Every couple of months or so, my mentor Dr Vicki Bowes, avian vet/pathologist and I get together to look at interesting health cases I’ve collected to figure out a diagnosis. Last fall we met up four times and worked our way through the backlog of a couple dozen files. I started noticing a pattern and grouped some of the them together based on anatomy: head; legs and feet; reproductive issues; and internal organs. I had so many for legs and feet that I made two posts.
It’s not surprising that chickens have a variety of issues with their legs and feet: they carry the full weight of their bodies and because chickens love to scratch, their feet are vulnerable to injuries and pathogens. I can relate as at the ripe old age of 61 I’ve dealt with recurrent bouts of Plantar Fasciitis and other foot issues.
I’ve written about many of those issues, but thought it might be useful to present thumbnail overviews, with links (highlighted in blue) to the longer posts, if you require more information.
Arthritis is a condition involving joint inflammation, causing pain, joint damage, and loss of joint function. Arthritis can be caused by infection, trauma, degenerative changes or metabolic disorders. Although osteoarthritis is the most common form of arthritis in humans, birds are actually more prone to developing articular gout (see below), another form of arthritis. There is no treatment, just therapies to control the pain, minimize further joint damage, and environmental modifications to improve or maintain the bird’s quality of life.
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.
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.
Chickens can occasional damage their toenails, resulting in cracks and injury to the nail often accompanied by blood loss. There are three types of nail injuries that can occur in chickens: a total break with bleeding; a cracked or broken nail that is loosely attached; and a cracked or broken nail that is still attached. The easiest to deal with is a nail that has broken off with minimal bleeding. Coat the area with cornstarch and/or apply pressure with gauze or clean cloth to the nail until it stops bleeding (which may take 5-10 minutes or more). Significant blood loss can occur with broken or torn toenails in chickens, if they aren’t addressed promptly. Bleeding from a toenail can occur as a result of cutting it too short or from damage due to trauma, from a fight, collision, or other accident.
Each feather has a hard central shaft. The bottom of the mature shaft, a quill, is hollow where it attaches under the skin into the follicle.
When these new feathers (called blood or pin feathers) start growing they are tightly rolled and look like pins sticking out of the chicken’s skin. They’re covered with a thin, white coating that falls off or is groomed off by preening. When the cover comes off, the feather expands to its full length and the vein dries up.
Developing feathers have a vein in the shaft, which can bleed profusely if the feather is cut or torn.
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 progresses quickly.
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 used to think 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.
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 reading 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.
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 poultry vitamins and Brewer’s yeast, in addition to fixing their toes.
Frostbite is an injury to skin and underlying tissues caused by freezing, often in windy and damp conditions. The skin becomes very cold and red, then numb, hard and pale. In people, it most commonly affects our extremities: fingers, toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin. Unlike people, chickens can’t wear winter apparel like hats and boots so their exposed combs, wattles, fleshy parts of the face, legs and feet are vulnerable.
Gout is the result of either the production of too much uric acid or, more commonly, decreased kidney function enabling excess uric acid to cause damage to various internal systems. Birds with impaired kidneys may not be able to get rid of uric acid as efficiently, leading to a buildup in their blood and uric acid deposits within the joints and in visceral organs or other tissues. Over time, these deposits will grow to form masses of uric acid crystals. The acid itself isn’t toxic but the resulting crystals cause damage – sometimes severe – to kidneys, heart, lungs, air sacs, intestines and joints.
Articular Gout: accumulation of urates in joints, ligaments and tendons, including the toes of the feet. Usually not found on it’s own, but in birds who also have visceral gout.
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 14 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 eleven-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 that 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.
Osteoporosis is the loss of structural bone whereas osteopetrosis (literally meaning ‘bone stone’) is caused by the abnormal growth in young birds. This is a proliferative bone condition that causes thickening of the long bones making them brittle and vulnerable to fractures. It is often associated with concurrent infection with Leukosis.
When I showed Dr Bowes this photo she asked me if I knew what it was. I ruled out gout and bumblefoot and asked if I should know the answer because I’d seen it before. It turns out it was a bit of a trick question because she’s only come across this condition once in more than 30 years as a pathologist. When she told me that she got a little bit excited and suggested the photo should be on a veterinary exam. It’s not often I get a gold star as a pupil, but I think this warrants one and for that reason I have given this case a special place of honour: Dr Bowes and my 100th case!
SLM are a relatively common, burrowing mite found on the legs and feet of free range and backyard chickens around the world. Just like their name implies, these mites burrow underneath the scales of the bird’s feet and legs, feed on skin and deposit poop. Over time, this causes the bird’s scales to lift and thicken, sometimes protruding outwards. Unlike body mites which you can see or feel, these mites are microscopic and you won’t even know they are present until your chickens start showing signs.
Healthy chickens have scales that appear smooth and lie flat against their legs. When chickens are infected the appearance of their legs and feet will slowly deteriorate. Early signs include flaky, crusty, peeling, rough or uneven-looking scales, with some lifting upwards. Eventually, the heavy crusting of the scales can cause serious problems. SLM can also lead to bacterial infections and major tissue inflammation. One, or more, flock members might be infected, since the mites will move from bird to bird.
Slipped tendon can be caused by vitamin deficiencies, but is mostly attributed to slippery surfaces in the incubator or brooder. The tendon in the lower leg slips out of the groove on the back of their leg. If you have a chick with this condition you can use your thumb to feel the tendon rolling.
- The chick may exhibit signs of pain, especially in the first few days after injury. Listen for repeated peeping or crying.
- The leg will be held in a bent position and won’t straighten, even with assistance.
- The back of the hock (ankle) will look flat.
- The joint will become swollen. Look for redness and feel for heat.
- One leg may rotate out to the side, or twist underneath the bird, depending on whether the tendon has slipped to the outside, or inside, of the leg.
- If the tendons are slipped in both legs, the bird will stand & walk squatting on its hocks, and may use its wings for balance.
It’s common in young chicks, affecting both those hatched with a broody hen or an incubator. The condition is caused by weakness or damage to the tendons in the legs and can affect just one leg, but usually involves both legs extending outward to the sides of the body as though the chicks were doing the splits.
When the foot slides outward pressure is applied to the rapidly growing hip joint deforming it, as well as the knee and hock. As long as the chick is growing those bones can be guided back into normal alignment.
The severity ranges from mild to severe, and often may take a week or two until it becomes obvious.
It’s important to treat it immediately – the earlier the better to ensure the chick’s prognosis of a full recovery and so that further damage isn’t incurred. A chick with mobility issues also makes them vulnerable to being trampled or pecked by flock mates, and unable to get enough nutrition or hydration.
Spurs are part of your rooster’s (or sometimes hen’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.
There are a few good reasons to trim, but not remove, 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.
Strangulation is defined as the compression of blood or air-filled structures, which impedes circulation or function. There are many things in the environment that can cause loss of blood circulation to various body parts resulting in serious trauma: feed bag string, overgrown leg bands, monofilament or binder twine. If dealt with early enough the leg or toes can heal, but if severe the injury may result in the loss of toes or part of a leg, or require amputation.
Featured photo: Jane Cowan
I loved the curled toe illustration 🙂
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