When I first got chicks in 2005 one of my pullets developed a permanent limp. I have no idea what the cause was, but I affectionately named her Bumblefoot. I had no idea at the time what that meant, other than it was a condition that affected chickens’ feet. I’m not the only one who thinks that was an interesting moniker: Ron Thal, former member of Guns N’ Roses, took on the stage name Bumblefoot, after stumbling across the term in his wife’s veterinary manuals.
I encountered my first case of bumblefoot years later when I adopted two hens with problem feet. I had watched online videos on how to do at-home surgery and posted on our local Facebook community bulletin board asking for an assistant. That’s how I met my friend Laurie, who offered to help out. Since then I haven’t seen it in my flock, but have helped other folks deal with it in theirs: Rena and Darren, whose flock of six hens all had the infection in both feet and Laura, who wanted some advice about Steve, the rooster she adopted from me.
I recently did a routine check of some of my hens and in inspecting their feet found some of them had bumblefoot, not just on one, but both, feet.
Bumblefoot, or pododermatitis, is a broad term that includes any inflammatory or degenerative condition affecting chicken feet. Severity is graded using a 5-point scale, usually related to whether or not there is an accompanying infection. Once infection sets in, the disease quickly progresses.
If you watch your birds you know they are constantly on the move, foraging, scratching in the dirt and digging dust bath holes. All of that wear and tear can cause problems for their feet. Bumblefoot is caused by consistent, uneven, or excessive pressure on the bottom of the bird’s foot, combined with conditions that lead to the breakdown in the outer skin of the foot. Scrapes or cuts in the footpads allow bacteria in the soil or coop to infect the inner tissues. Think of it like pressure ulcers or bedsores in people.
I always thought that it was a Staphylococcus aureus bacterial infection, and it most commonly is, but can also involve several other bacteria including Streptococcus sp. and E. coli.
Any chickens are vulnerable, but it often affects large breeds and roosters because of their size and the pressure put on their feet.
- Jumping down from high roost bars
- Landing on hard packed bedding, concrete floors or rough ground
- Getting splinters from rough roosts
- Standing/scratching on wire-bottomed runs
- Injuries from nail trimming accidents
- Walking around on wet, soiled bedding for prolonged periods of time
The first stage appears as a small, superficial lesion, rough skin, or mild discoloring of the foot. Once the skin barrier breaks down, it provides a direct opening for opportunistic, infection causing bacteria to enter. When the foot is infected, chickens may start to limp or favour the affected foot, by holding it up or not put their full weight on it.
Grade 1: Shiny, reddened surface or small lesion on the bottom or top of the foot or in between toes, with no apparent underlying infection.
Grade 2: Surface infection with no major swelling.
Grade 3: Abscess state; infection with cheesy fluid draining from a lesion.
Grade 4: Chronic infection with swelling of underlying tissues involving deep structures, such as tendons and bones.
Grade 5: Crippling deformity and loss of function, including infection in the bones and arthritis.
It’s relatively easy to treat in the early stages, sometimes through management and environmental modifications. If you have multiple cases of bumblefoot inspect your coop and run to discover what the underlying causes might be and remedy them.
Obviously treatment is easiest at this stage, which is also when we might not even be aware there is any issue.
You’ll often notice their feet when infection is present because of ulceration, swelling, or inflammation. The first few times I dealt with bumblefoot I excised the bumble (black scab) with a scalpel to remove the core. I would now advise against doing any cutting as there are tendons and structures in the foot that can be damaged. I’ve opted for a less intrusive and painful method: I soak the affected foot in water as hot as they will tolerate and Epsom salt to soften the scab; then, wearing gloves, pick the lesion out using my fingernail. The results vary: sometimes just the surface scab comes off, other times it includes a carrot-like hard core or even cheesy strands of pus.
Once you’ve removed as much as you can, irrigate the wound with sterile saline or 0.5% chlorhexidine; then apply polysporin, Betadine or unpasteurized honey. A drawing salve, like Prid, can be applied as well. One of my readers uses sugar and Iodine made into a paste and applied to the foot pad before bandaging. Others use a poultice of Epsom salts and water.
Bandage by placing a small square of gauze over the footpad and wrapping with vetrap, so that the foot stays clean and dry. I live on the west coast of Canada where it rains eight months of the year. I found that by using thin strips of duct tape over the vetrap their feet didn’t get muddy. Keep repeating as necessary (e.g. two or three times per week until the inflammation has subsided and the foot appears normal).
If the infection is severe you may have to isolate your bird in a dog crate to encourage healing and limit use of their feet. If it has spread to the bone or other tissues consult a veterinarian about the appropriate use of antibiotics.
Here is Molly’s worst foot after just a few treatments (done twice/week). I combined Prid with a homemade drawing salve made of powdered bentonite clay, propolis, coconut oil and tea tree oil. The lesion has sloughed off and the inflammation is markedly better.
These are three examples of severe cases of bumblefoot. Most often lesions are seen on the bottom of the foot, but in these instances there were several lesions on both the top and bottom. The owners cut the sides and were able to pull the entire lesion out in one piece, which has left a hole right through their hen’s foot. The aftercare would include packing the wound with polysporin, bandaging well and repeating often until the hole has healed over. As long as the foot stays clean and dry, and there are no mobility or bullying issues, keep your bird with the flock.
- Routine physical exams, including checking your birds’ feet, will catch the problem early
- Occasionally soak their feet in warm water with Epsom salt or chamomile tea
- Install splinter-free roost bars which do not place pressure on the foot pads (i.e. too narrow) and, depending on the design of your coop located 18”-48” from the floor (always higher than your nest boxes)
- Keep coop bedding clean and dry
- Cover concrete or rough floors with several inches of shavings
- Feed a well-balanced diet. Excess weight puts undue pressure on their feet.
- Do not use wire on the bottom of your run – even if it is covered with soil or bedding chickens can dig down and scrape their feet