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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.

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“Nova’s Tribulations: The Eye Wound”

It had been a cold winter.  We were lounging in the upper deck of the ‘upper greenhouse’, as we call it.  We were having a spot of sunshine and it’s always warmest at the top of the greenhouse. My cats Nochi, Nova, and Mario were lounging with me.

Without warrant, as he was prone to doing, Mario looked sideways at his sister Nova and began terrorizing her in classic cat fashion. They had a momentary brawl and both cats bolted away.

I didn’t think anything of the spat. Mario has always been mean to poor little Nova. The next afternoon I was opening a drawer in the greenhouse and jumped back in surprise- there was a big grey animal in the drawer! I quickly realized it was Nova. I teased her and greeted her but she didn’t respond. She was curled up tightly in a ball. Very unusual. So I pried her up and out of the drawer, only to find myself in a mild panic at the sight of her left eye; it was a giant mat of blood!

I rushed Nova inside, nestled her into the covers on the bed, and took stock of what needed to happen. Foremost in a situation like this, the blood needs to be cleaned up. So with many changes of warm, wet towels I washed the caked blood from her face and eye. I had no idea what I would find under her eyelid- was her eye destroyed? How bad was this? In the moment I wasn’t sure what could have possibly happened!

Once the excess blood was out of the way, I made a hot tea of holy basil (antiseptic pain relief) and usnea lichen (antibiotic). I laid with Nova and loved on her while holding the hot, juicy tea compress over her eye, making sure the tea could seep in and around the eye, which was caked shut with blood. I didn’t want to pry it open because I didn’t know the extent of the damage I was dealing with.

Nova was miserable. She slept day after day, only getting up a few times- which signaled me to whisk her outside so she could relieve herself. Twice I let her out to do her thing and she didn’t come back. It was frigid outside and I still didn’t know how bad her condition was. I set about calling her and searching high and low for her. Eventually she reappeared, waiting by the back door for me to let her in. Phew!

About a week passed before the constant daily tea soaks had un-crusted her bloody eye. She was squinting out of the eye ever so gently. Her eye was solid blood red. I was overcome with sadness for her- surely she had lost vision in the eye if it was so full of blood!

My treatment for her remained unchanged. Usnea and basil flushing and compresses to the eye. Around day 10 she was improving greatly.  It had become apparent that when Mario jumped her, he had raked his claws across her eye and actually sliced her eyelid open from the back corner of the eye up towards her ear. It was pretty gross and I was highly displeased with Mario for it. I was still unsure if Nova’s eyesight would recover.

Once the majority of the healing was complete and her pain levels dropped, Nova became restless and I evicted her once again from the house. She stayed close to home and I kept an eye on her. She seemed to be doing quite well.  After a few weeks her eye was open again fully, her eyelid had healed without the slightest hint of infection, swelling, or complication.  Her eye, however, was a deep dark brown color from all the blood, and her pupil was pronouncedly dilated at all times.

It took a few months for the dark coloration in her iris to fully disperse. I tested her eyesight thoroughly (laser pointers do have their practical applications!) and she appeared to have no loss of vision in her left eye. Phew! To this day though, her left pupil is always slightly more dilated than her right. A legacy from Mario that reminds me of him every time I look into Nova’s eyes.

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“The Boar Has What? WHERE?!”

Ol’ Spotty Wattles the Kune Kune boar was starting to move a bit stiff.  He didn’t want to move around much, and when he did, he did this funny little dance with his back legs.  I thought at first maybe he strained a muscle in a back leg somehow.  A week passed and he didn’t seem to be improving.  He ate and drank well enough, but something was off about him.
One day we’re feeding the pigs and we take a closer look at him.  His back end looked all wrong.  His testicles were bulging out unusually far.  Curious, we went in for a closer look.  To our horror we discovered that this massive bulge was not actually his testicles, but some other hard mass about the size of a softball.

