What are most people doing on New Year’s Eve? Planning a party? Making sure they have lots of booze in the house? Stockpiling good videos to watch? Guess how I rung in the 2016 New Year?
Earlier in the day I discovered that Ella, my Barred Rock hen had bumblefoot. I, like most people, rely on Google to find diagnosis and treatment information. If you’re not aware, bumblefoot is often a Staph infection in a chicken’s foot that often looks like a raised black circle on the bottom of the foot or between their toes. The infection usually doesn’t create soft pus, but a hard core with a tap root like Plantar’s warts.
I figured this was a two person job and my partner, Jan, flatly refused to be my surgery assistant. So I posted on our local FB community bulletin board asking for help. I uploaded a video of the surgery and said “Looking for someone who’s not squeamish. If after watching this you’re still willing to help, give me a call”. I got an email response from Laurie and her signature included ‘Dr’. Wow! I was excited at the prospect that a physician or vet was coming to help. It turns out Laurie’s PhD is Geography/Resource Management and she was a teacher of Business Communications and Marketing at a community college. No mind, she was a willing helper. I found out that she also had chickens which was her true passion and was hoping to get some firsthand surgical experience for future reference.
I had already prepped my kitchen as an operating theatre by the time she arrived. The counters were covered in sheets and all the equipment was laid out. We gave Ella a warm bath in Epsom salts to soften up the bumble, then we wrapped her in a towel making sure to cover her head. Laurie agreed to assist but didn’t want to do the actual excision. That fell to me – which was only fair, as after all, Ella was my bird. I used a scalpel to cut around the perimeter of the bumble and out came a core with the black head. There was a little bleeding, but not too much. I sprayed Vetericyn and put polysporin (don’t use the kind with ‘caine’ as its toxic to birds) on the wound, then a square of gauze and wrapped her foot with vetrap. Chickens are remarkably good patients – Laurie held her but there wasn’t a lot of squirming or complaining.
Ella had to spend a few days in the infirmary dog crate to keep her foot clean and dry and to restrict her overusing it. The bandage was changed daily, after I had cleaned her foot and reapplied more Vetericyn, polysporin and gauze. It all healed up fairly quickly and she was back on her feet in no time. Like Plantar’s warts, if you don’t get it all out, the bumble can return; luckily she didn’t have to endure surgery again.
I’ve done the surgery (on other birds) twice since then, both times by myself. If the bird is swaddled in a towel with their head covered there is no need for a second person to hold them. One time I couldn’t find a core. Some people are successful getting rid of the infection without surgery – they soak the foot and pick at the bumble, opening it up. Sometimes the core can be picked right out and I read one person did have some pus spurt out. Whatever method you use bumblefoot is painful and the Staph infection can spread so you want to deal with it early. Get in the habit of routinely examining your birds for external parasites (lice and mites) and check their feet for cuts, scrapes or infections.
Chickens are constantly scratching the ground, so it’s easy for them to get a cut or scrape that leads to an infection. If your roost bars are high and the floor hard they can also get injured when they jump down. Make sure your coop bedding is deep enough to soften their landing.
If you are going to attempt to do the surgery yourself here are some suggestions: watch the online videos, taking notes; have your surgery area totally prepped and all the tools close at hand; have an assistant, if possible; wear gloves; have the proper tools so you are not causing your bird unnecessary pain; adhere to proper aftercare, keeping the wound clean and dry. Don’t procrastinate – these infections rarely just clear up on their own. Some intervention will be required; if you catch it early you might be able to avoid surgery.
As we all know, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Try to reduce some of the risks to your birds: plenty of bedding on your floors and watching for sharp objects in their run.
P.S. Just in case you’re wondering what happened to Ella. I re-homed her, she’s almost 6 and still laying in her retirement home. Happy endings all around.
Update October 2019: I have since dealt with other cases of bumblefoot and have stopped using intrusive methods like surgery, in favour of drawing salves (which require a bit of patience. More on that here.