If you never knew a chicken’s toenails could grow so long, and if you’ve never seen a grown man cradle a chicken like a baby, well… I’m here to change all that.
While it might sound like I’m being an overly doting chicken mama, making sure your chickens’ nails are nice and short is actually an important part of managing a healthy flock (right up there with making sure they have a good spot to take dust baths).
Related: The Spa Treatment for Sick Chickens
Why you need to check your chicken’s nails
Not only is it good practice to check your chickens’ feet from time to time (for signs of scaly mites and other ailments), but a quick glance-over can help prevent other injuries.
This is because chickens with overgrown nails may have trouble walking and holding a natural foot position, or they may inadvertently scratch their eyes and cause an infection. Overgrown nails start to curl and become a nuisance to an otherwise healthy hen.
The issue normally occurs in chickens that are raised in runs with softer bedding, or chickens that tend to be broody and sit on a nest for weeks on end.
Sometimes, chickens simply don’t scratch enough against a rough surface to properly “file” down their nails, and over time, the nails grow quicker than they’re worn down.
Older or less active chickens are also prone to overgrown nails, and the condition is exacerbated if the pain from severely curled nails keeps them from jumping or scratching as much as they should.
With Iman, my Cochin, I noticed a few of her nails starting to get unruly — they had grown over an inch long! She was also starting to limp a little, which alerted me to the problem.
Thankfully, trimming a chicken’s nails is much easier than trimming a dog’s nails — or my dogs’ nails, at least. Every time I try to clip their dragon lady nails, they act like (and I feel like) I’m going to dismember one of their limbs!
(I’ve since had to resort to trimming my dogs’ nails when they’re asleep. A sneak attack, if you will.)
I use the same scissor-style nail clippers that I use for my dogs; I find that they clip easily and smoothly with no jagged edges.
How to safely hold your chicken
There are two ways you can hold a chicken to prepare for nail trimming, with or without a second set of hands.
My preferred method is to firmly wrap the chicken in a towel (like you’re swaddling a baby) to keep her from flapping her wings. Many people who are holding a chicken for the first time may find this position more comfortable and secure for both parties.
The other method is to simply pick up your chicken while she is standing, making sure your hands are over her wings, then slowly and gently flip her onto her back and into your lap. You can further bond with your chicken by stroking her chest the way you would a pet.
Chickens, if you’ve never held one before, actually love to cuddle and be on their backs. They’re extremely docile in this position, giving you ample time to examine and clip their nails.
Once they’re comfortable in your lap, they’ll remain still so you can use both hands to cut their nails (or you can continue to cuddle them while your partner does the cutting).
How to clip your chicken’s toenails
Cutting a chicken’s nails for the first time may feel intimidating, but follow these steps and you’ll have no trouble at all. (If you’re a little weird like me, you might even find it deeply satisfying.)
First, ensure the nails are clean; I usually take a damp rag and wipe off any mud clinging to their nails so I can see what’s going on.
Next, look at the nail in the light to determine where the quick is. If you don’t see it from the side, try looking from the top or bottom of the nail. (If needed, you can shine a flashlight through it for a better view.)
The quick in a chicken’s nail is the same as the quick in a dog’s nail. It’s a small vein inside the nail shaft that supplies blood to the nail.
When cut, it bleeds (sometimes profusely) and can be a frightening sight if you’re not used to it. It can also be painful if you cut the nail too deeply into the quick (the same way it can hurt if you cut into the pink part of your own nails).
Cutting the quick won’t make your chicken bleed to death (and won’t make you a bad chicken parent), but it’s important to stop the bleeding if it happens, so keep flour, cornstarch, or styptic powder nearby.
The quick appears as a pink line running through the nail. You should clip the nail a few millimeters after the quick, closer to the tip of the nail.
The nail doesn’t have to be super short, but it should be short enough that it’s not curling under.
If you’re not able to see the quick, clip only 1/16 to 1/8 inch at a time until you notice the nail color gradually shifting from light to dark; the darker color indicates you are close to the quick.
Hold both of your chicken’s ankles with one hand (which helps stabilize her) and with your other hand, assess each toe and clip as needed.
It also helps to hold each toe between your thumb and forefinger if you need to keep it steady.
What to do if you cut the nail too short
If you get overzealous and cut into the quick, dip your chicken’s foot into a small cup of flour, cornstarch, or styptic powder (or treat it with a styptic pencil) to stop the bleeding.
Hold the afflicted nail in the powder for several seconds and apply steady pressure until the blood starts to clot.
Severely long nails often have long quicks, so it may take a few sessions to properly cut them all down. If the nails still need a little work after the first trim, wait a couple of weeks for the quick to recede, then repeat the procedure.
Be sure to sanitize the nail clippers when you’re finished. (I wipe mine down with a rubbing alcohol pad.)
Periodically check your flock once or twice a year for overgrown nails, and especially after a hen has gone broody. Giving these “pedicures” when necessary will ensure your girls remain healthy and happy!
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Chicken Nail Care Sources
Jofuyu Pet Nail Clippers | Cardinal Laboratories Remedy + Rcovery Styptic Powder
This post updated from an article that originally appeared on July 16, 2015.