I dove into hours of research online to try and discover what this could be.  Our first fear was an inguinal hernia, even though from what we read it really only happens to developing piglets.  So we called a small town vet, who doesn’t see pigs, but was happy to give some delicate advise; cut it open.  If it’s a hernia, cut the scrotum open very carefully and try not to cut into the hernia itself.  If it is a hernia, and the hernia is that big, we’ll have put him down anyway, so stand by with a pistol just in case everything goes wrong.  If it’s not a hernia, it’s probably an abscess.  Best case scenario we open up an abscess and drain it.
After much discussion, stress, and preparation for all possible scenarios, we calmly and casually remove the sows from the barn so Spot is alone with us.  Take into consideration this is a 200lb Kune Kune boar that was hand raised on our front porch.  Ol’ Spot didn’t have a mean bone in his body and he loved us dearly.  I can’t say that about any other pig we’ve kept.
So my partner gets into position with a fresh, sharp razor blade on the aft-end of the pig, and I bust out the grain bucket on the mouth-end of the pig to distract him.  Thankfully we had a best-case-scenario.  We opened up a 1″ incision on his scrotum and copious quantities of cheese-puss immediately came bulging out.  Spot didn’t even flinch, he was busy eating grain.  The smell was absolutely nauseating.  We had a tiny window of opportunity with the distracted boar to drain the abscess as quickly as possible, which involved massaging, milking, and squeezing out the rancid mass.
I’m sure initially the draining felt rather relieving to Spot.  His testicles had been strained and squished far lower than normal (which we believe ultimately resulted in infertility, unfortunately), making it painful for him to walk.  He patiently allowed us to work until most of the draining was complete- then his pain receptors kicked in.  Thankfully he was small and gentle enough to hold relatively still so I could dive in with a 20cc plunger of warm antiseptic tea.  I had preemptively brewed a strong usnea and basil tea and added a healthy splash of vinegar to the mix.  I set the nozzle of the plunger in the incision and flushed the full plunger through.  Tea belched back out of the incision mixed with blood and puss.  It was really, really disgusting.  Really.  Really really.  But it had to be done.  I flushed at least 4 full plungers of tea through his wound until it was running out clean and clear.  By this time Spot had also decided he’d had enough of whatever we were doing to his back end and became unmanageable.
For about a week I continued to visit his back side with my plunger and quart jar of antiseptic tea.  I flushed his wound out at least once a day.  Within 2 weeks it was fully healed over with hardly a scar.  Our best guess is that the big dummy was scratching his butt on a sharp stick or stump and poked a small but deep hole into his scrotum.  The subsequent puncture became infected.  It’s possible there was woody debris encased in the puss we drained out, but we didn’t rifle through it to find out.  We didn’t notice he had a problem because pig testicles normally bulge out their back side.  It took the abscess brewing until it was so abnormally large that it became obvious to us.  Poor Spot!
About a month later though, Spot went down again.  This time he seemed like he had a serious issue.  For 2 days he didn’t leave the barn.  1 day we can chalk up to his love of sleep.  2 days without food-lust is a red flag.  And on day 2 the ravens began to gather.  They always know when a critter is down for the count!
We once again shooed the sows out of the barn and locked ourselves in with Spot.  He laid listlessly on his side.  We checked his back end- no new wounds, and the old abscess was totally healed.  So we got him on his feet and I knelt down to inspect his undercarriage.  I found the problem!
Ol’ Spotty had once again been scratching on the wrong forest debris.  This time he had an abscess around his sheath that was about the size of a golf ball.  The abscess was now putting pressure on his urinary tract.  He couldn’t pee.  And he probably hadn’t peed since the day before.  This was urgent.

So we swiftly re-enacted our procedure from a few weeks prior.  A simple cut-and-drain, but this time with even more sensitivity and care due to the location.  I let my partner do this cut as well, since his empathy for the situation was extra acute…   He cut the abscess on the top-most edge, the farthest possible place away from Spot’s delicate anatomy.  And once again Spot was a gentle, patient pig for us.  Once again the relief was probably most welcome for him.

