Bumblefoot, a term used to describe a condition known as plantar pododermatitis (inflammation of the foot), is a common cause of pain and lameness in chickens. Bumblefoot was named after the "bumble-like" appearance of the sores during the more advanced stages of the infection. Bumblefoot in birds is similar to what diabetic foot ulcers are for humans. Once a foot infection becomes established (or chronic), it can become very difficult to reverse. Prevention, early recognition, and early treatment are key when it comes to managing bumblefoot. Bumblefoot results from several contributing factors.
This includes any existing foot deformity, being overweight, trauma, poor circulation, irritation (such as excessive friction or pressure), exposure to rough or inappropriate surface used for flooring, excessive moisture, poor sanitation, too much or too little activity, nail overgrowth, jumping down from perches that are placed too high, perching on roosts that are inappropriate for chickens, and malnutrition (imbalanced diet, poor quality feed, or vitamin deficiencies).
What Bumblefoot Looks like
During the early stages of bumblefoot, it may initially appear as a small, superficial lesion, rough abrasion, or mild discoloring of the foot. However, once there is a breakdown in the skin barrier, it provides a direct opening for opportunistic bacteria (often Staphylococcus aureus
) to enter and cause infection. Once the foot is infected, chickens may often begin to show slight behavioral changes (associated with onset of pain caused by the infection), and varying degrees of lameness. If left untreated or not treated appropriately, the infection often becomes chronic and progressive, eventually spreading into the underlying bones, tendons and joints and resulting in osteomyelitis, tenosynovitis, septicemia, and arthritis. The only way for your veterinarian to know whether the infection may have spread into the bone is by taking radiographs of the feet.
When to Schedule an Appointment with your Veterinarian
Initially, if it is a relatively mild or early stage bumblefoot, daily Epsom salt soakings, bandage management, nutritional support, and strict sanitation of the environment to ensure the chicken's foot stays clean and dry may be sufficient. However, if after 1-2 weeks you see no improvement or it gets worse, then you need to schedule an appointment with you vet as debridement of the wound and antibiotics for the infection may be necessary. Because this procedure can be very painful for the animal, for humane reasons, we really encourage that only veterinarians that have a Doctorate in Veterinary medicine or equivalent, perform this procedure. If cost is a concern, seek a nearby teaching hospital, small animal clinic, or large animal vet who may be willing to perform the surgery on your chicken.
How is Bumblefoot Treated?
The primary goal in the treatment of bumblefoot is to obtain healing as soon as possible. The faster the healing, the less chance for an infection. There are several key factors involved in the appropriate treatment of bumblefoot:
- Preventing infection: It is really important to keep the foot as clean and dry as possible, to prevent contamination with bacteria and other foreign organisms. This is where daily bandaging is important, hospitalization (in some cases may be indicated), and strict sanitation.
- Debridement of dead tissue: This is usually necessary in cases of moderate to severe bumblefoot; which is when a necrotic plug of tissue is present within the ulcer. This process will better promote healing of the ulcer.
- Bandage management: Appropriate bandage management methods for bumblefoot include the use of dressings and topically-applied medications to the foot.
- Nutritional evaluation of diet: Evaluate your bird's diet and correct any possible nutrient deficiencies. Some additional vitamins, especially vitamin A can be helpful.
- Management changes: In order to prevent the bumblefoot from becoming reinfected, it is a good idea to try to understand why your chicken developed bumblefoot. Reevaluate how flock members get along with one another (is one chicken getting excessively chased or mated with?), their environment (are they constantly stepping in feces or is the bedding always wet?), diet (are they able to get plenty of green forage or is their feed stale?), their health status (do they have an existing illness or intestinal parasites?).