Taking care of chickens can be hard work and it can be very worrying if you suddenly find that a chicken (or worse, chickens) starts to limp. There are many different reasons that this might be the case and the good news is that most causes of chickens limping are completely treatable. So, we’ve rounded up the most common causes and cures for you.
Our 18 reasons a chicken starts limping are Avian encephalomyelitis (Epidemic Tremors), Botulism, Bumblefoot (Staphylococcus aureus), Congenital Lameness, Encephalomalacia (potential vitamin deficiency), Erysipelas, Infectious synovitis, Marek’s disease, Necrotic Dermatitis, Osteoporosis, Perosis (choline, mineral and vitamin deficiency), Rickets (mineral and vitamin deficiency), Scaly Leg Mite, Spondylolisthesis, Toxic Poisoning (algae, weeds, and other contaminants), Viral Arthritis and White Muscle Disease (mineral deficiency).
If you find that newly hatched chicks are staring at the ceiling (or the sky) and are occasionally doing backward somersaults, then you may find that they were born lame. You can try to splint the leg (though this must be done carefully so as not to damage it further) if you think the issue is due to a break but otherwise, there’s not much to be done.
If this happens regularly – there may be a deficiency of vitamin B1 in your breeding hens, so adding some to their diet might help reduce the problem.
These bacteria are endemic to many parts of the globe and while, most of the time, it’s not a big deal – it can occasionally infect younger chicks to cause lameness. In adults, the bacteria can still cause other issues such as skin lesions and swollen hocks. You can vaccinate against Erysipelas and it is treatable too
However, in flocks infected with Erysipelas you can expect a mortality rate of 10-15% so vaccination might be the better bet. It requires two doses about 2-3 weeks apart to be effective. If infection does occur, then rapid acting penicillin injections are the best bet.
Avian encephalomyelitis (Epidemic Tremors)
Avian encephalomyelitis is commonly known as epidemic tremors as one of the key symptoms is severe tremors in infect chickens. In chicks under 3 weeks old, it causes a wide range of symptoms including, potentially, paralysis of a leg (which would cause limping) other signs to watch out for are dropping wings, weakness, blindness and severe changes in their cries.
In regions where Avian encephalomyelitis is common it is best to vaccinate your flock against it as there is no treatment for the disease. However, if any chicks do survive Avian encephalomyelitis then they will be immune to further doses.
Encephalomalacia (potential vitamin deficiency)
It appears that Encephalomalacia is triggered by a deficiency of Vitamin E in a chicken’s diet and it is most likely to occur in the first two months of a chicken’s life. You should be looking for outstretched legs (which can appear to give the chicken a limp), spasms, and regular loss of balance.
It is sometimes called “crazy chick” disease as infected birds can appear to have gone a little crazy. Whilst rarer, it is possible for older chickens to get this condition too. Assuming that the condition is not too far advanced (in which case damage might be permanent) you can treat this easily with alpha-tocopherol preparations of Vitamin E.
Rickets (mineral and vitamin deficiency)
Rickets is a common condition which also affects human beings and also for the same reasons – it’s a deficiency of calcium and/or vitamin D in the diet. So, it’s not contagious or zoonotic (capable of jumping to humans). The symptoms often include a chick circling when it favors one leg over another, the chick’s head twisted back and a complete failure to stand at all.
As with most dietary deficiencies rickets is going to raise its head during the early part of a chick’s life in most cases but can be found in older chickens if you change their diet. Treatment means changing the chicks’ diet before the bone deficiencies lead to permanent damage.
Perosis (choline, mineral and vitamin deficiency)
Perosis is a condition which is caused by the deficiency of some or all of the following in a chicken’s diet: choline, zinc, manganese, niacin, folic acid, biotin and/or pyridoxine. As with all dietary deficiencies it is most likely to affect and be diagnosed in young chicks under the age of 2 months.
Symptoms include short legs, lameness, hock distortions, a slip in the Achilles Tendon (this is “Perosis”), and in chicken embryos it may lead to “parrot beak” and deformed bones. The only way to treat it is to change the diet of the chickens to include the right mix of all the elements above – choosing chicken feed, it turns out, is a very important job if you want your chickens to be healthy. Why not read our article on what table scraps are safe to feed your chickens.