We cut him, drained him, flushed him, and got him up on his feet.  He peed.  And peed and peed and peed.  And peed some more.  And proceeded to wander down to the food trough to join the ladies, like nothing had happened.  I kept an eye on him and flushed him only a few times over the next couple weeks; this was 

a location I couldn’t easily get to.  It’s one thing to sneak up behind him while he’s eating and give him a surprise flush in the scrotum.  It’s another thing entirely to have to lie down on the ground next to him and finagle a sheath flush.  So I watched for signs of re-infection and mostly just hoped his body would be able to heal without too much help from the usnea tea.
He did great and healed from both wounds without recurring infection or complication.
We did eventually have to butcher Spot, unfortunately he had a degenerative bone disease that was destroying his mobility.  Poor boy.  Bad genetics are a tough lot in life.  You are remembered fondly, Spotty Wattles!  Attached is a photo of the big lump snoozing with some chickens.
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“I Put a Bone in My Foot…”

Yep. I was on a steep slope, unfolding a large sheet of greenhouse plastic, and I stepped on what looked like plain dirt only to hear a grotesque juicy crunch and a surge of pain in the arch of my foot. I sat/fell down and proceeded to uproot a small -something- sticking up out of the dirt. It was the tip of a buried jagged, gnarly chunk of dog-chewed deer vertebrae with old black gristle clinging to it still. I threw it as hard as I could out into the forest and turned back to my foot. The pain I felt was a bruise-like pain, maybe I just landed on it really hard… Nope. Blood began seeping out of the new hole in the sole of my shoe (I was actually wearing shoes, would you believe!).
Well then… Buggery dadgum gosh darn it, and goodness good golly gosh.
I hopped uphill to the cabin and commenced steeling myself for what I was about to have to deal with. With some helping hands I got a hot pot of water on the stove for tea. Priority #1 was cleaning the wound out and numbing the maddening pain. I sat down and let it bleed for a few minutes, hoping that the body’s natural response would help to flush any junk out of the puncture. Once satisfied, I lightly covered it in some clean gauze and wrapped it to keep any dust or debris from encroaching.
The tea water was hot by this time. I snipped a dollop of usnea lichen to bits with scissors, added a generous portion of crushed holy basil leaves, and dumped a hefty sum of epsom salt into the large sauce pot filled with piping hot water. Then I busied my brain with computer nonsense, did my best to ignore the pounding pressure, and waited for the water to cool off enough to dip my foot in.
Holy basil is my best friend when it comes to punctures. It’s nervine properties are truly miraculous. I have used culinary basil in a pinch with good result, too. But I prefer my friend Rama Tulsi. The leaves are not only numbing to nerve pain, but are antiseptic as well. A few years prior I put a nail through my foot and the procedure I did then was the same. As long as I keep the holy basil in contact with the wound, it’s virtually pain free.
Usnea is my go-to choice for anything I want to keep from getting infected. It is high in usnic acid, which is an antibiotic. It grows abundantly here and is simple to use. Nothing I’ve used usnea on (so far) has become infected.
And of course the epsom salt is just my choice form of personal torture for the sake of ensuring a clean wound.
After a good long initial soak, I felt I had the constitution to inspect my foot for the first time. I patted it dry with clean gauze and took a look. Tiny beads of… something… were poking out of the wound. Slightly horrified I pointed it out to Andy, who immediately picked up a pair of tweezers and loomed with morbid curiosity towards my upheld foot.
Me: “What are you doing?! Don’t grab it with tweezers! What if it’s attached to me!?
Him: “Just hold still, I’m gonna find out if those are tiny rocks, you might have a bunch of junk in there. We need to get it out.”
Me: “PUT THE TWEEZERS DOWN! Don’t just pull at whatever’s sticking out of my foot!
Him: “Just hold still, Jen…
He’s laughing at this point. I retracted my foot and coddled it in terror, keeping an eye on his eager tweezers. I poked at the little pink and white bubble-like chunks protruding from the wound.
Me: “Okay, okay, okay, I touched it, it’s definitely a part of me. That’s a piece of my foot, don’t pull it out!
Him: “Are you sure? It totally looks like burger meat. Let me take a look.
Me (becoming increasingly distraught): “NO! PUT THE TWEEZERS DOWN! YOU’RE NOT PULLING THE BURGER MEAT OUT OF MY FOOT! IT’S MY FOOT MEAT! LEAVE IT ALONE!
This went on until I was almost in tears of despair before he gave up. He really wanted to try and pull it out.
