Do laying hens with keel bone fractures experience pain?

PLoS One. 2012;7(8):e42420. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0042420. Epub 2012 Aug 22.


The European ban on battery cages has forced a change towards the use of non-cage or furnished cage systems, but unexpectedly this has been associated with an increased prevalence of keel bone fractures in laying hens. Bone fractures are acutely painful in mammals, but the effect of fractures on bird welfare is unclear. We recently reported that keel bone fractures have an effect on bird mobility. One possible explanation for this is that flying becomes mechanically impaired. However it is also possible that if birds have a capacity to feel pain, then ongoing pain resulting from the fracture could contribute to decreased mobility. The aim was to provide proof of concept that administration of appropriate analgesic drugs improves mobility in birds with keel fracture; thereby contributing to the debate about the capacity of birds to experience pain and whether fractures are associated with pain in laying hens. In hens with keel fractures, butorphanol decreased the latency to land from perches compared with latencies recorded for these hens following saline (mean (SEM) landing time (seconds) birds with keel fractures treated with butorphanol and saline from the 50, 100 and 150 cm perch heights respectively 1.7 (0.3), 2.2 (0.3), p = 0.05, 50 cm; 12.5 (6.6), 16.9 (6.7), p = 0.03, 100 cm; 20.6 (7.4), 26.3 (7.6), p = 0.02 150 cm). Mobility indices were largely unchanged in birds without keel fractures following butorphanol. Critically, butorphanol can be considered analgesic in our study because it improved the ability of birds to perform a complex behaviour that requires both motivation and higher cognitive processing. This is the first study to provide a solid evidential base that birds with keel fractures experience pain, a finding that has significant implications for the welfare of laying hens that are housed in non-cage or furnished caged systems.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Behavior, Animal / drug effects
  • Behavior, Animal / physiology
  • Butorphanol / pharmacology
  • Chickens / physiology*
  • Female
  • Foot Bones / injuries*
  • Fractures, Bone / physiopathology*
  • Humans
  • Morphine / pharmacology
  • Oviposition*
  • Pain Perception* / drug effects


  • Morphine
  • Butorphanol