If you never knew a chicken’s nails 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-keeper, making sure your chickens’ nails are trim is actually a part of managing a healthy flock. Not only is it good practice to check out 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, they grow quicker than they can be worn down.
With Iman, my Cochin, I noticed a few of her nails starting to get unruly — they had grown over an inch long!
Thankfully, trimming a chicken’s nails is much easier than trimming a dog’s nails — or my dog’s 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.
There are two ways you can hold a chicken to prepare for nail trimming, with or without a second set of hands. One is to wrap your 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 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.
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 stay still so you can use both hands to trim their nails (or you can continue to cuddle them while your partner does the trimming).
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 trim the nail too deeply into the quick (the same way it can hurt if you trim 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 trim the nail a few millimeters after the quick. 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, trim 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.
If you get overzealous and do 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 trim 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 a couple of times 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!