How to trim your chicken’s nails, rooster’s spurs and general foot care.
Written and Lived by Stephanie Dayle
I keep chickens in the tradition of “self-reliance” meaning they are mostly for food and are not pets. I provide great care for them, and I enjoy having them, but I do try to make keeping them practical and frugal. One of the things you I do to help keep my chicken flock healthy is to keep an eye on their feet. Like the saying goes for other animals, it goes for chickens as well, no feet – no chicken.
A chicken’s foot can tell you a lot. The color of the foot can indicate whether a hen is laying and what they are eating. A spur can indicate a rooster and rough or scaly textures on feet and legs can indicated the presence of a common mite. Swollen feet can be a symptom of a very serious disease, and long nails can tell you where the bird has been kept. However, since I try to keep chicken care practical – unless I visibly see a problem with their feet, I leave them alone. This practice has worked exceedingly well for my flock.
While this part of chicken keeping that may not even be an issue for some chicken owners, it is for others. If a flock is mainly kept on grass, or in cages so they do not have access to soil or gravel, their nails may need to be periodically trimmed. Chickens normally keep their nails to a reasonable length by spending most of the day scratching on hard ground, therefore they can’t scratch and or if the ground is soft, you may need to keep an eye on their nails. If the nails aren’t worn back, they will begin to curl around toward the chicken’s foot deforming the toes and this will eventually affect their mobility.
Another reason for nail trimming is if there is some aggression in your flock. This is done to keep them from hurting each other, usually in conjunction with beak trimming. (Which is different from ‘debeaking’, a particularly gruesome procedure usually practiced in large commercial poultry barns.) The best long-term solution for flock aggression is providing more space per bird. When chickens are crowded they get stressed and turn on each other.
Chicken nails are naturally long, and they will get longer during certain times of the year (like during winter, when there is snow) only to shorten back up again in the summer, so if your chickens have access to hard ground I wouldn’t worry too much about nail trimming, unless you can visibly see their nails starting to deform. The only normal exception to this would be for breeding roosters or show birds.
Damage to hens during breeding can be minimized by keeping a rooster’s nails and spurs trimmed fairly short all the time. Another option is having a local vet remove the spurs. Spur removal is a dangerous procedure to try at home and not for the faint of heart as the spur is actually a growth of bone, it is easier and safer to do when the rooster is young. Either way, it is recommended that a veterinarian be used.
How To: Equipment
Trimming a chickens nails is a fairly simple process – all that is required is a large pair of human toe nail clippers that you can get from the grocery store (or by clicking here). You can also use a pair of canine/feline nail clippers, or a pair of bird nail clippers, but I prefer the human version as it prevents me from taking too much off at once. They are also easier to handle with a bird under one arm. In addition, you may want to keep a clotting agent on hand incase you accidentally hit the quick, and some rubbing alcohol nearby to disinfect the clippers between birds. Corn starch works as a clotting agent, but I prefer one called Wonder Dust , I love this product because I can use it on cows, dogs, horses and chickens so it never goes to waste. The other is Kwik Stop Styptic Powder it rated for cat and dog use as well. Both products contain agents that clot, stop bleeding, and help prevent infection which is important because toe nail trimming can make chicken’s feet vulnerable to infection. That is why I don’t trim my chicken’s nails unless I absolutely have to.
How to: Trimming Technique
The key to minimizing stress for the chicken is speed, therefore it helps to have someone help you, but the chore can be done by one person if necessary. I pick up one bird and turn them ‘breast up’ pinning their wings to their sides by sticking them under my left arm, their head toward my back, their feet accessible at my front. Pinning them with my arm frees up that hand to grab their feet. Then I use my right hand to clip the nails as pictured to the right.
While turning the bird upside down will help calm them, it is not a position they are made to be in naturally so its import to clip the nails quickly and get them back, right side up. Try to clip no more than a 1/8 of an inch off at a time. Then check the color of the nail by looking at the bottom of the foot and then directly at the nail where it was just cut. If you are getting close to a vein the color of the inside of the nail will change (see below where the chicken toe nail color darkens towards the center). If the color changes, you are too close, stop trimming.
Some breeds have dark nails, and it can be hard to see the vein because of the color. I have heard of some folks using a flashlight to see the vein within the nail as their nails are all a little translucent, making it a two person operation. I have had fairly good luck with just trimming small amounts at a time. If you do accidentally hit the quick, dip the nail into the clotting powder several times until bleeding stops – then move on to the next nail. Some people then file the nails down a bit with a nail file to take off the rough edges and to prevent cracking after trimming. Personally, I have never filed my own chickens’ nails and they seem to do just fine.
A swollen chicken foot or limping chicken may indicate Bumble foot. Bumble foot is an extremely contagious and difficult to treat bacterial infection and abbess of the foot. It is caused by a type of Staph bacteria and if left untreated it can spread to the leg and joints and eventually cause death. It is characterized by a swollen section of the chicken’s foot, usually part of the pad, with a dark scab. Bumble foot is treatable with antibiotics and usually surgery, if these options are not available or feasible, culling the infected members of the flock is recommended to manage the spread of bumble foot and to limit the suffering of the infected bird(s).
Bumble foot is thought to be caused from rough or uneven perches, hard landings from high perches, or anything that would provide an entry into the foot from the soil where the bacteria can commonly hide. Dirty coop conditions are also thought to contribute to bumble foot infections. If I found this disease in my flock I would swiftly cull each infected member and change the bedding out of my coop and pen immediately. This may seem heartless, but it is not practical for us to devote that length of time, and that much effort to treating such a disease. The missing flock members will be easily replaced in the spring.
Scaly Leg Mites
These mites are fairly common and like to inhabit the warm dark area between the scales a chicken’s feet and legs. The first sign of leg mites will be the lifted up and slightly swollen appearance of the leg scales. This can be very irritating to most chickens and can impact their egg laying production. The easy cure for these mites is the application of Vaseline over a length of time. Certain flea and tick medications, and also Ivermectin (under a vet’s recommendation) can also be effective, but it will be some time before the chicken’s feet look normal again. The best cure in my opinion is an ounce of prevention. I use DE (aka: Diatomaceous Earth,) in my pen and coop whenever I clean it out. The DE seems to prevent mites and other vermin from ever getting a foot hold in the coop. DE is a naturally occurring mild abrasive that is effective on many forms of insects and pests and is perfectly safe for your chickens and livestock. Mites, lice and other creepy things can be transferred to your chickens from wild birds. Another product that works well as a leg mite preventative is All Natural Scaly – Bird Leg Protector.
The more you learn about chickens, the more complicated keeping them seems, but it’s really not. The most important part to keeping your birds healthy is just to keep an eye on them, take note of abnormal changes and treat them accordingly as soon as possible. In the mean time, just let them be chickens, this keeps everyone happy and relatively worry free.