Bumble-foot

Birds get injured.  My poultry has largely been wonderfully healthy, but soon after moving them to their new coop, I noticed several of the hens had “bumble-foot”.  Bumble-foot is a staph infection that has entered the foot through any cut or wound  — commonly, a thorn stuck in the foot allows the infection to enter.  In the case of my birds, I was initially stumped since we have no thorns here, but after doing a little research I realized the problem: the roosts were too high.  Knowing that birds like to roost as high as they can get, I had built a ladder style roost, with roosts at 2′, 4′ and 6′ levels.  Naturally, they all wanted to be on the 6′ roost so there was much bickering at night.  The real problem though, was that in the morning, instead of stepping down, they would jump — there not being room to truly “fly” — down from the 6′ roost, and the impact of the repeated landings was the likely cause of the bumble-foot.

I reworked the roosts immediately and haven’t had any new cases since.

The typical presentation is a black disk on the bottom of the foot.

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As innocuous as this looks, it is the “scab” that hides a much larger infection growing up into the foot.  In birds, pus is not liquid as it is in humans, but solid matter that continues to grow as the infection spreads.  Surgery is the recommended treatment.  Unfortunately, few vets have poultry experience and, being livestock rather than pets, most chickens have to make do with home remedies.  In the case of bumble-foot, this means performing “surgery” without the benefit of anesthesia.  Needless to say, I was less than enthusiastic about this prospect, but it had to be done.

Some of the hens had the black disk but no swelling or limp, and were eating, drinking and laying eggs, so I decided to take a “wait and see” approach with them.  I thought it possible (though unlikely) the hen might resolve the issue on her own and didn’t want to put a bird through the trauma of surgery unnecessarily.  However the foot of one had started to swell and she had a pronounced limp.  This I had to deal with, so one spring afternoon I gathered my supplies and prepared for surgery.

I started by dissolving epsom salts in hot water in the kitchen sink and then lowered the hen in.  Fortunately she is a calm bird who found the hot water soothing and pleasant – she made no move to escape and instead stood there murmuring conversationally to me while she soaked for about 20 minutes.

Step two was to wrap the hen in a towel, partly to immobilize her, and partly I felt that covering her eyes was more likely to keep her calm.  With SAB holding her still, I took an Exacto knife, dipped it in alcohol to sterilize it, then used it to cut around the perimeter of the black scab.  Some infection came out with it, and I then dug to remove as much additional infection as I could find.  When I couldn’t find any more, I packed the hole with triple antibiotic, wrapped the foot in vet wrap, and returned her to the coop.

Every other day I changed the dressing, each time hoping to see a reduction in the swelling.  No such luck.  The foot remained as swollen as ever, weeks after the surgery.  At this point it was clear I had not removed all of the infection but I decided since she seemed happy and was still laying eggs regularly (a sign of health in a chicken), I wouldn’t put her through any more.

For months she hobbled around on that swollen foot, yet when I carried out kitchen scraps, she was the first to run to me and always got her fair share.

One day I noticed as she ran to me, that the limp was gone.  Completely.  She was running normally for the first time in a long time.  I examined her and discovered the reason: the infection had migrated to the top of her foot; with no pain on the sole, she no longer needed to limp.  This seemed like an improvement and yet….the wound was now very obvious on the top of her foot and I decided to make one last attempt at removing the infection.  So, once again, I carried her to the kitchen and set her in the sink for an epsom salts bath. Once again, she seemed to enjoy this:

100_0176Here you can see the swelling between the two toes, and the “bumble” scab on the top of the foot.

I was able to peel back the scab with a finger nail and easily see the rest of the infection underneath.  Removing it was about like removing a splinter – it came out relatively easily, leaving another big hole in her foot.  It was an impressive size:

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Once again, I packed the hole with triple antibiotic, dressed it, then carried her outside the back door and set her on the grass.  Her head bobbed to peck at something and she was off – foraging as though nothing unusual had happened to her that afternoon.  The “surgery” without anesthesia did not seem to be traumatic to her at all!

The dressing stayed on until the wound was completely closed over (a few weeks) and she is today, as happy and healthy as ever.  The other bumble-footed hens?  All’s well; I never treated them and their bumbles never developed further.

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