Bumblefoot is a term used to describe a staph infection on a chicken’s foot. It comes from the old British word “bumble” meaning “to walk unsteadily”. Staph is the shorthand for the bacteria Staphylococcus. These bacteria commonly live on a chicken’s skin and do normally increase the bird’s resistance to other infections. But they will themselves cause an infection if they get into the body though a cut in the skin or even a bruise. Chickens can hurt their feet many ways: scratching in hard and rocky soil, jumping down from roosts that are too high, getting splinters, walking on concrete or hardware cloth, or standing on wet surfaces for a long time. Heavy breeds are more susceptible to bumblefoot.
One of the first signs of bumblefoot is limping. Chickens that have bumblefoot will also sit or rest more often than usual to avoid pain and may not want to roost and chose to sleep on the ground instead. By that time, the infection has most likely been festering for quite some time. The foot may look swollen and feel hot. The footpad will have a callus-like lump covered with a black scab.
If the infection has not progressed far, cleaning and disinfecting the foot, and moving the bird to a clean environment may be all what that’s needed. However, if the abscess has progressed to the hard, scabby stage, it needs to be removed and treated with antibiotics. This is when you go to the vet (click here and scroll down for a list of avian vets). They will perform the surgery and provide the appropriate medications. If you don’t have access to an avian vet, you may have to treat it yourself. Leaving a bumblefoot untreated can spread the infection up the leg and into other tissues and bone, and lead to permanent lameness or even death.
Here are the steps to treat bumblefoot:
Disclaimer: The following is not professional, veterinary or medical advice. It is based on our experience as a chicken keeper and rescuer. Always seek the advice of a qualified avian veterinarian before attempting treatment. You will anyway need to get antibiotics and pain medications prescribed from them.
1. Soften and clean the foot. Give your chicken a foot bath with warm water and Epsom salts for about 15 minutes. Gentling rub the foot to rinse off any dirt. Then pat dry the foot and apply Betadine to kill any remaining bacteria.
2. Remove abscess. After a good soaking, the softened scab should peel away easily. And if you are extremely lucky, all the abscess will come with it. It’s solidified pus that looks like a waxy, dried kernel of corn. Usually, you will only get some of the abscess. Press the skin away from the sides of the abscess to get more of it out, but don’t squeeze (you don’t want to spread the infection further in the foot!). If you don’t have the skills or you don’t have appropriate pain medications for chickens, don’t do anything more and go to step 3. Otherwise, if you feel confident, administer pain medication and try to remove as much of the abscess as possible with tweezers or a scalpel.
Warning: Staphylococcus can infect humans, so be careful when treating a bumblefoot. Use gloves, disinfect all instruments after every use, dispose properly of material removed from the abscess, as well as the dressings.
3. Disinfect the wound. Clean the foot with Betadine and apply antibacterial ointment like Neosporin to the wound.
4. Bandage the foot. Cover the open wound with a thick gauze. Make it thick to absorb the shocks when they walk. Secure it with vet wrap while making sure that it’s not to tight. And tape the loose ends with a little piece of duct tape so the chicken doesn’t undo the bandage right away.
5. Medication. Start the chicken on an oral antibiotics’ treatment, and depending of the depth of the wound, put her on pain medication.
Keep the chicken in a warm and clean environment. Repeat this procedure every 3 days while the abscess heals.
If the infection worsens, please go to the vet. They will remove all infected tissue and treat the wound with the right antibiotics. Although Staphylococcus is the most common bacteria in bumblefoot, there are other bacteria that can cause that condition. Therefore, the selection of a specific antibiotic should be done after your veterinarian has done a culture and sensitivity test in order to identify the most effective drug.
As always, prevention is better than cure. In addition to perform routine health checks (cf. "My chicken ain't doing right" newsletter) of your chickens and their feet, optimize their perches (they should be 2” square with round edge, using smooth, nonabrasive materials), provide optimal nutrition to prevent obesity (don’t over-feed them with high-calorie chicken scratch), and keep their environment as clean as possible. Change the flooring from wire to solid. Chickens can catch their toenails in wire floors, increasing the risk of injuring their toes and legs.