So I went into this wound vaguely terrified. I’d dealt with punctures, but this was a 1/2″ long, jagged, Y-shaped, deep punch into my foot with a nasty piece of old dirty bone. And my foot meat was sticking out of the wound. Did I finally get an injury so bad it would beyond me to fix? One of our neighbors is a medical doctor, he offered to come take a gander at it if I felt I needed help. I told him hopefully I wouldn’t, but I’d let him know if I did.
I spent the first day soaking my foot in antiseptic salt water, loathing the incident. It was our last beautiful, warm week of fall before the plunge into snowy winter. And I was now bunged up and out of commission.
Him: “You’re not gonna be walking on that for awhile, Jen.
Me: “Give me 4 days.
I mapped out my plan of action for healing my foot as quickly as possible. After and in between my foot baths I dressed the wound with an activated charcoal drawing salve and wrapped it in clean gauze again. I had to keep it moist; never let a puncture seal over on top before the inside is healed.
Day 2 was much the same. Curse-hopping around the house, each hop pumping more blood pressure into my bloated foot. Trips to the toilet were dreadful. I spent most of the day soaking my foot and intermittently laying down to read. A neighbor had given me the book “A Long Trek Home”. Ironically, this is when I picked it up to read about walking thousands of miles on foot, and my foot pointedly throbbed with displeasure at the thought. That night I again applied the drawing salve to help ensure any foreign material would leave the wound.
Day 3 was the day I felt confident that my wound was sterile from the antiseptic/antibiotic salt baths, so I added horsetail to the mix to gently stimulate tissue healing. Hopping around the house was less bothersome, but sitting inside watching the last beautiful 70º days of fall slip by was torture. Also my hopping thigh was killing me. I soaked my foot all day long- at least 8 hours in the horsetail-loaded tea. At night I applied the drawing salve one more time to keep it moist and encourage cleansing of the wound.
Horsetail is a gentle stimulator of tissue repair. It’s mild and fairly soothing and will not rush the wound to seal shut before it’s ready to do so. I favor horsetail for punctures.
Day 4 was the test of will and skill. I had slept much more comfortably than the previous nights with almost no pain. I sat on the edge of the bed and braced myself for the test; could I put pressure on it?
I triumphantly hobbled into the kitchen to say “Hey look! You said I wouldn’t be walking for a good long while. I said give me 4 days.” I was quite pleased with myself. That day I repeated the same protocol from the day before; heaps of horsetail in the antiseptic, soothing salt bath. All day long I sat and read and soaked. That night though I switched to a gentle comfrey salve to keep the wound moist and encourage more tissue repair. Little pink and white beads of meat were still protruding from the wound, but it was otherwise looking fantastic.
Comfrey and should not be used on a puncture until it’s in its final stages of healing. It will stimulate such rapid tissue repair that you may risk sealing over the top of your puncture and leaving an unhealed pocket within, which may lend to a deep infection that has no way out if there is any debris or bacteria in the wound.
On day 5 I was hobbling with more confidence. My herbal regiment remained unchanged. I managed to hobble down to my car, drive over to the barn, and milk the goat myself. A satisfying accomplishment, as normally that is my own chore.
On Day 6 was walking gingerly, wouldja believe! Day 7 though 9 brought steady mobility improvement and an unchanged treatment routine. All-day horsetail soaks, with fresh comfrey salve and clean bandages before bed.
I was up and walking with a mildly uncomfortable limp by day 10. I switched to twice daily foot bathes loaded with comfrey or hound’s tongue to seal the deal on my wound. I kept clean dressings over the wound and wore shoes to get around and do my farm chores.
By day 14 the foot-burger-meat had retracted into the wound and for the first time I stopped applying salve before bed. The wound sealed shut over night for the first time. For the next week I did evening foot soaks, still with my staple mix of usnea, holy basil, and epsom salt to ensure no infection could set in. During the day I kept clean bandages over it to prevent debris from finding the wound. It would split open as I went about my day and bleed a little bit. This, as far as I’m concerned, was excellent, helping to ensure that it healed from the inside out, as punctures should, as well as ensure that any new debris was likely being pushed out of the body by the blood.
At the time of writing this, it’s been 25 days. The wound is completely healed over. A bit of a hard knot remains in the arch of my foot; that will dissipate with time. The body’s ability to heal is truly amazing.
*And an added update 3 months after the incident, my foot has remained healed and without complication.