Elizabeth Mack helps us spot and treat foot problems in chicks and chickens.
Spotting and Treating Foot Problems in Poultry
Two common foot problems for chickens are splay leg, also known as “spraddle leg,” and bumblefoot. While both are treatable, they need to be caught early. Chickens are notorious for hiding any sign of illness, so early intervention is critical for successful results.
What is Splay Leg?
Splay leg (sometimes also called “spraddle leg”) is a condition that a chick is either born with or develops within the first few hours of life. It’s usually quite obvious, as one or both of the new chick’s legs will slip out to the sides, making them unable to stand or walk. Technically, there really isn’t anything abnormal with the legs; the muscles just aren’t strong enough to hold the chick upright. However, if left untreated, it can be fatal to the chick. Without the ability to stand upright or walk to the waterer and feeder, a chick could die within hours.
Splay leg can sometimes be caused if the chick is in an awkward position in the egg before hatch, and can sometimes (though rarely) be caused by a nutrient deficiency. Temperatures that are too high during the hatching process or vary too much during incubation can also lead to splay leg.
Preventing Splay Leg
By far, the most common cause of splay leg is from walking on surfaces that are too slick for the newly hatched chick to grasp. Their tiny, fragile legs lack the strength to keep the chick upright without a textured surface to grip with their clawed feet. This past spring, when I had 18 chicks coming from the hatchery, my husband built an elaborate brooder — out of sheet metal (his trade). I convinced him that while it was quite lovely, we couldn’t use the slick sheet metal for the flooring!
Laying newspapers on the brooder floor to catch droppings is a common practice among new chicken keepers, but it’s a common cause of splay leg. The newspaper’s slick surface is too slippery for new chicks to get their footing. In addition, the ink used in some newspapers can be toxic to chicks.
Paper towels or shop towels are a better choice. Though covering the brooder floor with paper towels might be a more expensive option, they’ll only be needed the first few days until newly hatched chicks build their leg muscles. Rubberized shelf liners are another option that can be sanitized and reused. After 2 or 3 days, once the chicks’ legs become sturdy, change out the brooder floor covering to pine chips.
Treating Splay Leg
As with any illness or abnormality, a wobbly chick is at risk for being picked on by flock mates, which can often lead to fatal injuries. The chick will appear as a threat to the survival of the flock and become a target. If you suspect splay leg, remove the chick immediately, and isolate it from the rest of the flock until healed.
Treatment of splay leg is fairly straightforward. Legs need to be secured so the chick can stand in an upright position, but loose enough so the chick can still walk. One method is to twist fuzzy pipe cleaners around the legs. However, watch closely so that the wire inside the soft outer wrapping doesn’t protrude. Many chicken owners use flexible Band-Aids, but the adhesive can stick to the bird’s downy fluff. (Feathers won’t come in for a few weeks.)
The safest and most effective treatment method is to use a flexible bandage that sticks to itself. Vetrap bandaging tape is one option and can be found in many farm supply stores. It has no adhesive, is flexible, and is durable yet lightweight and breathable. You can easily cut it to fit. Wrap the bandage in a figure eight around the legs so that they’re at a normal standing position, but don’t wrap too tightly; the chick should still be able to stand and walk. If they’re unable to walk once their legs are wrapped, the bandage might be too tight.
After wrapping, you should notice an improvement within a day or so, and recovery is fairly swift. Change the wrapping once or twice a day to examine the development, and re-wrap as needed. Splay leg is highly treatable within the first 2 weeks after hatch, so it’s essential to take action as soon as possible. Once successfully treated, the chicken should develop at the same rate as their flock mates without any developmental delays. Splay leg won’t return, and chicks should lead a healthy, normal life.
What is Bumblefoot?
Bumblefoot, or plantar pododermatitis, is a staph infection of the toe, hock, or pad of the chicken’s foot. If the foot has a cut or broken skin, staphylococcus bacteria can enter and infect the foot. Bumblefoot begins on the foot’s surface, but can spread to muscle and bone tissue if not treated. Unlike splay leg, which only happens to new chicks, bumblefoot can happen to poultry of all ages, and can happen more than once. Bumblefoot can affect not only chickens, but all species of poultry, including ducks.
Early signs of bumblefoot are a slight limp or change in gait. A chicken might walk oddly, favoring one foot. The infected foot will become sore, red, and swollen. On inspection, you might find a round black scab.
How to Prevent Bumblefoot
Bumblefoot is often caused by a hard landing, often flying down off a high roost or too-high nest box. Make sure heavy birds, such as Orpingtons, have easy on-and-off access to their roost. In my new pen, I lowered my nest boxes when I noticed my Orpingtons struggling to get up and down.
Chicken housing can be full of invisible perils. Regularly inspect the coop and pen, as well as anywhere the flock will range, for puncture hazards. I go through my pen with a long magnet wand to pick up any nails, staples, or other sharp objects that could pierce their foot. Inspect the roost bars each spring to make sure sudden freezing and thawing hasn’t created splinters in the wood. After a seasonal molt, rake up fallen feathers from the coop and pen. On a softened foot pad, the feather’s quills can be sharp enough to pierce the foot if stepped on.
Treatment of Bumblefoot
If you suspect your chicken is infected with bumblefoot, the first treatment should be to soak their foot in a warm Epsom salt bath. Soaking in warm water will soften the pads of the foot and decrease infection. If a small scab is found, it should pull off easily after soaking.
If the swelling and redness continue to worsen, or a hard black scab remains, more aggressive treatment may be necessary. While some chicken owners attempt to treat bumblefoot at home by cutting out the infected area, this is a painful and invasive procedure, so it should be done with care to avoid further injury.
If a hard scab remains, the only way to remove it is to cut out the abscess, taking care to remove as much of the yellowish core as possible. Keep the infected foot wrapped and clean until healed. If kept dry and clean, the foot should show signs of healing within one week, but it could take up to a month for a full recovery. If you’re squeamish or the infection is advanced, a trip to the vet might be in order. The vet can perform a minor surgery and prescribe antibiotics to fight the infection. Keep the chicken out of the coop, or at least off the roost, to avoid re-injury until the foot is fully healed.
Sometimes a minor injury will heal on its own if kept clean and dry. Keeping your run dry helps keep disease and injury to a minimum. If the run gets muddy in wet weather, consider incorporating sand, or give your flock dry walking paths free of mud. Recurring incidences of bumblefoot in a flock is a clear indication that something is amiss with their housing area. While bumblefoot isn’t contagious, it can be extremely painful and life-threatening if left untreated. Spotting the early warning signs is essential to successful treatment and outcomes.
Not all chicken injury or illness can be avoided, but we need to be diligent in monitoring our flock. Becoming familiar with your flock will help tremendously in spotting the early warning signs of injury or illness. Daily, weekly, and more thorough monthly inspections are essential, and can prevent a minor injury from becoming a serious health threat.
A chicken’s feet go through a lot of abuse during their lives. Staying alert to any changes in gait or other behavior and knowing how to identify foot deformities or injuries when they arise will get you and your chickens off on the right foot!
Freelance writer Elizabeth Mack keeps a small flock of chickens on a 2-plus-acre hobby farm outside of Omaha, Nebraska. Her work has appeared in Capper’s Farmer, Out Here, First for Women, Nebraskaland, and numerous other print and online publications. Her first book, Healing Springs & Other Stories, includes her introduction—and subsequent love affair—with chicken keeping. Visit her website Chickens in the Garden.