safe from predators.

This is a healthy lifestyle for a chicken.

However, this isn't how chickens are kept on most modern farms. Chicken farmers have selectively bred chickens to grow faster and faster. They have doubled the maturing speed at which a chicken matures in just two decades. Muscle is laid down before the bird's heart and circulation can cope and the result is that the birds are constantly ill. Their bones aren't capable of supporting their excess weight and so they get broken bones. They die of thirst and starvation because they cannot reach the automated food and water delivery systems which supply their cages. Eighty per cent of broiler chickens suffer broken bones and 17,000 birds die every day in the United Kingdom because of heart failure. Farmers regard these deaths as an acceptable cost of doing business. The food the chickens are fed is selected according to the cheapest possible formulation and contains just the basic ingredients. (One popular ingredient is ground-up dead chicken. They have to do something with all those dead birds.) The chickens are routinely given antibiotics to try to keep them healthy (despite the fact that farmers know that this habit is a major cause of the development of antibiotic resistant organisms) and they are kept in half dark so that they stay quiet. They suffer from exceptionally high temperatures (especially when the weather is warm), they stand in their own excrement (which is acidic and so it blisters their feet) and the air they breathe in is full of fumes, bacteria and dust. It is hardly surprising that half of broiler flocks in the United Kingdom are colonised with campylobacter which can cause neurological problems, arthritis, headache, backache, fever, nausea, pains, diarrhoea in people who eat them.

The chickens, like other farm animals, are given no freedom and no chance at all to self medicate.

Copyright Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman 2011
Taken from Animal Miscellany by Donna Antoinette Coleman and Vernon Coleman (available through the bookshop on this website).