One piece of good news for chicken owners is that Spondylolisthesis only tends to affect “broiler chickens”, so if your chickens aren’t broilers – they probably don’t have Spondylolisthesis. If you see your chickens squatting with their feet in an awkward upward position, limping when they walk and placing their weight on their hocks rather than their feet – that’s Spondylolisthesis.
It’s often known as “kinky back” among the chicken breeding world and it’s caused by a pinched spinal cord. As this is a genetic condition, there’s not much that you can do treat the problem and birds will be permanently afflicted. One study, by Riddell for Avian Pathology, showed that as an inherited condition it can be bred out of a flock.
This condition, Necrotic Dermatitis, is often known as Gangrenous Dermatitis too. The early symptoms of this bacterial infection are lameness and lack of coordination in your chicks – usually from about 3 weeks to 20 weeks old. Typically, there will also be weeping, “gross” lesions from a reddish purple to green found on the skin.
It spreads rapidly and the prognosis is not good. It can kill in under 24 hours and antibiotic treatment is only partially effective at best. It is vital to completely clean and disinfect housing if the condition is found and some scientists note that salting the floor of the coop can prevent reoccurrence of Necrotic Dermatitis. It is not known how this condition spreads between chickens that have no previous history of it and further research is still required.
White Muscle Disease (mineral and vitamin deficiency)
Unusually for a mineral and vitamin deficiency, White Muscle Disease is more likely to affect adult chickens than baby ones. It is also sometimes called “Nutritional Muscular Dystrophy” and is the rest of a deficiency of Vitamin E and/or the mineral Selenium in the chicken’s diet. This causes severe damage to the muscular tissue of the chicken (this is known as “myopathy”) which, in turn, results in lameness, movement problems and weakness.
The most severely affected birds may just drop dead on the spot because the heart muscles have been atrophied by the condition. It is important to enlist a vet if you suspect white muscle disease in the flock – this is because it can only be properly diagnosed by a blood test and because Selenium deficiency needs a very precise dose of dietary Selenium to reverse it – too much Selenium and you might kill your chickens with an overdose.
Viral arthritis is a common condition in chickens and most of the time, it’s not too damaging, however, it has been known to evoke extreme lameness in some breeds of broiler chicken and much more rarely in laying breeds. The virus is a reovirus and, for the moment, at least, it’s not well-understood how these are transmitted between flocks, though it appears that ingestion may be the most common way to become infected.
It is usually spotted between 4 and 8 weeks as either unilateral or bilateral swellings around the tendons of the shank (above the hock). In the most severely affected birds, it can lead to a complete inability to walk and even death. However, mortality is low. The bad news is that it cannot be treated, and the best cure is prevention – both live and killed vaccines can be found for chicken viral arthritis.
This condition is known by a variety of names including Infectious synovitis, MS Infection, Enlarged Hock Disease and just plain old synovitis. It is readily apparent in infected birds who have such incredible swelling of the hock that they are unable to walk from the pain or hobble badly when they do. The infection is carried by other infected birds (and wild birds can pass it on to your chickens).
However, it is not highly contagious and doesn’t tend to be passed on to the whole flock. It can take 11-21 days following infection to become symptomatic. It is not possible to vaccinate against Infectious synovitis and proper diagnosis requires a vet to draw a fluid sample from the infected hock and test it. Treatment is only partially effective and may require a broad range of antibiotics.
This is one of the most common diseases in chickens and Marek’s disease is named after the vet Jozsef Marek who identified it in the wild. Many chickens are resistant to it and there are numerous symptoms including limping (due to paralysis in the limbs), twisted head, breathing problems, a change in comb color and diarrhea. It is highly contagious and can easily be passed from chicken to chicken.
You can see Marek’s in action here on YouTube:
There is a vaccine for Marek’s, but it doesn’t stop your chickens from catching the disease, it just primes their immune systems to be better at fighting it off. The virus constantly mutates which makes a permanent vaccine impossible. Sadly, once a bird has Marek’s there is no treatment and in severe cases, the birds should be culled.
