Debeaking Poultry: Comments to an e-mail chat between Robert Huggins, an industry reaseacher, and Frank L. Hoffman
An Animal Rights Article from


January 2003

See Debeaking - An e-mail discussion with an Industry Researcher

Frank Boardman wrote (14 Dec 1999):

Re: your Poultry Beak post, you wrote, "God made the chickens with the beaks they have, because it was best for them, and not necessarily for us." This is precisely the point that we should be making at every turn. I cant help but wonder, though, about the animals "used" in the man's experiments. Did you ever ask him about that directly?


Robert Huggins' reply (15 Dec 1999):

Since I do not have Frank Boardman's e-mail address I will try and answer his question the best way I can. I will address my answer to you as am sure you would like to see my response. Unfortunately, man has seen it fit to use animals in testing to see if products that are used by man are safe. It is not a method that I condone, as these animals have no choice in what they are being subjected to. Recently, a break through was made at the University of Ottawa eye Centre where Scientists there were able to grow in vitro a human cornea from cells taken from the eye. It is hoped that in the not too distance future animal use will no longer be subjected to treatment whereby chemicals are applied to their eyes in order to determine the effects of these chemicals. Until a test can be developed, and with modern Technology and the new thrust into Biotechnology, there is no reason to suggest that if not the total elimination or at least a significant reduction of animal use will occur. I think that regardless of what we think or say, there will probably always be a need for animal testing, although I hope at a very low level.

I don't know if this helps,


Bill Dollinger (Friends of Animals) wrote (15 Dec 1999):

Thank you for publishing this great exchange on your web page. I enjoyed your site.


Franklin Wade (United Poultry Concerns) (15 Dec 1999):

(ed.) Franklin sent along the follow URL in reference to the discussion.


Robert Huggins' reply (15 Dec 1999):

Dear Frank,

If I have to assume from the picture and drawing presented in Dr. Duncan's paper on debeaking I will definitely agree that the birds are going to suffer terribly. If debeaking is done, and done properly, my studies showed that there was no set back in performance. My Paper was supposed to have been published in the Journal of applied Poultry Production, Titled: Robert Huggins, Cicero Lallo, Andrew Adogwa. 1995 The Effect of Different Methods of Beak-trimming on Broiler Chicks and the Histology of Regrowth Beak under a Tropical Humid Environment. If birds are debeaked, and I have seen them done that way, and it is inhumane, two sets of damage occur; (1) the tip of the beak is burnt to far back which destroys the nerves, and (2) there is also a zone of cautery which usually ends up under the nose of the bird resulting in additional tissue being destroyed. Do I support debeaking, no I do not. What I was attempting to prove was that debeaking was not necessary under tropical conditions as it did not improve weight gains, or reduce cannibalism in any way. What my study also showed, was that during the first 3 weeks of life, birds that were debeaked with the Electric arc debeaker actually outperformed those that were debeaked with the Lyons debeaker and the controls. The end result washtub those not debeaked were actually heavier than those that were debeaked. The birds that were debeaked with the Lyons debeaker suffered the most, being lightest in the end. In the study that I did I used 3000 birds which gives a good sample. Would I recommend debeaking, absolutely not, as I do not think it is necessary.

As far as being no more than cutting your finger nails, if done properly, it is no more than that, If it is done like what I saw in the photograph, then God forbid.

Hope that this answers some of your questions.


Nancy J. Winemiller wrote (15 Dec 1999):


It is always interesting to have conversations with those in industry. Certainly the biggest myth promulgated by the egg and broiler industry is that trimming the beaks of chickens is like cutting fingernails. Robert Huggins incorrectly indicates that the nerves in a chicken's beak are much like those in a human fingernail. Human fingernails do not have nerves. if they did, we'd never cut them. Chickens on the other hand use their beaks to explore their environment and therefore have highly sensitive tissue in the beak that is ennervated and causes pain when damaged. I'm glad you pointed that out to him. Incidentally, I've never seen a debeaked chicken that looked like it had been trimmed according to that diagram. The chickens I've seen at factory farms, at farm sanctuary, and in other pictures of factory farmed animals always show far more of the beak missing, sometimes almost to their faces.

