Galactus was limping again. It might be time for another road trip to Dallas to see our avian veterinarian specialist.
Our tan and white rooster still stood tall and proud, looking every part the protector of the coop. If you’re unfamiliar with how birds express pain, you could be forgiven for not noticing the slight limp. While chickens and roosters have pain receptors and definitely have the ability to feel pain and distress, they are notoriously good at hiding signs of illness or injury because any signs of weakness can signal to wild predators that they are an easy target. So despite Galactus’ outwardly majestic appearance, I knew it was time to check our boy over in detail. He, like a few other birds in the farm sanctuary, is currently battling a stubborn case of Bumblefoot.
Medical care complications: fallout from the agriculture industry
The unfortunate reality is that many of our residents will come to us with compromised health leaving them susceptible to illness and injury. This is a consequence of the animal agriculture industry, where often, animals only receive minimal medical care if at all, and more complex or expensive health needs aren’t addressed because the goal is to keep the animal alive only long enough to either make it to slaughter, or in the case of eggs and dairy, until they’re no longer profit generating.
Austin Farm Sanctuary is home to over 35 rescued farm birds including roosters, chickens, ducks and guinea. Just about all of our birds have been rescued from commercial supply stores where they’re sold each spring. They’re shipped in the mail at only days old, and as you’d expect, many die in transport. Many of those that make it to the store are unwell and will die at the store.
For the last fews years, Austin Farm Sanctuary has gone to local supply stores and rescued sick chicks and brought them home to the sanctuary. Any neonate or baby of any species requires extra care, but especially an unwell one who has been denied basic needs like adequate food, water and a safe temperature. Those chicks need round the clock feeding, heat control and monitoring, and even with all of that in place, our best efforts may not be enough to turn the tide. Our onsite lead caregiver, Pierce, is particularly skilled in this level of care and has cared for many of our now adult birds through this initial touch and go phase of their care, when they are the most medically fragile.
Given all of that, we take our resident’s medical care very seriously. We don’t want to waste any in getting them well. Every new resident is seen by one of our trusted veterinarians for an initial evaluation, health plans are established and all necessary treatments are started so that our residents can begin to live a safe, pain-free and happy life.
Bumblefoot in large breed birds
Large breed chickens have been bred to grow very large, very quickly, to the detriment of their health. This genetic propensity towards rapid growth contributes to a variety of devastating health challenges, especially foot and joint problems and heart failure. One foot problem in particular that every sanctuary faces is Bumblefoot. Bumblefoot also known as pododermatitis, is a common type of foot infection found in farm birds. In appearance and symptoms, bumblefoot is a similar condition to pressure sores, which our large breed birds are more prone to have. With a pressure sore, it’s simply a result of larger breed birds and the enormous and artificial pressure that their extreme body weight creates on their feet. Bumblefoot is caused by staphylococcus bacteria that gets into the foot through a cut or scrape and then creates the sore. Bumblefoot is characterized by redness and swelling, often accompanied by a pus-filled abscess, sometimes covered by a brown or black scab on the bottom of the foot. Left untreated, the infection can spread to the surrounding bones and tendons, leaving the bird lame, in debilitating pain or even causing death.
Bumblefoot is not a contagious disease, and the individual bird that displays symptoms can be treated without needing to move them to isolation. It is treatable and curable, although can be stubborn and resistant to some treatment options.
Austin Farm Sanctuary is supported daily by an amazing team of volunteers, medical specialists and onsite caregivers. As volunteers, we are taught to take care of “the big 3” on each feeding shift – food, water and wellness. As part of our wellness checks, every farm resident is visually checked multiple times a day. We are taught to look for things like visible cuts or injuries, limping, a lack of interest in food or general lethargy. In the case of our residents with Bumblefoot, our volunteers have learned to watch for limping or ‘high stepping’, and are encouraged to pick up and inspect any bird’s feet where we suspect an injury or a case of bumblefoot.