Bumblefoot (Staphylococcus aureus)
This is a bacterial infection which can affect chickens and other forms of poultry anywhere at any time. Bumblefoot typically starts by appearing as a kind of foot or leg strain (with some limping) but as the infection progresses you should be able to find pinkish-red areas on the feet or between the toes. There will then be a spread of inflammation up the leg. If left untreated these areas will become dark-brown or even black and the chicken will show a good deal of pain.
Can bumblefoot kill a chicken?
Yes, the black sores are a sign of blood poisoning and if left untreated, your chickens will die. The best cure is prevention – so make sure roosts aren’t too high for them to jump down from, that the earth they jump on is soft or cushioned, that there are no splinters around, that you trim their nails carefully and that their bedding is kept clean.
Early infections can be treated easily by bathing the foot in an Epsom Salts bath and then spraying the wound with Vetericyn and bandaging it. Repeat as necessary. If there is no improvement, however, or the wound is turning black call in a vet. They will conduct surgery to drain the wound of pus and to cleanse the bacteria from it.
If you have a strong stomach – you can watch how this is done here:
Scaly Leg Mite
As it the name suggests, Scaly Leg Mite, is caused by an infection of mites called Cnemidocoptes Mutans. It lives in the ground (and sometimes on the floor of the coop if there are damp conditions) and waits for a bird to come along. When it does, the mite burrows under the scales of the bird’s legs and it can cause great discomfort which often results in limping.
It is easy to spot scaly leg mite because the scales become raised and painful looking. The mites are a little small to see with the naked eye individually and tend to appear as a white growth on the leg as a group. Treatment is easy – you can buy a Scaly Leg Remover spray and repeated use will quickly kill the mites. Some people use Petroleum Jelly to try and smother the mites, instead, but this is not always effective.
Brittle bone disease or osteoporosis doesn’t just affect human beings, it can also affect chickens and, in particular, egg laying ones. It’s usually called “cage layer fatigue” because of this. It signifies a shortage of calcium in the diet and possibly a lack of phosphorous and/or Vitamin D too. If left unchecked the hens will find their legs break easily which will lead to limping.
Treatment is simply the use of dietary supplements or oral supplements that contain plenty of Calcium. It is easily prevented from returning by modifying the hen’s diet to ensure that they get enough nutritional calcium in the future. Oyster shell or limestone granules are particularly useful for this.
Botulism is caused by the bacteria, Clostridium botulinum, and it is produced in the process of decay in both animals and plants. It is extremely toxic to chickens, humans and other animal life. In chickens, the signs of botulism include leg paralysis, wing paralysis, neck paralysis, and death.
To treat it effectively, you need to remove the source of the toxin and apply antibiotics and possibly a Selenium supplement. A vet can diagnose Botulism by taking samples from the birds and will recommend the best treatment regime too.
There are many different potential worm infections that a chicken can get. Many are completely asymptomatic, and others may cause a wide range of symptoms. The most likely explanation for a worm causing a limp is simply that the worm has been cast adrift in the chicken’s body (as worm’s don’t typically target legs) and infected the tissue there.
Worming tablets should always be the first port of call with a suspected worm infection in chickens (though ideally, you will regularly worm your flock as a preventative measure) but if the symptoms persist even after treatment, it’s best to call in a vet to get a diagnosis and further treatment options.
Toxic Poisoning (algae, weeds, and other contaminants)
There are so many different forms of toxin that might affect chickens it is impossible to list them all or their various symptoms here. What we can say for certain is that if you have tried to eliminate all other potential causes when your chicken starts limping – then toxins might well be the problem.
The only way to know for sure is to have your vet do bloodwork and try to eliminate all the possibilities. Once you know what is poisoning your birds, you may be able to both treat it and to remove the source of the poison for the future.
So, there you have it 18 reasons a chicken starts limping and how to treat the problems. We know it can be distressing to find your chickens limping but as you can see, there’s a solution for most limp problems that’s easy to implement and cost-effective. So, don’t panic if your chicken has a limp, work out what’s wrong and get treating it, instead.
Here are some of my favorite products for chickens and their coops: