Bumblefoot is a term used to describe an infection called plantar pododermatitis on a chicken’s foot. Characterized by swelling, sometimes redness and often, a distinguithing black or brown scab on the bottom of a chicken’s foot, bumblefoot, if left untreated, can be fatal, as the infection can spread to other tissues and eventually to the bones.
Bumblefoot occurs when bacteria, such as Staphylococcus invade and cause infection in the skin of a chicken’s foot, creating a pus-filled abscess. The entry point for bacteria can be anything from a cut, scrape, injury or even simply a raw spot on the skin caused by walking on wet, dirty bedding. Foot injuries can result from splintered roosts or repetitive heavy landings when jumping from heights. It is particularly common in heavy chicken breeds and obese chickens.
The most common behavioral symptoms of bumblefoot include limping and lameness. By the time a chicken is seen limping, the infection has most likely been festering for quite some time. Examination of the footpad may reveal redness, swelling and either a callous-like lesion, a lump between the toes or a black scab on the footpad.
You should take measures to prevent bumblefoot in your flock, as treatment is painful and time-consuming and eradicating it completely is difficult. Regularly inspect your chickens’ feet to detect any instances of infection at the earliest possible stage.
Chickens require a complete, balanced diet to avoid vitamin deficiencies and prevent obesity, both of which put them at risk of contracting bumblefoot. Laying hens need a complete layer ration with an additional calcium source, such as crushed oyster shells or eggshells, available to them at all times in separate hoppers. Treats, snacks and kitchen scraps should not comprise more than 10 percent of a chicken’s daily dietary intake, so as not to disrupt the nutritional balance carefully calculated in commercial layer feeds and to avoid obesity.
Keep roosts splinter-free and less than 18 inches from the floor, so that chickens don’t hurt themselves with repetitive jumping. Ensure coop litter is clean and dry at all times. Consider using sand instead of pine shavings or straw in the coop and run. Spills quickly drain away from sand’s surface, which is not as hospitable to bacterial growth as other litter types. Sand also coats and desiccates droppings, which results in cleaner chicken feet.
Ideally, a chicken with bumblefoot should be treated by an avian veterinarian, but if you, like me, don’t have access to a local avian vet, you can use the following procedure to treat your chickens’ bumblefoot infections. As unpleasant as the procedure is for me, I am always mindful that if I do not treat them, they will suffer. When the alternative is pain, death from the infection or euthanasia, I opt for treating my birds myself.
The procedure is not complicated or technically challenging, but it can be time-consuming and emotionally taxing to perform. It generally takes about 1 hour to complete, and while it can be achieved by one person, two make it much easier. I find that this procedure is best performed in a large sink, where adequate lighting, counter space and a water source are readily available.
My chickens appear to tolerate this procedure well, but keep in mind that chickens do not react to pain or express discomfort in ways we are accustomed to expect: crying, wincing, cringing, whimpering. Chickens normally remain stoic throughout the procedure; a calm demeanor when experiencing stress or pain is thought to have evolved as a defense mechanism for self-preservation in the wild so as not to attract unwanted attention from predators.
The removal procedure is indeed painful for chickens; however, birds should not be given common anesthetics, such as benzocaine or xylocaine, as these drugs are known to cause heart failure and death in birds. Even over-the-counter products, such as triple-antibiotic ointment containing topical anesthetics ending in the suffix "caine,” can be fatal. At my request, my dog’s veterinarian prescribed Metacam, a pain-relieving medication for pets, which is safe for use in chickens, to keep on hand.
Editorial Note/Disclaimer: The following is not professional, veterinary or medical advice. It is based on the author’s experience as a backyard chicken-keeper and is shared with the knowledge that without it, some of her chickens would suffer or perish from the inability to obtain professional veterinary care. It is not meant to replace the expertise and experience of a professional veterinarian. Do not use the information presented here to make decisions about your bird’s health if you suspect your chicken is sick. If professional veterinary care is an option for your flock, seek the advice of a qualified poultry veterinarian before attempting treatment.
Infection control is of the utmost importance at every stage in this procedure. I sanitize my sink and instruments before use with a bleach-and-water solution and wear gloves to protect the bird and myself, as staph infections can be contracted by humans.
First, I soak the affected foot in warm water and Epsom salt (or an antiseptic, such as Betadine), and scrub the skin to clean and soften the foot tissue. Then, I apply an antimicrobial, such as Vetericyn VF, on the surface of the foot to kill any remaining bacteria.
