A chicken’s spurs, toenails, and beak are made of keratin, the same substance as your fingernails and toenails. And like your nails, they continually grow. Chickens evolved in an environment in which their claws and beaks naturally wear down as they grow. But in backyard confinement, sometimes chicken beaks and claws grow too long and need to be trimmed. A rooster’s spurs, too, can grow too long for the bird’s comfort or safety.
A chicken uses its claws to scratch the ground for food and also to scratch an itch. When a chicken doesn’t have hard surfaces to scratch against, the nails continue to grow until they curl, and then the chicken can’t walk properly.
Dorkings, Faverolles, Houdans, Sultans, and Silkie chickens all have five toes, with the extra toe growing above the hind toe and curving upward. In most cases this fifth toe never touches the ground, therefore has no opportunity to wear down. Nails that don’t naturally wear down need to be periodically trimmed. Cocks may need to have their claws trimmed to prevent injury to hens during breeding, and chickens groomed for showing must have their nails neatly trimmed to successfully compete.
At the center of each claw is a quick or soft tissue nourished by a blood supply. As the claw grows longer, so does the quick. When the claw is shortened, the quick recedes. To avoid drawing blood, trim an overly long toenail in stages, a little every few days, allowing time for the quick to recede until the nail is the proper length. Then keep it clipped properly short.
Cleaning the chicken’s feet by soaking them in warm water prior to trimming softens the nails so they are easier to clip without splitting. Cleaning the toes also makes the quick easier to see.
Use a pair of pet toenail clippers or human nail trimmers to trim the nail ends, and finish by filing away sharp corners. Trim a tiny bit at a time — no more than about one-eighth inch — to avoid snipping into the quick. After every snip, inspect the cut end of the nail. If it changes color, you’re getting too close to the quick. Stop trimming and give the quick a few days to recede before continuing. If you should accidentally draw blood, stop the bleeding by applying an astringent such as witch hazel, styptic powder, or alum, or encourage rapid clotting by dipping the wounded toe in flour or cornstarch. If bleeding continues after two applications, apply gentle pressure with the tip of your finger for about a minute, repeating the pressure application until the bleeding stops.
How often claws need trimming depends on how fast they grow. And their rate of growth depends on the environment and the time of year. Trim your chickens’ nails as often as necessary to keep them even with the bottom of the toe. A nail that grows long and thin and begins to curl is overdue for a trim.
Chicken Beak Trimming
A chicken uses its beak for gathering food and for exploring and manipulating objects in the environment, preening, nesting and engaging in social interactions. A chicken beak that grows improperly interferes with the chicken’s ability to eat and enjoy other activities that are necessary for its well-being.
In a natural setting, a chicken beak wears down as fast as it grows. The chicken wipes its beak on the ground to clean it, at the same time sharpening the beak for pecking and keeping it from growing too long. The upper half of the chicken’s beak is naturally a little longer than the lower half, but when a chicken lacks opportunities to keep it worn down, the upper half can grow so long it interferes with eating and preening.
When the upper half just begins to overlap the lower half, you can trim it back with a fingernail file. Once it has passed the filing stage, use toenail clippers or the same pet clippers used on claws. If you don’t let the upper beak grow too far, the part that needs to be trimmed away will be lighter in color than the rest of the beak. When in doubt, look inside the chicken’s mouth and you easily will see where live tissue ends.
Trim a little at a time to make sure you don’t get into live tissue and cause pain and bleeding. In most cases, only the upper half of the chicken’s beak needs trimming. On rare occasions, the lower half of the chicken’s beak may need a little reshaping, especially if a too-long upper half pushed the lower half in the opposite direction.
Occasionally, a chicken beak problem can present in a chick where the upper and lower halves grow in opposite directions so the bird can’t peck properly unless the beak is frequently trimmed, possibly for the rest of the bird’s life. This condition typically occurs from the time of hatch, although it may not become apparent until the chick is a couple of weeks old. It can be a genetic defect, but may also result from excessively high humidity during incubation.
Not incidentally, chicken beak trimming is not the same as debeaking — although the commercial poultry industry now euphemistically calls debeaking “chicken beak trimming” or “chicken beak conditioning” — which refers to cutting so much from a beak that it remains permanently short to prevent cannibalism. Birds in a properly managed backyard flock should never need permanent debeaking.