Treating Bumblefoot at the Sanctuary
The Austin Farm Sanctuary medical team continues to research bumblefoot and pressure sores, including consulting with other sanctuaries on their preferred methods of treatment. From our research we have developed our initial protocol, which emphasizes regular and consistent care of the foot itself with foot soaks and medicated foot wraps. The foot is placed in a shallow bin of warm water with either epsom salt or a medicated dilution geared towards drawing out the infection and encouraging blood flow to the area to aid in healing. After the soak, which proved to be good opportunity for snuggle time too, medicated ointment was added and then the foot was wrapped to keep the area clean and dry. For birds showing early signs of infection, we try this soak and wrap protocol for a period of up to three months, monitoring progress and then reevaluating treatment options.
While we have seen great improvements in Piper, one of our resident gals with bumblefoot, using our soaking protocol, unfortunately this treatment option has proven to be less successful with our Roosters Barry and Galactus. That’s why, if at any time we see signs of the infection worsening, it’s time to have the impacted resident seen by our vet specialists for evaluation and possibly surgical intervention. We have a long-standing relationship with Westgate Pet & Bird hospital in Austin which has vets on staff who regularly work with birds. Our vets can safely anesthetize the resident and then surgically remove the infected area, which with bumblefoot is called the ‘plug’. Healing from that can be a long road, and keeping the foot clean, dry and medicated is essential. In the case of Galactus, who continues to struggle with bumblefoot and subsequent infections, we have also regularly transported him Texas Avian and Exotic Hospital in Grapevine, TX, where he receives x-rays, deep-cleaning of his foot and a medication protocol.
In light of these ongoing struggles, our volunteer and medical team has added an additional area of focus to our bumblefoot protocol – that of preventative care. All the scientific data and anecdotal evidence seems to point towards physical environments being a critical factor in the cause of bumblefoot.
Preventative Care for Bumblefoot
One of the things we’ve learned through sharing knowledge with other sanctuaries, is that the housing and environment that the birds are in play a key role in foot health. If the housing area is wet, not cleaned regularly, has larger sticks or other things that can scratch feet, then those things are a set up for bacteria to get into a bird’s foot in the first place and can significantly delay healing. We’re working on radically changing the housing and environments for our birds, starting with our more bumblefoot/pressure sore prone Cornish friends. We recently converted their housing area by moving them to a dryer area on higher ground and replacing dirt with loose, soft sand (which harbors less bacteria). We have also added lower, safe perching areas so they are not injuring their feet by jumping down from high perches.
Bird care is often a big learning curve for farm sanctuaries. Most of our volunteers and even many of our veterinarians have plenty of experience caring for companion animals and mammals, but many of us have little to no experience caring for farm birds. Many volunteers come to us having never picked up a rooster before. It takes time and compassion to figure out those sweet spots for snuggles or scratches that each individual bird likes. Volunteers have to learn to and become comfortable with picking up our bird residents and offering them care and love when they’re stressed out during a foot soak. In a way, I consider that the one gift that bumblefoot has given us – enabling us to see our hens and roosters as individuals and getting to know their quirks and personalities. Before this I was solid in my values and political commitment around not viewing them as food or a commodity, but this has really allowed me to develop relationships with them on a much deeper level. My partner teases me now that I’m on #teamrooster and I can’t argue with the truth.
About Lynne Sprague
Lynne is a Volunteer Team Lead at Austin Farm Sanctuary and has been volunteering for AFS for nearly two years since returning home to Texas from Denver, Colorado. Lynne believes that farmed animal sanctuaries represent some of the most critical social issues in our lifetime- from the ways in which capitalism tells us that animal’s bodies are simply ‘things’ to profit from, to connection to climate devastation, the running rampant of extraction industries depleting water sources, and deadly human rights violations for exploited workers. Volunteering to Lynne, is one way that she can live her values and work towards ensuring that sanctuaries have the people power they need to fulfill their mission.