Curled toes, in which one or more toes appear to curl sideways, is a treatable condition in chicks. It may be caused by inbreeding, genetics (Light and Dark Brahmas have a higher incidence) or storing hatching eggs for more than ten days, but is most often associated with fluctuations in temperature (too high or too low) in incubator hatches. My online research found that @3% of incubator chicks are born with the condition. I have only experienced it once with a broody hen hatch and twice with an incubator hatch. Sometimes it affects the last, and often late, chick to hatch.
This is one of those good news stories in which I can pretty much guarantee if you catch this problem early enough you’ll be able to fix it. It’s not always easy to do a physical exam on newly hatched chicks, but if possible look them over for abnormalities: crossbeak, deformities, splayed leg and curled toes. The latter two, are easy to treat just after hatch.
If you’re lucky your chick will only have one, or two, curled toes. If you’re like my friends, Thomas and Elizabeth, every toe of their last-to-hatch in a clutch of twelve, chick’s feet were curled. They asked me for advice and I was happy to provide some direction on a free and easy solution. It helps having two people, but if you can manage by yourself, flatten the foot so it appears normal. You can sandwich the corrected foot between two pieces of tape, or wrap a bandaid around the whole foot, or even place a tiny cardboard cutout under the foot and then tape it in place. Your chick won’t be very mobile, but it’s important that the tape stays in place for several days so the toes can strengthen and stay in the right position.
If you have an incubator hatch you can leave your patient in the brooder with its hatch mates, so long as its not being bullied. Thomas and Elizabeth’s chick couldn’t stay with its mother and siblings because right after hatch the hen was touring around the garden with the chicks in tow. The disabled chick couldn’t keep up and when they discovered her orthopedic issues she was falling behind and not getting enough nutrition. They brought her into their house, made little shoes with bandaids and a cardboard cutout and set up a spot on their couch for her to hang out during the day.
She couldn’t walk, but was getting plenty to eat and drink and was alert. At night they tucked her back under the mother to keep warm and bond with her and the other chicks. On the third day they removed her shoes. One foot was nearly normal and the other needed the shoe for a bit longer. Getting rid of one shoe meant she could start stretching her leg and moving her foot which would be required if she was going to rejoin her mother and the other chicks.
Another cause of curled toes – especially those that curl under like a fist – is a deficiency of riboflavin (vitamin B2) resulting in changes in peripheral nerves affecting the feet. We don’t always know why chicks get curled toes, but it’s easy to give them vitamins, in addition to fixing their toes. In addition to the shoes we gave her poultry vitamins and Brewer’s yeast. We removed the shoes after four days. One foot was nearly normal and one still had issues: they decided to leave the good foot unfettered to allow it to gain strength and re-shoed the other. The problem then was she dragged her leg behind her, rather than use it, so the shoe defeated the purpose of improving her toes.
With both shoes removed her toes didn’t look so bad, but she didn’t seem to have the strength and mobility to use her legs and feet properly. It took some effort for her to stand upright and take a few steps, after which she sat down on her hocks (elbows). Thomas and Elizabeth moved her around the floor, making her work to get to her food dish. She seemed content enough, but her progress was slow.
Before we had the chance to see if she’d make a full recovery their chicks were hit with coccidiosis – a first for them. By the time I heard what was happening they had already lost several young birds, including our curled toe patient. We got the others started on Amprolium, a thiamine blocker, which interferes with the reproduction of the pathogen. They were able to save the rest of their youngsters, but it was too late this little one.
So what happens if you didn’t notice your bird’s wonky toes, or it’s too late to fix them? Chickens can live with deformed feet but they will be more vulnerable to predators, are at greater risk of developing bumblefoot and will have a more difficult time scratching to forage and getting to the roost bars. If you are alert to what to look for when they are newly hatched make the effort to treat their feet, enabling them to have fully normal lives.