What is a battery cage and are battery cages cruel?



Eggs are widely regarded as a standard ingredient. They are seen as both versatile and essential for many of our favorite dishes. Unfortunately, every time we order a side of scrambled eggs, we are most likely fueling the suffering of chickens housed in battery cages. These chickens live in cages too small for free movement, frequently surrounded by the stench of their own feces and thousands of other birds. It is an inhumane living situation that prevents the birds expressing their natural behaviors and can cause them huge amounts of stress.


What is a battery cage?

A battery cage is the most common form of housing for hens that lay eggs in industrial agricultural settings. The cages house 5 to 10 hens on average, providing each bird with less space than a standard A4 sheet of paper. The cramped space prevents the chickens from displaying natural behaviors such as nesting or spreading their wings completely. The conditions in which the birds are kept often leads them to peck the other birds in the cage, resulting in injuries and feather loss, and can even lead to cannibalism. To reduce the severity of this behavior, farmers will trim the beaks of their birds, a procedure that involves removing up to a third of the beak. About 90% of chickens raised to produce eggs globally spend their lives in these cages.


Why are battery cages used?

Farmers choose to use battery cages over other housing systems, such as cage-free and free-range systems, for a few different reasons.


Ease of management

Hens in battery cages are easier to manage than in free-range or cage-free systems. The eggs in battery cages slide conveniently into a tray in front of the cage, making them easy to collect. However, there are cage-free systems, like aviaries, that have similar technologies.


Lower cost of production

Most farms that house laying hens for industrial production were built with battery cages. The cost of transitioning from battery cages to free-range or cage-free housing systems can prove challenging for farms. Yet as a result of collective action, many companies are committing to stop sourcing the eggs they buy from farms with battery cages, helping to pressure farms to switch.


When were battery cages invented?

One of the earliest mentions of battery cages was in 1931 in a book titled “Battery Brooding” in which author Milton Arndt discussed the use of cages and their impact on bird health and productivity. It wasn’t until thirty years later in 1966 that the first patent was filed for a “battery cage” when Samuel Duff secured patent number US3465722. By 1990, 75% of laying hens worldwide were housed in cages.


How big is a battery cage?

Battery cages can vary in size depending on the number of chickens they are meant to hold. The cages tend to be somewhere between the size of a standard desk drawer and a bathtub. Typically, individual birds are left with less space to stand than an A4 sheet. The cages tend to be around 15 inches high. In this close confinement the birds are not able to fully stretch out, extend their wings completely, nest, or perform many of the other natural behaviors that they would typically do in a more natural environment.


How many hens are kept in battery cages?

Battery cages are typically intended to hold between 5 and 10 laying hens depending on their size. These birds spend their lives in these tiny cages that do not allow them the space to stretch fully or walk around, and which can cause painful diseases. Many of the birds cannot withstand the conditions for long and end up dying, and if their corpses are not collected, the other hens who share the cage have to navigate around their dead bodies.


Are battery cages cruel?

The impact that being housed in battery cages has on laying hens is profound. The birds are tightly packed in unnatural conditions surrounded by thousands of other hens.


High stress

The experience of living in a battery cage can be extremely stressful for the hens subjected to this housing system. Caged hens appear to experience a chronic state of stress in which they are constantly trying to get away from their cage mates, an endeavor that is completely impossible. The birds are further frustrated by their inability to nest prior to laying eggs, something that they do five or six days a week.


Forced molting

Forced molting is a period of time when the laying hens are not provided with food or water. Withholding these will make the hen stop laying eggs, molt her feathers, and restore the health of her reproductive system, so that when she is once again given water and food, the quality and size of the eggs she lays might be increased. This practice can be detrimental to the skeletal health of the birds while also causing a large amount of stress.


Osteoporosis

Though laying hens selectively bred for egg production generally have poor bone health, those housed in battery cages have the worst bone health. This is due to their overall inability to exercise, which leads to bone fragility and impaired bone strength.. Disuse osteoporosis caused by inactivity is especially prevalent in laying hens housed in battery cages.


Are battery cages bad for the environment?

A standard farm with laying hens in battery cages houses anywhere from tens of thousands to millions of birds. All of these birds are defecating and urinating, producing a massive amount of waste. This waste is usually stored in concentrated spaces and often leaks into nearby bodies of water. As the waste breaks down it releases chemicals such as ammonia into the environment.


Which countries have banned battery cages?

A number of countries have taken steps toward banning or phasing out battery cages for egg production. Among them are Bhutan, the European Union, and India.


Cage-free versus battery cage eggs

Though cage-free systems are an improvement over battery cages for laying hens, they still have their shortcomings. The chart below can be treated as a quick reference guide for cage-free versus battery-cage systems.


Cage-free

Battery cages

Male chicks macerated

Yes

Yes

Beak trimming

Yes

Yes

Access to enrichment

Yes

No

Ability to express natural behaviors

Yes, some

No



What are other examples of caged animals?

Unfortunately, laying hens are not the only animals that are often forced to live their lives behind bars. Animals of many species across different industries are often relegated to such a life.


Gestation crates

Despite the high intelligence and sensitivity of pigs, they are often confined to miniscule cages which are too small for them to turn around, called gestation crates. This life of confinement can lead to severe psychological trauma and physical ailments including urinary tract infections, lameness, and weakened bones.


Tethered dairy calves

Though this housing style has welfare issues, many farms still employ tethering for dairy calves. They usually tether calves using leash and chain which is fixed to the ground in a manner that prevents them from walking around, meaning that they are destined to spend part of their lives standing or sitting.


Zoos

Many of us have fond memories of visiting zoos with our families as children. Though they may extol the research they do and the conservation efforts they make, the reality of being an animal housed in a zoo is often grim. The enclosures in zoos often lack adequate stimulation for their occupants and animals often spend large amounts of time confined indoors. Some species, such as elephants, frequently display lameness and behavioral problems when kept in zoos.


How to ban battery cages for good

If you want to help stop the use of battery cages, one step is to support our campaigns asking big corporations to stop buying eggs from farms that use cages.


The best way to make a difference for laying hens is to stop eating eggs altogether. By choosing not to consume eggs we are not only eliminating our contribution to chickens suffering in cages but also to the male chicks that are slaughtered as part of the egg industry as a whole.


Conclusion

The outlook for chickens raised to lay eggs is extremely grim. Thankfully, there is hope. More and more companies are taking the pledge to stop supplying from farms that use battery systems. This step would eliminate what is considered to be some of the worst suffering of the animal industry.