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Brief Summary of the Legal Protections of the Domestic Chicken in the United States and Europe

Veronica Hirsch

Animal Legal and Historical Center
Publish Date:
Place of Publication: Michigan State University--Detroit College of Law
Printable Version

Brief Summary of the Legal Protections of the Domestic Chicken in the United States and Europe


The bird commonly known as the chicken (Gallus domesticus) is a domesticated version of the Indian and Southeast Asian Red Jungle Fowl (Gallus gallus), still found in the wild today.  Some people believe that the bird may have been domesticated first for its use in cockfighting, and only later used as a food source.  An adult male chicken is referred to as a “rooster,” adult females are called “hens,” and newly hatched birds are “chicks.”  For more on chicken biology and behavior click here. 

Most of the almost 9 billion chickens in the United States today are used for food or food production. Chickens are also kept as pets, bred for poultry shows, used as research animals in laboratories, and some are still used for cockfighting, despite the fact that cockfighting is illegal in almost every state.  For more on cockfighting click here. 


Over 90% of the 10 billion animals used in animal agriculture in the United States each are chickens. Over 8.7 billion broiler chickens are killed each year for food, and over 337 million battery-hens are used for laying eggs.  But the use of animals in agriculture is still the most lightly regulated area of animal use in the United States, and of the regulations that do exist, chickens and other poultry are typically excluded.  From an animal welfare perspective, there are no federal regulations regarding the breeding, rearing, sale, transportation, or slaughter of chickens. For more on the use of chickens for food, click here.


Although every state in the United States has an animal anti-cruelty law, thirty states specifically exclude farm animals (or fowl), and/or make exceptions for “common,” “normal,” or “customary” animal husbandry practices; eighteen states also exclude animals slaughtered for food.  Prosecuting animal cruelty cases under the remaining states' statutes is often difficult because many states require a “willful” or “malicious” state of mind, which is difficult to prove.  When farm animals are involved, only cases of extreme neglect appear to warrant prosecution.  For more on state anti-cruelty laws, click here.


In comparison to the almost non-existent protection offered to agricultural animals in the United States, many farm animals in Europe and the United Kingdom are afforded significant legal protections.  Many European animal welfare laws are based in part on the principles of the “Five Freedoms” first defined in 1979 by the UK Agriculture Ministry’s advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council.  These five freedoms require that animals have: freedom from hunger and thirst, freedom from pain, injury and discomfort, and freedom to express natural behaviors.

These five freedoms form the foundation of many forms of animal legislation throughout the European Union, the United Kingdom, and New Zealand, and unlike in the United States, chickens are not categorically excluded form this legislative protection.  In fact, many countries have enacted specific laws which specifically address the welfare of agriculturally used chickens.  For more on European laws, click here.



Biological Information on the Chicken

Legal Overview of Laws Protecting Chickens

Detailed Discussion of Laws Protecting Chickens


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