Footpad dermatitis is a common issue with poultry, which means birds have an inflammation and associated lesions or ulcers on their pads and/or toes. Footpad dermatitis lesions often have a black appearance, because of the cell necrosis (cell death). These lesions can be superficial or deep.
These lesions are an animal welfare problem because they are painful once the lesions are severe. They can also affect production outcomes (birds will be less motivated to walk to feed and water) and will result in behavioral restriction in extreme cases. Once a lesion has developed, the bird is at risk of secondary infection, as the barrier of the skin is compromised.
Footpad dermatitis is very common in both the poultry industry and in backyard flocks (although numbers for the latter are not available). Some examples of findings in commercial birds:
Broiler chickens: About 50% of commercial (heavy) broiler chickens were found with some degree of footpad dermatitis in southeastern US (Opengart et al 2018). In Europe, a Danish study found 58% of commercial broilers with lesions on their feet (Lund et al 2017).
Laying hens: A study examining nearly 300 cage-free laying hen flocks found on average 40% of hens in each flock affected by footpad dermatitis (Niebuhr et al 2009). An experimental study showed footpad dermatitis to be a common issue in both furnished cages as in cage-free birds, with prevalences ranging between 60 and 93% of the birds having a lesion (Weitzenbürger et al 2006).
Turkeys: As with other poultry, footpad dermatitis can be a common occurrence. Nearly 50% of young turkeys showed lesions on their feet in one study (Bergmann et al 2013), and another reported the lesions in 95% of turkeys from 41 flocks in North Carolina (Da Costa et al 2014).
How does footpad dermatitis develop? The major risk factor for footpad dermatitis is litter or bedding. The key issues are wet litter and associated chemicals present in the wet litter (for instance ammonia). Other factors, such as body weight, type of feed provided, and ventilation can indirectly impact prevalence and severity of lesions. For instance, poor ventilation can lead to wet bedding materials, and prolonged contact with wet bedding material can induce lesion development.
What can you do? Preventing is obviously better than remedying lesions after they have developed. A key strategy is to manage the litter moisture and associated chemicals. Yet, there are some options to heal lesions or reduce the prevalence of footpad dermatitis, which are listed below:
Bring your bird to a veterinarian to treat the lesions appropriately. Gently clean and wrap the lesion so that the feet are no longer in direct contact with litter or other bedding materials. Replace the bandage frequently. Ensure the environment (bedding, litter) is dry, by replacing the litter or topdressing with an absorbent material, such as pine shavings.
What not to do There are some videos online that show backyard flock owners performing DIY surgeries on their birds, removing the inflamed lesion. THIS IS INHUMANE. Although they may not show it, poultry can experience pain, and home surgeries will cause severe pain and distress. Surgeries can be done by a licensed veterinarian, if it is deemed necessary.
References Opengart, K., S. F. Bilgili, G. L. Warren, K. T. Baker, J. D. Moore, and S. Dougherty. 2018. Incidence, severity, and relationship of broiler footpad lesions and gait scores of market-age broilers raised under commercial conditions in the southeastern United States. J. Appl. Poult. Res. 27:424–432 Available at https://doi.org/10.3382/japr/pfy002. Lund, P.V.; Nielsen, L.R.; Oliveira, A.R.S.; Christensen, J.P. Evaluation of the Danish footpad lesion surveillance in conventional and organic broilers: Misclassification of scoring. Poult. Sci. 2017, 96, 2018–2028. Niebuhr, C. Arhant, A. Lugmair, B. Gruber and K. Zaludik. 2009. Foot pad dermatitis in laying hens kept in non-cage systems in Austria. Abstract https://www.cabi.org/Uploads/animal-science/worlds-poultry-science-association/WPSA-italy-2009/6_welfare2009_niebuhr.pdf Bergmann, S., Ziegler, N., Bartels, T., Hubel, J., Schumacher, C., Rauch, E., Brandl, S., Bender, A., Casalicchio, G., Krautwald-Junghanns, M.E., Erhard, M.H., 2013. Prevalence and severity of foot pad alterations in German turkey poults during the early rearing phase. Poult. Sci. 92, 1171-1176. Welfare Quality® Network, 2009 http://www.welfarequality.net/media/1019/poultry_protocol.pdf Freeman, N. et al. "Remedying Contact Dermatitis in Broiler Chickens with Novel Flooring Treatments." Animals 10.10 (2020): 1761.