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Why is it important for layer hens to express normal behaviours?

Layer hens will normally lay their eggs in an enclosed nest, perch, forage, and dust bathe ​[1, 2]​. The ability to express these normal behaviours is important for layer hens to have good welfare.

In Australia, layer hens may be kept in caged (battery or furnished) or cage-free (aviary, barn, or free-range) housing systems. While there are advantages and disadvantages to all housing systems, caged systems, in contrast to cage-free housing systems, restrict and prevent hens from performing normal behaviours. Where hens are unable to perform normal behaviours, it can lead to increased levels of stress, frustration, and aggression.


Layer hens normally perform nesting behaviours before and during egg laying, which is triggered by hormones at ovulation. Nesting behaviours include searching for a nest site, nest building, and laying eggs in a nest. Hens prefer laying eggs in enclosed nests with suitable friable substrates (e.g., straw or wood shaving) as nesting material ​[35]​. Hens have consistently demonstrated through motivation tests that they are motivated to perform nesting behaviours and lay their eggs in an enclosed nest box if given the opportunity ​[2]​. Hens denied the opportunity to nest can become frustrated, aggressive towards other hens, and perform abnormal behaviours, such as pacing and going through the motions of nest building. Hens provided with nests have been shown to have lower stress and fear levels, as well as perform fewer problematic behaviours towards other hens, such as injurious feather pecking and aggression ​[69]​.


Layer hen chicks begin trying to perch during the day at around 7-10 days of age and roost at night at around 3 to 6 weeks of age ​[10]​. Having access to perches from a young age can be beneficial for musculoskeletal development and strength and helps improve the adaptability and navigational skills of hens ​[1114]​. While the preference and time of day hens choose to use perches differs depending on the breed, almost all hens appear to use perches at night for roosting if adequate perch space is provided ​[1519]​. In commercial farming systems, a minimum of 15cm of perching space per hen has been suggested to provide hens an opportunity to perch and roost which is based on the average body width of a hen ​[20, 21]​. Being able to perch has also been shown to improve the plumage/feather condition, bone strength, and leg and foot health of hens ​[16, 2226]​.

Dust bathing

Dust bathing involves hens crouching down and using their wings to throw dust/sand through their feathers before standing and shaking off the dust/sand. Layer hen chicks begin dust bathing during the first few weeks of life ​[10]​. Dust bathing helps hens clean and maintain their feathers, remove oil build-up and parasites, and regulate their body temperature ​[2]​. Hens appear to perform dust bathing in groups and most often in the middle of the day or early afternoon ​[27]​. Hens require access to a suitable litter substrate for dust bathing and have shown a preference for substrates, such as sand and peat moss ​[28, 29]​.

Hens perform ‘sham dust bathing’ in some commercial farming systems, such as battery cages, where they are unable to dust bathe because of a lack of space and absence of suitable substrate ​[30]​. Sham dust bathing involves hens pretending and going through the motions of dust bathing without the dust or suitable litter substrate being present. The occurrence of sham dust bathing may occur in hens not provided with access to litter substrates for dust bathing at an early age ​[31, 32]​. Providing hens with suitable litter substrate for dust bathing within the first 4 weeks of life has been shown to help reduce the occurrence of severe and injurious feather pecking in a commercial flock ​[3336]​.


Foraging is a type of exploratory behaviour performed by hens, which involves scratching and pecking at the ground and in suitable litter substrates. Hens will forage even when feed is freely available and mainly forage during the morning and late afternoon ​[2, 10]​. The quality and type of litter substate provided is important for encouraging and allowing hens to satisfy their foraging motivations. Similar to dust bathing, hens prefer a variety of different types of litter substrates when performing foraging behaviours ​[10, 28, 37]​. The provision of a suitable substrate within the first 4 weeks of life for hens to forage can help reduce the occurrence of severe and injurious feathering pecking in a commercial flock ​[3336]​.

What is the RSPCA’s view on the behavioural needs of layers?

Good animal welfare goes beyond preventing pain, suffering or distress and minimising negative experiences, and includes ensuring that animals can express their normal behaviours and have the opportunity for positive experiences. To provide layer hens with good welfare they should have the choice and opportunity to perform normal behaviours, such as stretching and flapping their wings, nesting, perching, dust bathing, and foraging.

The RSPCA is opposed to caged housing systems, such as battery cages, because they restrict or completely prevent hens from being able to move around freely and perform normal behaviours resulting in inherently poor welfare outcomes. To find out more about the RSPCA’s campaign to end battery cages, click here.


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Updated on September 18, 2023
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