Some very mild cases of bumblefoot may be treated by excising the scab with a scalpel, applying an antimicrobial to the abscess, covering the wound with nonstick gauze and wrapping the foot with an elastic bandage, such as Vetrap. An antimicrobial is reapplied two to three times a day, and the wound is re-covered until healed. However, not all cases of bumblefoot respond to this superficial treatment.
More advanced abscesses must be surgically removed. In some instances, antibiotics might be necessary, though none of my bumblefoot cases has required antibiotics in order to heal.
If surgical removal is necessary, I clean the foot and wrap the chicken very loosely in a towel, covering its head and its eyes, while ensuring it has ample breathing room. This keeps the chicken immobilized and calm. I then lay the chicken on its back on the work surface with the affected foot facing me. It helps to have an assistant hold the chicken gently and securely in place. I always talk to the chicken throughout the procedure to help reassure and soothe the bird and myself. I then apply an antimicrobial again to the foot. Some oozing blood is expected but not ghastly amounts. Dabbing the blood with paper towels helps create a clearer view of the work area.
Using a scalpel or biopsy punch, I cut into the footpad around the circumference of the scab, straight down into the foot. A biopsy punch acts like an apple corer, removing the abscess with one push. If using a scalpel, the task is a bit more tedious, as one must tease the abscess away from the live tissue little by little. The scab itself is often attached to the heart of the abscess and can help lift it out of the foot with the aid of a dry paper towel.
The object of the procedure is to locate the heart of the abscess, which is commonly called the "kernel,” "core” or "plug.” The plug consists of dehydrated pus that has solidified; it looks like a waxy, dried kernel of corn. Healthy tissue inside the foot is soft, pliable and pink.
A solid kernel is not always present, in which case the infection appears as stringy, slippery bits of threadlike, whitish-yellowish tissue.
After the kernel is located and removed, I again soak the foot in a sanitized sink or clean bowl containing antiseptic and water. I gently squeeze and massage the footpad to loosen any remaining dead tissue. Then, I dry the foot, apply the antimicrobial again to the area, rewrap the chicken in the towel and continue the procedure. It often takes quite a while of digging, squeezing and soaking, alternately, to remove all of the infected tissue.
When there is no central core or kernel in the abscess, deciding when to end the procedure can be challenging. The stringy bits of tissue are extremely difficult to remove, and it rarely seems as if all of the dead tissue has been removed. When I feel that most of it has been removed, I prepare the foot for bandaging.
Bandage the Foot
To bandage the foot, I apply an antimicrobial or a triple-antibiotic ointment (without painkiller) liberally to the open wound and place a 2-by-2-inch square of nonstick gauze over the wound. I then fold the four corners of the gauze in toward the center of the square, creating a smaller square. This will put a little bit of pressure on the area when wrapped to stem any residual bleeding or oozing and will keep the antimicrobial or antibiotic ointment in contact with the wound.
Next, I wrap the gauze with an elastic bandage to keep it in place. I prefer Vetrap, a self-adhesive material that is lightweight, flexible and doesn’t require any tape to stay in place. It is not sticky or gluey, and it will stay secure under normal scratching and roosting activities.
I then cut a 6-inch strip of bandage lengthwise into three or four thin pieces. Holding the first strip of bandage in one hand, I start at the top of the foot and pull it over the gauze with the other hand, around the foot and between the toes. I have to be careful here not pull the bandage too tight, as it can cut off circulation to the foot. I repeat the weaving motion with the remaining two strips, ending the wrap around the "ankle” with the last inch or so of material.
The Healing Process
I keep the foot covered for 24 to 48 hours, until the bandage is removed to assess the wound. If the gauze is stuck to the wound, I soak the entire foot in warm water to help loosen it. Next,
I examine the wound and foot to identify any redness, swelling, foul odor, excessive oozing or red streaks up the foot and leg that might indicate a secondary infection. If symptoms of a secondary infection are present, I seek out a veterinarian immediately. A more advanced infection requires a treatment of prescription antibiotics.
If the foot appears to be healing well, I repeat the same wound care and bandaging procedure described above. I keep the foot bandaged for one week to 10 days, changing it approximately every 48 hours. A new and improved scab will form; it will not be black as the original scab might have been.
While injured chickens are ordinarily separated from the rest of the flock for their own protection, it is not necessary when using Vetrap, as the bandage will stay securely in place, protecting the wound from curious birds.
About the Author: Kathy Shea Mormino, the Chicken Chick®, is an attorney, freelancer, wife and stay-at-home mom. Her chicken-keeping hobby evolved into a custom egg-carton-labels business. She shares information and advice on a range of topics for chicken-keepers through her blog, The-Chicken-Chick.com. She is an avid cook, crafter and volunteer, serving as the president of the board of directors of a nonprofit corporation.