Cricket (And Correcting Crooked Toes)

Meet Cricket

She’s the one sitting and from that photo it’s really difficult to tell just how tiny she was. Her feet didn’t turn under as much while she was resting but you can see the right one twisted to the side.

Cricket hatched 10 days ago. Her broodmates hatched 12 days ago.  On time.  Without issue.  Cricket exploded from her egg right before I was about to turn the incubator off, later than I really should have.  I’d just had surgery and was slowed down by my recovery.  When she first hatched I gave her about a 5% chance of survival.  Her feet were VERY curled, her umbilicus was VERY open (think of a hole in her belly with her insides exposed), and she was just minuscule.  

Cricket’s injuries were the result of two problems – an overly hot incubator (we’d miscalibrated it and lost a good portion of that hatch as a result) and a late, difficult hatch.  But she had the will to live.  When she fluffed up I put her in the brooder with the other chicks.  For the first day she walked around on sideways, curled feet, essentially walking on her ankles.  I had actually intended to cull her but decided to give her a little time and see how she improved without intervention.  

Why would I cull her in the first place? Apart from her feet and size – an open umbilicus, especially one as severe as hers (she had a dime-sized (5c coin for you Aussies) bloody hole in her abdomen when she came out of the egg.  The risk of omphalitis (bacterial infection from an unclosed umbilicus) was very, very high.  I honestly doubted a couple of days, let alone 8.  WITH that risk of omphalitis, I didn’t feel comfortable even trying to address her feet due to the risk that it would continue to stress her already weak and vulnerable little body and leave her even less capable of fighting off infection.

On day 2, Cricket was WALKING.  I actually found her that way when I reached inside to pick her up for culling.  Well now, little one – you’re a fighter!  Her feet were unturning on their own – something I’d never seen before.  In my experience, most chicks with such a deformity require intervention to turn their little feet.  I still wasn’t ready to bandage her, but everything looked pretty positive so far.

By day 5 Cricket had developed spraddle leg.  It wasn’t surprising considering her state and how incredibly tiny she was.  At this point I had to intervene.  Curled toes are one thing.  A chicken can get around with curled toes just fine as we see from miss CC over at Time to ACT.  But spraddle leg – it usually kills if left untreated.  It leaves a chick unable to walk and they die from starvation or dehydration.

This is Chatty Charmaine (CC) aka Mum aka Lucy. A large Australorp hen with thick, crooked toes.  I received her as an adult and her toes were like this at the time. She is likely the result of an incubator-hatched chick with uncorrected crooked toes. She gets around just fine but due to her crooked, thick toes and huge-ass body, she can tend to smash eggs when trying to brood them. She now lives with Emma over at Time to ACT and has just hatched her first brood of chicks! (photo credit: Emma Taylor from Time to ACT)

With this chick the method worked beautifully with no complications – but out of the 3 chicks I’d tried it on, it was the only one who didn’t end up with the band embedded in its legs.

I’ve tried many different methods for spraddle leg splints in the past.  VetWrap is one of my preferred methods but I find that chicks get out of it easily.  Still, it’s simple to reapply and causes minimal harm to their legs.  Recently I’d been trying the rubber band splint method.  I had an unfortunate incident about 6 weeks ago with a chick when I went to check on it its splint and found the rubber band embedded in its little legs.  Even the thick, very soft, flexible rubber band refused to grow with its tiny legs and the chick was left with bowed, scarred legs that, horrific as they looked, healed fine (the chick later turned out to be a male and was culled as has become my practice this year.  I cull male chicks early).   Even though that chick healed fine, it put me off a bit.  I decided that the method may still be okay – but would require very frequent checking. 

I promise this brooder was clean, silly little poopyfoots!

When I checked on Cricket after just 24 hours she’d already developed dents in her little legs from the band.  It was nothing like as bad as the previous chick thanks to more careful observation, but that it had happened so quickly was upsetting.  I put a more flexible, slightly larger band on her and shifted its position to avoid the pinched area.  After another 24 hours I checked her again.  The different band had made no difference and now she not only had two sets of dents in her legs, one of them was red and raw with the pressure.  I removed it entirely and gave her legs a spray with antiseptic to help them recover from the splint. 

