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“Broken Chicken Feet”

If you live on a farm with chickens and any other livestock over 200lbs, chances are sooner or later you’ll see a limping chicken with a munched foot.  Pigs, mules, horses, and even very large goats can easily crush a chicken’s foot with one step.  Most of the time they are oblivious to the chicken’s thrashing screams and might not lift their foot right away.  When the large livestock is being grained, and thus the chickens want to be right in the trough with it eating, the chances of chicken-foot-pudding being created are even higher.

So what do you do when your chicken’s foot has been pancaked into oblivion by a giant hoof?

So far I’ve only lost 1 bird to this injury.  I’ve had it happen a few times, and I’ve heard it happen to  a few folks I know as well.  The first time our 500lb boar munched a chicken foot was one of my black copper marans hens.  The first day I saw her, it looked like she was dust bathing on the ground.  She was hunkered down in a little chicken dust-bath-bowl with one leg sticking out funny like she was sun bathing.  She let me walk right up to her.  I thought “Wow!  You tamed up nicely over night!”  I patted her on the head and continued on my way.  But the next day she was still there. Okay something was definitely wrong now.

I shooed her out of her dirt-bowl it was obvious she wasn’t using one of her feet.  She wouldn’t open the foot or set it on the ground, so her hobble was desperately slow.   I scooped her back up and inspected her foot.  The ankle joint where the toes meet the leg was mush.  Just total mush.  Poor girl!

I isolated her in a special, specious run I normally put broody hens in.  It’s quiet, secluded, and has feed and water and fluffy soft bedding.  I know chickens heal fast.  All birds do.  This kind of break was not something that could be splinted, either.  So I gave her a no-stress environment with food and water within reach and let her rest for a few days.  She began to limp gently on the ankle and move about in her pen after several days of R&R.

But then I noticed her ankle was exaggeratedly swollen.  I would think the swelling would go down, not up, as she got better…  So I picked her up again and inspected her ankle.  It was blown up with pus.  Dang!  We all know what that means…  Time to get a razor blade…

I drained her ankle abscess with a single 1/4″ incision and milked the pus out.  A little touch of usnea tea plunged through the pocket helps to keep infection at bay.  Chickens are particularly resistant to infection though.  They have to be!  They’ve been raised for hundreds of generations in poop-infested barnyards.  The smallest cut or puncture on a chicken is bound to get poop in it in the average barnyard.  They’re out scratching through feces for seeds, crapping on their own feet, and mucking about in filthy mud.  

Anyway, this hen was right as rain within 2 weeks, and she promptly when broody.  Woohoo!  She’s still with me to this day, I can tell her because one of her ankles is more bulbous than the other from the healed break, but her mobility is totally normal.

Another time I had a buff orpington get her femur snapped.  Her foot probably got stepped on and she probably thrashed around so hard she broke her own leg.  Femur breaks on chickens aren’t common.  The Mangalitsa sows were around 600lbs at the time and they loved ‘bowling for chickens’.  The chickens choose to hang out with the rowdy pigs, there’s not much we can do to avoid the occasional injury unless we wanna lock the whole flock up, which is a huge drop in their quality life and prevents them from feeding themselves as they rummage around the barn.

To check for a break, you have to very gently test for unnatural flexing of the bone.  Hold the joint stiff and very, very gently move/wiggle the bone.  Nothing should move if you’ve incapacitated the joint.  If the limb flexes or shifts anywhere but at the joint, the bone is broken clean through.  I have to stress that precious little pressure or movement is required to diagnose this, don’t go wrenching a broken leg to a 30º angle before deciding it’s broken!

I knew this orpington wasn’t going to be walking any time soon, so I stuck her in a small space with a broody hen.  Feed and water were close at hand.  She got up once every day or two to stretch but otherwise stayed put.  I didn’t splint her.  Frankly she was destined for butcher.   Every time I get orpingtons I am reminded that I don’t like orpingtons.  They eat huge sums of food, lay tiny eggs, and have always been among my worst layers  and broodies.
 By the end of her healing she had actually decided to go broody with the broody I put her with.  Yay!  I gave her her own clutch of eggs and let her raise her chicks.  So her healing R&R time was extensive, sitting on the nest for 21 days.    That was the first time I’ve ever had an orpington go broody (which is crazy because they’re notoriously broody), and will probably be the last.  She was a terrible mother and lost all of her chicks within the first week.  This hen is still with me today, nearly a year later.  She has a pronounced peg-leg style limp and doesn’t roam as far as other birds, but she’s otherwise fine. If I ever get around to reducing the hen population, she and the other remaining orpingtons will be on the list.  I think I’m pushing 80 hens, I really do need to downsize…

I’m digressing though.

The majority of the time, birds recover from munched feet and broken legs just fine.  Care should be taken to ensure they don’t abscess.  Severely broken legs should be splinted to avoid undue risk of it healing in a crippling manner.  I wrote a little bit about bird leg-breaks in my post “Aspen’s Story: Broken Turkey Legs”.   Antibiotic herbs can be given as tea-water or the whole herbs can be cut up and added to their feed.  If an abscess is noticed, it should be drained quickly and the pocket should be kept clean, ideally flushed with an antiseptic, vinegar, or salt tea to help kill bacteria.

I did lose 1 bird to a mashed foot.  It was a young lavender Ameraucana, maybe 2-3 months old.  Her foot was pudding from a pig stomp.  The break was really bad.  It was deep winter and it was frigid out.  If it had happened in the summer I’m confident she would have survived.  But within a week of getting stomped she faded and died.  Her body could not effectively heal the chronic damage and fight the cold at the same time.  We have no heated outbuildings or way to isolate an animal in the heat.  That’s part of the nature of the beast when living in a remote, high-elevation location without most conveniences.  To some degree it becomes survival of the fittest on the farm.  But for the average chicken keeper, helping a bird through a major injury like this is a reasonable and successful task.