Chickens can be a lot like children. They squabble, like to explore the outdoors, adore treats, and have their moments of cuteness. And the moment our backs are turned, they get themselves into a heap of trouble.
“Help! Are you there?” was the instant message I awoke to a couple of weeks ago. It was from my friend Kara, mom to both chickens and children, and I could sense a tone of desperation. I immediately replied in the affirmative.
It turned out that, due to the onslaught of end-of-school-year events—prom, field day, yearbook day, class trip—Kara had barely had time to bathe, let alone focus on her flock. She was therefore utterly horrified to discover that her favorite hen, Harriet, was limping gingerly around her run, her outermost toe barely attached to her foot. Kara had searched for jagged fencing, rough rocks, anything that could have damaged Harriet’s toe … and had come up empty.
“Will I have to euthanize her?” she asked.
Fortunately for both Harriet and Kara, euthanasia was not only unnecessary but not even an option. I had been in this exact situation years ago with my Marans hen, Nestle. Like Kara, I had no idea what had caused Nestle’s toe to get crunched. With my background in emergency medical services, however, I was able to treat my girl.
I was therefore able to coach Kara through what she needed to do to help Harriet: chicken toe amputation.
Gather Your Supplies
Decide where you will be treating your chicken. A clean, well-lit surface in your basement, laundry room, or workroom works best.
Drape the surface with a clean, soft towel and have a receptacle for medical waste standing by. Rubbing alcohol, cotton balls, sterile gauze, medical-grade adhesive tape, a veterinary antiseptic/sealant such as Blu-Kote, and an antibacterial ointment are necessary supplies. So is a sharp, sterilized pair of snips.
Veterinary wrap is optional, but should be considered if your chicken run is dusty or muddy.
Have styptic powder or corn starch standing by in case of bleeding. You will also need an extra set of hands, preferably ones accustomed to handling chickens, and a clean tote or large carton with fresh shavings, feed and water.
Treating Your Bird
It’s best to operate on your bird early in the morning, before she has a chance to fill her crop. This way, there is less chance of regurgitation while she is on her back.
Gently place her, belly up, on your prepared surface. Have your assistant stand on the opposite side of the table. From here, they can hold your chicken in place, one hand on either side of her rib cage and, if possible, they can stroke your bird’s belly to calm her down.
Disinfect the skin around the chicken toe using the alcohol and cotton balls, then wipe down the blades of the snips as well. Proceed by firmly cutting the toe off at the point of least connectivity to the rest of the foot. Depending on the state of the chicken toe, there may be little to no bleeding. If bleeding persists, dip the site in styptic powder or corn starch.
Once any bleeding has been contained, seal the wound with the veterinary antiseptic/sealant. Apply a thin layer of antibiotic ointment to a small section of gauze, then apply the treated gauze to the surgical site, wrapping the rest of the gauze securely around the bird’s foot and securing it in place with medical adhesive tape. Cover this with the veterinary wrap if desired.
The wraps should be snug but not tight. You don’t want to restrict circulation.
Place your patient inside the recovery tote to eat and drink immediately after surgery. This everyday activity will comfort her and put her at ease. She may settle down and snooze after she eats. She may choose not to eat immediately. Keep an eye on her throughout the day.
Once she has eaten, drank and pooped, re-evaluate her. Take her out of the tote and see how she handles moving. She will still favor her uninjured foot but should be able to walk. If she seems energetic, put her back with her flock. It’s also okay to keep her separated from the others overnight.
It will take a few weeks for your bird to completely heal. Change the dressings frequently and give your chicken plenty of TLC. Without a toe, your chicken may not be able to perch any longer, so be prepared to make a nestbox or section of the coop floor cozy for her.
She should, however, be able to roam, scratch and otherwise do everything the rest of her flock does.
Kara reported back recently that operating on Harriet was one of the most nerve-wracking things she had ever done. Harriet recovered swiftly and, while she sleeps in one of her coop’s nestboxes now, her antics are exactly as they were prior to her injury … which is a far cry better than the considered alternative.