Care

Chicken Pedicures: Trimming Nails, Spurs & Beaks

Chicken nails, spurs and beaks are made of keratin, a type of protein. We have the benefit of being able to manually trim and shape our nails, while animals wear them down through use.

I’ve kept chickens for more than 11 years and never had to cut their nails. My flock has been raised, and spent their entire lives, outside digging in the dirt and gravel. Not all birds are so lucky and some, like five-toed breeds or birds with deformed toes may just have wonky nails because they don’t touch the ground. My nine-year-old Standard Poodle broke a toe shortly after we got her. Her leg was splinted and the fracture healed but her toe grows off to one side and the nail is always longer than the others. We routinely trim them so they are all uniform.

Long or curled nails can force the toes into an unnatural position while walking, making the toes curl inward. Over time, the toes can become permanently deformed causing the chicken pain and reducing their mobility.

If you have birds with long nails you might want to keep an eye on them and if you feel your bird would benefit by having a little pedicure here’s how it’s done.

If you have a cat or dog you might already have some of the right equipment: a guillotine style nail clipper. Birds, like dogs and cats, also have a vein inside the upper portion of the nail (called a ‘quick’), so if you clip too high you’ll cut it and it will bleed. Have a styptic pen or cornstarch on hand to stop the bleeding. If you don’t have pet nail clippers you can use a nail file or dremel.

I don’t handle my chickens often, but when I do I usually work alone. You might find it easier to have a helper. You’ll need to work in daylight, have a good flashlight or bring them into the house so you can see what you’re doing. Swaddle your bird in a towel, covering its head, but exposing their feet. You’ll find if they can’t see what’s going on they’ll be more docile and cooperative.

  • Wipe their feet and nails with a damp cloth to remove dirt and expose the quick.
  • Hold the chicken’s toe between your thumb and forefinger to keep it steady. If they are like my cats they will likely try to pull away, so be prepared.
  • See if you can spot where quick ends. Shining a light on the nail can help you determine the safest place to trim.
  • Clip/file a small portion off the tip of the nail: 1/8”- 1/4”.   
  • If you do cut too much and hit the quick you can use styptic powder or cornstarch to stop the bleeding.
  • Cage raised or sedentary birds may have very long nails, which can’t be trimmed all at once.
  • Clip a small amount and let the vein recede, which takes about a week.
  • You can continue to trim more weekly until they are the appropriate length.

While your bird is immobilized take the opportunity to check the bottom of their feet for the telltale signs of bumblefoot or raised scales on the legs indicating mites. It’s also a great time to check under the wings and around the vent for external parasites (i.e. mites and lice) and to give your bird an overall health check.

Spurs

Spurs are synonymous with roosters, but females can grow them too. I have three hens with spurs, which are sharp but much smaller than my rooster’s.

Spurs are part of your rooster’s leg anatomy and just like beaks and toenails they are covered in keratin. Spurs are like a hard nail, which can grow quite long and sharp throughout a rooster’s lifetime. And just like nails there is underlying bone and a quick within them.

I’ve never trimmed my rooster’s spurs – they are somewhat long, but not sharp and he’s never inflicted any mating injuries to my hens.

There are a few good reasons to trim your rooster’s spurs:

  • They’re very long and cause him difficulty walking.
  • He causes damage to the hens when mating.
  • He could potentially inflict damage to a member of the flock or family.

I watched a video in which a veterinarian used a dremel to remove an overly long spur from an anesthetized rooster who had problems walking. If your rooster has issues and you have a vet that is experienced this is one safe way to permanently remove his spurs. Be aware that it involves the amputation of the bone within the spur.

Short-term fixes that involve removing just the outer keratin sheath can be done using pliers or a hot potato. Folks claim it’s easy, but it does expose the underlying bone and leaves it unprotected. I don’t recommend any method that might cause a bird pain or make it vulnerable to infection.

I was advised by an Avian Veterinarian to treat spurs the same way as you do nails and gradually file or dremel them, taking off some length and the sharp tips, but stopping before you hit the quick.

Beaks

I’m not a fan of debeaking birds – the practice of cauterizing beaks in young chicks at the hatchery, which permanently blunts the tips of their beaks to avoid future pecking injuries. I would only recommend trimming a beak in a bird that has a misaligned (i.e. crossbeak) or an overgrown beak, which is causing them problems.

You can easily use the same tools as for nail trimming: a nail file, dog nail clipper or a dremel to trim the beak just enough so that it is properly shaped and aligned. Beaks also have a blood supply and underlying bone structure so be careful how much you trim.

Chickens naturally grind their beaks by swiping it on the ground or against a rock. Make sure your birds have access to things that will allow them to do that on their own.

Featured Photo: Know Your Chickens

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