I’ve yet to experience dealing with fractured bones, but with my luck it may be on the future to-do list. If so, I’ll be informed and ready. Kidding aside, it is one of the common themes I see on Facebook chicken group posts: my horse, goat/I stepped on my chicken; my rooster got his foot caught in the door; my hen jumped off the roost bar and had a crash landing. You get it. The possibilities are endless with flighty creatures with hollow bones experiencing high force impacts or falls.
Fractures (broken bones) are a traumatic injury, which is not only painful, but can be crippling or lead to death. There are different types of fractures and several ways in which a bone can break. One that damages surrounding skin and penetrates the skin is known as a compound or an open fracture.
Laying Hens & Keel Bone Injuries
I am bothered when folks refer to their hens as slackers and free-loaders. If they understood the Herculean effort it took to make and lay an egg perhaps they would be more appreciative. Did you know that hens actually draw calcium out of their bones to make egg shells? If that calcium doesn’t get replaced or they are pushed beyond their capacity (i.e. artificial lights to force them to lay without taking long breaks) it can lead to osteoporosis. That, of course, is a risk factor for broken bones.
Some breeds of laying hens are susceptible to fractures in part due to selective breeding for increased egg laying: more eggs laid over a longer period of time. The push to lay more eggs on a consistent basis causes progressive bone loss from a hen’s skeleton as calcium is mobilized for egg shell formation. A laying hen’s need for calcium can exceed her body reserves by about thirty times. Keel bone (breastbone) injuries are commonly seen in commercial and high production layers.
Identifying a Broken Bone
Any bone is vulnerable to a fracture, but the most common ones are toes, legs and wings. Look for:
- Inability to walk, limping
- Dragging or twisted wing
- Swelling, heat or redness at site of the fracture
- Recently twisted toes (i.e. not curled toes in chicks)
- Green bruising, discoloured skin
- Muscle atrophy
- Decreased appetite
The question is are these injuries fixable and do you have the time to offer the care required? Like with any chicken health issue, are you willing to invest in getting veterinary care or will attempt a DIY fix? Regardless of which route you choose your bird will need immediate medical attention.
Chicken bones heal just like ours: it’s a natural process that requires giving the bone optimal conditions to heal itself. Most birds may only require bandaging/splinting and a period of rest and physical therapy. If you have deep pockets, veterinarians can do x-rays, splints, metal pins and plates and even amputations, if required. A baby aspirin (81 mg) can be cut in half and offered for pain relief.
Open fractures are more at risk of a secondary infection of the bone (osteomyelitis) and may require the use of antibiotics. Your veterinarian can recommend the optimal drug regime.
Types of Splints
- Figure 8 Wing Bandages are most suited for fractures of the elbow or carpal joint, or in young chicks. It is important not to apply the gauze strips or vetrap too tight.
- Schroeder-Thomas Splint is best used for fractures involving the shank and hock joints. It’s made of a wire with two right-angle bends next to the ring at the top of the splint, so that it runs parallel to the long axis of the leg.
- Robert Jones Bandage is used for simple fractures involving the hock joint. Heavily padded leg bandages can be used with or without additional splinting material.
- Wood applicator sticks, tongue depressors, aluminum rods or even pool noodles can all be made into leg splints.
- Ensure that fractures are properly aligned in order to increase the chances of them healing properly, which usually only takes 2 to 4 weeks.
- Patients should be removed from the flock and kept in a crate or pen to reduce activity and potential bullying until they are healed.
- Be gentle when handling chickens.
- Always supervise children around chickens.
- Never try to catch birds by their legs.
- Avoid using supplemental light to force your hens to lay year round. They need breaks between laying.
- Be aware of your chickens when they around other types of livestock (e.g. horses, goats).
- Chickens love to be underfoot or stand in doorways, so be conscious of their location when you’re out with them to avoid stepping on, or closing a door on, them.
- Make sure your perches aren’t too high and that the coop floor is well padded with bedding.
- Roost bars should be less than 24″/60cm apart.
- Supplement your hens’ diet with Omega-3 fatty acids (e.g. oily fish; flax, hemp and chia seeds; soybeans; tofu; navy and kidney beans; seaweed; Brussel sprouts and walnuts).
- Provide oyster shells for calcium.
- Give balanced feed.
- Ensure your birds have enough room to exercise, which builds muscle and bone.
- Avoid overcrowding.
- Predator proof your coop and run.
- Train and supervise dogs around your birds.
Credits: Dummies; Poultry DVM; Universities Federation For Animal Welfare Featured Photo Credit: Backyard Chickens; BHWT = British Hen Welfare Trust
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