Up to this point I’d not yet attempted the band-aid method.  It looked like a pain in the ass and overly complicated.  It turned out that the reason it came across that way to me was that when I looked up a tutorial for applying it – the person who had created the tutorial just happened to be approaching it from the most ass-backwards way I can imagine.  They applied the splint in a figure 8 by carefully making little loops around the legs and then rolling them in, careful not to twist the chick’s tiny walky-sticks.  This seemed unacceptably complicated and risky to me – as a person who is constantly worried that I’m going to snap off one of their little legs (not really, but you get what I mean).    

Willing to try anything at this point – I looked up another tutorial and found a method that was simple, intuitive, and straightforward.  “Oh.  Duh.” I thought as I watched it.  Of course this would work much better.  At this point, since I was already applying a new splint to Cricket and bothering the poor little fluffer already – I thought it might be time to correct her crooked toes which had stopped straightening on their own.  I snipped down a fabric band-aid into three, thin strips (saving two for my next inevitable case of spraddle leg).  I simply looped one end around each leg, pressing the sticky sides together against the middle.  Voila.  Done.  

Before with crooked toes – I’d made a little cardboard sandal and wrapped it on with VetWrap.  Let me tell you now.  This is a giant pain in the motherfucking ass. Don’t bother.  There is SUCH a better way of dealing with it.  I had some medical micropore tape.  It’s relatively low adhesive but sticks to itself pretty great.  I created a mat from several strips laid against each other (at the time I only had 1/4″ tape – I’ve ordered thicker stuff) for the bottom of the foot and a corresponding mat of tape for the top of the foot.  

First, I got someone to hold her because this shit is hard with one person.  I carefully rested her foot against the bottom mat.  Once you get the centre of their foot stuck to the mat, it stays.  You can then take your time positioning each little toe to straighten it out.  Gently, GENTLY press it into the mat to keep it straight.  Once you’re done, add the top layer of tape and press down to seal between the toes.  Trim excess tape (micropore is great because you can see through it with light so I get my husband to hold the chicks up so that I can see sunlight.  It makes the toe outlines very visible and I don’t snip off little toesies) carefully and make sure that all edges are sealed.  Congratulations.  You’ve done it.  

 

One of the things I hear a lot is that if you don’t address crooked toes within the first 72 hours, it has become a permanent condition.  This isn’t true at all.  You can address crooked toes really any time within the first few weeks of a chick’s life – but it becomes a bigger challenge the older they get.  I’ve splinted crooked toes as late as 2 weeks and simply had to leave the bandage on for longer and/or replace it occasionally to check progress.  It’s by no means permanent that soon.  A bandage put on a 24 hour old chick will be required for less time, certainly – but you can still tackle it later.  All is not lost.

Cricket is quite cross about her splint at the moment and still prefers to get around by shuffling around on her knees (though she can stand just fine).  At the moment I’m not too bothered by this.  What she needs most in order to sort her legs out is to put on weight and at the moment it’s coming fairly slowly.  Once she’s a little heavier, having to support her body weight will help her to develop stronger muscles in her legs and better control in keeping them together.  That will come with time.  As long as she is eating, drinking, snuggling with her broodmates and still growing (even if excruciatingly slowly – oh my god are you going to be a miniature chicken?) the rest will come in due time.  

I could have culled her.  Many breeders will say that I should have – and I do agree with them in part.  If all I were worried about were breeding and efficiency, Cricket’s issues and the time it’s taken me (and will take me) to get her well are problematic and would jeopardize my ability to look after the rest of my flock as well.  If I had a larger flock to begin with, I probably would have gone this route.  However, this was within my abilities to deal with as far as time goes – and I’m interested in learning how to address these issues.  One day I’d like to be breeding purebreeds – ones worth rather a lot more in monetary value than little Cricket.  And when you’re working with rare breeds or expensive chickens, these are skills you want to have.  In that way – Cricket’s life is still going because I need practice.  And I know, that sounds cold.  Rather a lot does when you’re raising livestock, I’m afraid.  It’s hard to explain to someone how you can love your birds and still kill them for defects and food – but when choosing to raise livestock – you have to be able to wrap your mind around at least the latter.  The former simply makes the latter more difficult, but I believe it’s worthwhile.  Some don’t see the point in becoming attached to their food.  I don’t see how I can expect an animal to give up its life to feed me without having filled it with as much love and devotion before that day comes.  It’s the very least that I owe them.  A good life full of hugs and cuddles.  Cricket definitely gets that.