Bumblefoot (Pododermatitis), a Chicken’s Health Problem
Bumblefoot is the term used for any swelling of a chicken’s toe or foot pad (the spongy bottom of the foot). The condition is an extremely common problem for older backyard hens. Chickens with bumblefoot usually limp, or in severe cases, don’t use the leg at all due to pain.
Bumblefoot starts as a minor injury, such as a bruise, puncture wound, scrape, or puncture wound, that you may not have noticed at first. Left untreated, the little wound can develop into a string of full-blown, deep-seated abscesses up and down the foot. Over time, the bacterial infection can destroy skin, tendon, or bone.
For every case of bumblefoot, there was not one, but a series of unfortunate events that led up to the problem. Here are some of the factors that set a bird up for a case of bumblefoot:
Rough walking surfaces, such as concrete or gravel
Bruised foot pads after jumping down from high perches
Round or plastic perches
Poor nutrition, especially high-carbohydrate diets (for example, too much scratch grain) or vitamin A deficiency
Puncture wounds from splinters, protruding nails, or other sharp objects in the coop
Wet bedding and cold weather
Compared to other parts of the body, a chicken’s foot pads and toes don’t get a lot of blood flow, especially in cold weather. Because of the lack of good blood flow to the area, healing an injured, inflamed, or infected foot is a slow, frustrating process.
Preventing bumblefoot is much more successful than treating bumblefoot. Optimum nutrition, good footing, and clean, dry bedding in the coop reduce the chances of foot sores leading to bumblefoot.
Good perch design for layer hens has been shown to reduce the number of sore feet in a flock. Use rectangular wooden perches, and 2-x-2-inch untreated hardwood lumber is ideal. To help hens land softly, space perches no more than 18 inches apart or above the floor.
Avian veterinarians have a lot of experience treating bumblefoot, because the condition occurs in all sorts of birds from pet parakeets to hunting falcons. Surgery to remove diseased tissue is the mainstay of bumblefoot treatment, along with bandaging and cleaning the wound.
Antibiotic treatment is tricky; common bumblefoot-causing bacteria are resistant to many types of antibiotics. Even if the vet finds an antibiotic that the organism is sensitive to, a drug, the medication doesn’t penetrate the low-blood flow foot tissue very well.
If consultation with a veterinarian isn’t an option, you can try to treat some cases of bumblefoot at home, using these steps and being patient:
Soak the affected foot daily for 15 minutes in a warm Epsom salt solution.
Softening a scabby wound is the goal so that you can peel away any scab and open the wound to clean it out.
Wrap the chicken in a towel to calm and restrain it for daily bumblefoot wound cleaning.
Flush the wound with a disinfectant solution and tweeze and trim away pus and any black, dead tissue.
A 20 mL syringe, a pair of forceps, and a sharp pair of toenail scissors are helpful tools. The appendix contains recipes for wound cleansing solutions. You can apply an antiseptic ointment, such as povidone-iodine or silver cream, after cleaning.
Bandage the foot after cleaning the wound.
The figure shows a bandaging method using swim noodle foam and self-cling bandaging tape. You can trim the section of swim noodle to fit the foot to take the pressure off the sore and allow easy access to the wound for daily cleaning.Credit: Photograph courtesy of Dave Gauthier, PhD