Lameness in poultry: Janice Houghton-Wallace looks at the causes

Sturdy legs and healthy feet are essential for poultry to be able to get around and lead an active life.

Generally, if any bird has been bred from healthy stock, was hatched with no incubator problems, is fed correctly and incurs no injuries it should remain clear of any leg problems. However, we all know that in this world few things ever go to plan and if you keep poultry long enough you will no doubt come across a bird that is lame.

Spending time looking at your birds and observing them will always be time well spent because with all illnesses and ailments, if caught early enough it is usually easier to treat. At the slightest hint that a bird is not comfortable on its legs, it should be thoroughly examined. Like all animals, chickens will try to cover up any weakness because that is an inherent trait to stave off predators knowing that they are vulnerable.

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Once you spot slight lameness the following need to be answered:

• Is the bird holding up the foot and clenching the toes?

• Is the bird lame in both legs or just one?

• Is there any swelling or heat in part of the leg that is lame?

• Are there any noticeable wounds?

• Is there muscle weakness in the leg or thigh?

• Is the bird using its wings to balance?

• Does the bird have any deformity in the legs or feet?

• Is the bird still eating and drinking?

• Is the bird showing an overall listlessness?

In-breeding or temperature failures in the incubator can result in deformities in chicks. Curled toes may not cause lameness as often the bird learns to live with the situation. As the bird grows it may develop thickening of the skin where the toes are trying to offset the balance of the foot. This condition will not necessarily cause lameness unless arthritis eventually adds to the problem.

If a chick is hatched with splayed legs it might be worth trying to splint them. If it is serious the hips will be displayed and it would be better to cull the chick.

When weight is not being placed on a leg and the foot is clenched, it generally indicates that there is pain in the foot. Examine it to see if there are any lesions, heat or swelling. Bumblefoot is the most common ailment, which is caused by a lesion that is the result of a bird landing heavily from too high a perch, or a bruise that has become infected. Swelling and infection are brought about by the Staphylococcus bacteria entering the wound. Sometimes the core of the wound can be removed and an antibiotic sprayed into the cavity. Do not try to forcefully open up a core that is not about to part as this can cause untold pain. Bumblefoot can be very difficult to treat but treatment to kill any infection and the bird placed in housing with thick litter and no perch, will eventually help overcome the problem.

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Check daily to see if all the claws and toes are fit so that any damage can be treated immediately. If a claw has been broken through some mishap there will be evidence of blood on the bird's perch. A broken toe may be bandaged to set it but if the break is too great it might require veterinary attention. Any open wound should be cleaned with a mild antiseptic and then treated with wound powder or antibiotic spray. It is so important to prevent infection entering any wound, but particularly in the feet. The bird should then recuperate in an area with only clean shavings, this will mean picking up faeces whenever you check on it because that will help keep further bacteria from the environment.

Scaly leg is a mite infestation of the shank and if left to deteriorate can eventually cause lameness. The mite burrows under the scales and it will cause irritation. A pour-on treatment from the vet which is placed on the base of the neck will be absorbed and then excreted by the skin and kills the mites from inside. You can also use petroleum jelly to suffocate the mites but do not pull off the protruding scales as this would be very painful.

Lameness in waterfowl can be caused by worms so treat with Flubenvet or Flubendazole in the pelleted feed.

An examination of the bird will show whether the hock joint, where the feathered area joins the leg is hot and tender; if so it could be a strain, possible arthritis in older birds or infection, either bacterial or mycoplasma. Should this area of the leg be showing inflammation then veterinary treatment such as an antibiotic and/or anti-inflammatory will be required.

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Poultry can also get 'cow-hocks' whereby the hocks angle inwards with the legs then pushed outwards. This is generally an inherited fault but can go unnoticed if not too severe when young and deteriorate as the bird grows. A bird with very bowed legs may be suffering from rickets, which is very rare if it has been fed correctly will a formulated feed for its age. Nutrition is immensely important for building strong bones and muscle and if poultry are not provided with the appropriate feed then there will be risk of leg problems as the birds grow.

Hip lameness can be found in older birds and although it is difficult to ascertain where and what the problem is in this area it causes great pain. A vet will supply painkillers or anti-inflammatory treatment and it can soon be seen whether or not these are comforting the bird.

Lameness can also be a symptom of a tumour that is pressing on a nerve. The bird may be bright and eating but as the tumour grows, listlessness and lameness will increase. In this situation it would be kinder to put the bird down.