In Canada, about 24 million hens lay 616 million eggs each year. More than 90% (or 21.6 million hens) spend their lives in small, cramped, wire enclosures called battery cages. They are housed in groups of four to eight birds.
To understand just how crowded these cages are, picture a standard piece of printer paper. Now cut off a quarter of the page. The remaining piece of paper represents the amount of floor space each hen has in a battery cage. 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.
In this new code, the egg industry commits to a minimum of 85% of hens transitioned out of battery cages into alternative housing systems within 15 years’ time, and commits to phasing out the use of battery cages entirely by 2036. The transition has already begun. As of this year, no new 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.
Housed in groups of up to 100 birds, hens in enriched cages receive slightly more floor space than those housed in battery cages. Picture that same piece of printer paper, but leave it intact and add 5 cm (2 inches) to the end. 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.
This is a life-sized brown laying hen puppet
Red square - depicts the space provided per hen in a battery cage (432 square cm per hen)
Yellow square - depicts the space provided per hen in an enriched cage (750 square cm per hen)
Green square - SPCA Certified, all litter flooring (1,900 square cm per hen)
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 healthy and free of parasites. Hens prefer to lay their eggs in a hidden area, so when they are ready to lay, they seek the privacy of a secluded nest. To keep safe from predators on the ground and in the air during the day, some hens prefer to perch somewhere high to stand guard and warn the flock of any approaching danger. At night, most or all of the birds will roost high up off the ground to stay safe as they sleep. These behaviours are important in keeping hens clean, safe and comfortable, and they are ingrained behaviours that hens are highly motivated to perform.
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 centimetres 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. A well-designed and well-managed cage-free environment is much better suited to meeting these behavioural needs than existing caged systems – enriched or not.
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 stress, aggression and overall poor health.
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 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 – the exact proportion depends on the type of cage-free system in use.
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.
All in all, cage-free systems can currently accommodate a wider range of natural, healthy hen behaviours, creating the potential for significant improvements to hen welfare in Canada. But transitioning from a system that is currently over 90% caged to one that is entirely cage-free will take time and careful planning.
Show your support for this change by choosing to buy only cage-free eggs:
- 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. You can find an up-to-date list on our website.
Battery cages: Hens living in these cramped, wire cages have less than a standard piece of printer paper worth of space 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. 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’.
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’. Also called ‘cages with furnishings’.