It's encouraging to see that Mr. Huggins, who is involved at some level in the industry, admit that overcrowding takes place and that other cruelties are occurring on factory farms. What you say is true about debeaking: Beaks are on chickens because they perform a function, and a very important one at that. Eating, preening, and exploration of the environment are all important behaviors for a chicken's well-being, and debeaking has a deleterious effect on all of these behaviors. I hope he'll continue to become educated (not through experiments but through reading) about chickens and their behavior and come to the conclusion that beak trimming in any form is cruel. one excellent resource for further reading is Karen Davis's book, Prisoned Chickens, Prisoned Eggs.

Thanks for taking the time to carry on the exchange with Robert Huggins and put it at your web site. they not only give us insight about the mindset of industry but they also guide us in our interactions with the public and the industry about farm animal abuse.



Anne Muller (Wildlife Watch) wrote (15 Dec 1999):

Thank you for pursuing the ethical argument with the researcher. I hope he will come to see our point of view at some point in the exchange.

Nedim C. Buyukmihci (Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights) wrote (16 Dec 1999):

Just so people are aware, there is ample scientific evidence that proves (contrary to Huggins' claim) that debeaking is painful during and, sometimes, for months after the procedure:

Breward, J. and Gentle, M.J.: Neuroma formation and abnormal afferent nerve discharges after partial beak amputation (beak trimming) in poultry. Experientia 41: 1132-1134, 1985.

Adult hens had about 1/3 of the upper and lower beaks removed using a commercial heated blade debeaker under pentobarbital anesthesia.

"Beak trimming results in both cutting and cauterizing the beak, and a significant but variable amount of the remaining beak was damaged by the cautery. The nerves in the beak were damaged by the high temperature of the cautery blade for a distanceof 2-3 mm from the cut end. From previous work it is clear that the process of beak trimming results in the activation of specific nociceptors in the beak at the time of surgery. From the work presented here it is clear that neuromas are formed as a result of the amputation and that these neuromas probably give rise to abnormal spontaneous nervous activity."

Gentle, Michael J.; Waddington, David; Hunter, Louise N. and Jones, R. Bryan: Behavioural evidence for persistent pain following partial beak amputation in chickens. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 27: 149-157, 1990.

Hens were 16 weeks old at start of experiment. About one-third of the upper and lower beaks was removed under anesthesia using a commercial heated blade debeaker.

From Abstract: "Hens were presented with drinking water ranging in temperature from 20 to 45C, and their behavior was investigated before and after partial beak amputation. Amputation resulted in significant behavioral changes with reductions in environmental pecking, beak wiping and head shaking. Pecking at water presented at 45C, and drinking at all temperatures, were also reduced after amputation. These behavioural changes are interpreted as instances of guarding behaviour and hyperalgesia which persisted for 6 weeks, at least 3 weeks after the beak had healed. They provide evidence for possible chronic pain in birds following partial beak amputation."

"The avian beak is complex sensory organ which not only serves to grasp and manipulate food particles prior to ingestion, but is also used to manipulate non-food articles in nesting behaviour and exploration, drinking, preening, and as a weapon in defensive and aggressive encounters. [T]he beak of the chicken has an extensive nerve supply with numerous mechanoreceptors, thermoreceptors and nociceptors. Beak amputation results in extensive neuromas being formed in the healed stump of the beak...which give rise to abnormal spontaneous neural activity in the trigeminal nerve. [N]ociceptors present in the beak of the chicken have similar properties to those found in mammalian skin...and the neural activity arising from the trigeminal neuromas is similar to that reported in the the baboon...Therefore, in terms of the peripheral neural activity, partial beak amputation is likely to be a painful procedure leading not only to phantom and stump pain, but also to other characteristics of the hyperpathic syndrome, such as allodynia and hyperalgesia..."

"Behaviourally, partial beak amputation presents the animal with feeding difficulties...and for at least 5 weeks after amputation there is a significant reduction of the use of the beak fornon-essential activities such as preening and exploratory pecking...Other non-beak-related behaviour patterns were also affected with the birds showing persistent increases in the time spent standing inactive...or resting..."

"[I]t has been reported that [partial beak amputation] results in long-term (56 weeks) increases in dozing and general inactivity..., behaviours associated with long-term chronic pain...and depression."

Workman, L. and Rogers, L.J.: Pecking preferences in young chicks: Effects of nutritive reward and beak-trimming. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 26: 115-126, 1990. Cited in my Ethical concerns for nonhuman animals used for food and fiber, A-5916 Stack Find ("!A5916").

"Beak-trimmed chicks...swallowed a significantly lower proportion of the seeds with which they made beak contact than non-beak-trimmed controls."