Temporary debeaking, however, may be the lesser of two evils when chicks persistently peck each other and cannot be stopped. Using nail clippers, remove just one-fifth of the chicken beak’s upper portion — no more. The chicken beak should grow back in about six weeks. A better solution, of course, is to prevent behavior issues by improving the flock’s living conditions.
Cocks use their spurs as weapons for fighting each other and for fighting off predators. Most hens have little rudimentary knobs instead of spurs, although some have real spurs that can grow quite long. And some hens get pretty feisty, although you’d be hard pressed to find a hen with spurs as lethal as those of an attack rooster.
The spur is an outgrowth of the leg bone, covered with the same tough keratinous material that makes up claws and beaks. The spur starts out as a little bony bump. As the rooster matures, the spur gets longer, curves, hardens, and develops a sharp pointed tip.
Overly long spurs may affect a cock’s ability to walk and to breed and are dangerous to other chickens and to humans. Spurs may be trimmed to prevent injury to the bird’s handlers, to prevent the wounding of hens during breeding, to minimize injury in peck-order fights, and to spruce up an older cock for exhibition. A spur that curls back into the bird’s leg must be trimmed to prevent lameness.
To avoid spur trimming, some backyard chicken keepers attempt to cap sharp spur tips by gluing on such devices as wire nuts (thimblelike screw-on electrical wire connectors) or feline nail caps. Eventually, the glue releases and the caps fall off — or get picked off — and periodically need to be replaced. Another option is so-called breeder muffs, made of either leather or plastic, which are sold by game fowl suppliers and are intended to be used only during the time a breeder cock is with hens. (In some states the use of breeder muffs is illegal, as it is considered evidence of participation in cockfighting.) To prevent sharply pointed spurs from poking holes through the muffs, the spur tips may need to be blunted.
The tip of a mature spur may be blunted with a Dremel cutting wheel, wire cutters, or a pair of pet toenail clippers and the edges smoothed with a file. The Dremel cutting wheel is the best option, as clipping a spur may cause it to crack.
Removing too much of a spur with any device will damage the quick, or live tissue underneath (also called the calcar), causing pain and bleeding. To estimate how far the quick extends from the shank, measure the diameter of the base of the spur, where it joins the shank, and multiply by three; for the average mature rooster, the quick ends a little more than half an inch from the shank.
An old hardened spur sheath that has grown long and dangerous may be twisted off, after which it will eventually be replaced by a fresh spur sheath. Exhibitors typically groom older show cocks by periodically twisting off their spurs.
To twist off a spur, grasp the base of the spur near the shank with a pair of needle nose pliers and gently, and patiently, rotate the pliers back and forth for about 60 seconds until the spur pops free. Do not attempt to bend the spur to force it to break off, or to pull it straight out. Doing so will cause pain, could damage the fresh growth underneath, or may even break the rooster’s leg. When the old spur sheath comes loose, take care in removing it not to damage the tender quickly.
Softening the old spur first will help you work it free more easily. Vegetable oil or petroleum jelly (Vaseline), liberally applied to the juncture between the spur case and the shank, will soften the spur. Standing the cock in warm water is another way to soften the spur sheath. A popular method for softening a sheath is to jab it into a hot potato — being careful to avoid burning your fingers or the rooster’s shank — and hold it there for about a minute. When the potato is removed, wiggle the spur back and forth until it slips free. Reheat the potato for the second spur.
The quick without its protective sheath remains sensitive for a week or two and will bleed if it gets bumped. During this time the cock should be isolated from other chickens to avoid damage to the exposed quick while the spur sheath regrows. Keeping the cock in a separate, clean pen within the same area as the other chickens will minimize fighting when he returns to the flock.
If the freshly uncovered quick bleeds, stop the bleeding by applying a wound powder such as Wonder Dust or styptic powder or an astringent such as witch hazel, or hasten clotting by liberally applying flour or cornstarch. The soft spur will gradually harden and begin to grow a new sheath, which eventually may need to be removed again. A spur sheath that is removed regularly will naturally grow less long with each regrowth.
Originally published in the June/July 2015 issue of Backyard Poultry magazine and regularly vetted for accuracy.