Craig, J.V. and Lee, H.-Y.: Beak trimming and genetic stock effects on behavior and mortality from cannibalism in white leghorn-type pullets. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 25: 107-123, 1990.

From Abstract: "Removal of half of the upper and less of the lower beak of pullet chicks at 4 weeks of age resulted in less pecking at feed, fewer non-agonistic pecks of all kinds, less moving and preening, and more inactive standing and crouching during the following 3 weeks. Body weights, used as indirect indicators of feed intake, were initially suppressed following beak treatment, but trimmed-beak pullets were only marginally lighter by 27 weeks of age. Beak length measures taken 3 months after beak trimming indicated that regrowth had not occurred. Beak trimming was highly beneficial in reducing beak-inflicted feather loss and mortality from cannibalistic pecking in two of three commercial genetic stocks. Pullets of the third stock suffered no greater feather loss when their beaks were left intact than when they were trimmed, and mortality from cannibalistic pecking was essentially absent in this stock, regardless of beak treatment. These results indicate that either no beak trimming or less severe beak trimming is a practical possibility for poultry producers, as soon as appropriate genetic stocks are identified."

Glatz, P.C.; Murphy, L.B. and Preston, A.P.: Analgesic therapy of beak-trimmed chickens. Australian Veterinary Journal 69 (1): 18, 1992 (January).

"In Australia, millions of commercial poultry are beak-trimmed each year. Our work has shown that analgesics have the potential to maintain the feed intake of chickens in the first day after trimming, which probably indicates that some of the acute pain had been relieved. The practicalities of using analgesics appear to be quite simple as it takes only seconds to apply. Immediately after trimming, the beak of each bird could be dipped in a dish of analgesic or held against a sponge saturated with analgesic."

Christmas, R.B.: Research note: The performance of spring- and summer-reared broilers as affected by precision beak trimming at seven days of age. Poultry Science 72 (12): 2358-2360, 1993 (December).

From Abstract: "Performance of spring-reared broilers was comparable regardless of beak trimming procedure, except that [precision beak-trimmed] broilers experienced slightly higher mortality after PBT. ...PBT resulted in significantly reduced final body weights and feed intake."

"The finding of other research that beak trimming of market broilers generally resulted in reduced body weight and feed intake (Andrews, 1977) was also confirmed by the present studies."



Robert Huggins' reply (18 Dec 1999):

Dear Frank,

It seems as though I have opened up a can of worms. All the information that I presented on debeaking was from my final year Thesis on debeaking 3000 day old broiler chicks, and its effect on weight gain, feed conversion under Tropical Humid conditions. The study also involved the Histology of the beak both before debeaking, after debeaking and at the end of the grow out at 42 days. As mentioned, two methods of debeaking were used, and we used the Precision Debeaker, which has a hot blade and also a guide with a 1/8 inch hole for placing the beak prior to cutting. The objective was to prove or disprove whether debeaking was necessary in day old broilers under Tropical Conditions, as this was the current practice. My study proved that debeaking was totally un-necessary in Broilers, as judged by the final weights achieved as follows:

Lyons Debeaker 1.590kg
Agri-Bio Beaker(Electric Arc) 1.637kg
No Debeaking 1.618kg

Whilst studies have claimed that the birds suffered pain, I could not categorically state that the birds suffered any pain, as we observed that birds who had their beaks trimmed would go immediately to the feed pans and start eating. Also, How does one determine what is pain and what is stress, maybe the Vets could give some insight. I would also like to mention that I did no study on older birds as I was only concerned at that time with day olds broilers. However, from the literature cited there is no reason to doubt that there is pain. I would also like to mention that he method that I used in my study resulted in the egg tooth being removed only. The end result and from Histological studies, the beak had completely grown back by the end of 3 -4 weeks, with no indicated damage to the Herbst Corpuscles(nerve like structures in the beak).

I think we have reached a point in our discussions where we all agree that there is some pain inflicted on the birds during debeaking. However, we look at it, debeaking is a form of surgery, and any form of surgery will result in pain. What needs to be determined now, is this: Is debeaking necessary in any area of the Poultry Industry given the fact that over the years there has been a significant reduction in Cannibalism due to improved nutrition and Genetics. If we all agree that debeaking is un-necessary, then how can industry be convinced, keeping in mind that the hatcheries where > 90% of the debeaking is done charges for this service. If debeaking is necessary under certain circumstances, what would be the most humane method(s) that can be used to undertake such a procedure. We need to come up with solutions, not just make statements, to convince the Industry that what we are seeing taking place is unacceptable.


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