Just as a dog or cat will occasionally need its nails trimmed, you may find your chickens will occasionally need their nails trimmed. Though this may sound like a scary task, it is all quite simple and easy to do.
Things you will need before you start:
- Nail Trimmers, either finger nail trimmers or pet nail trimmers used for dogs
- Styptic powder, corn starch, or flour
- Toilet paper or cotton balls
- A bowl of warm water and a wash rag
The Big Day
- Rubbing alcohol
It is best to pick a day when you have time to trim all of your birds at the same time. This way you won't forget who you've trimmed and who you haven't trimmed. It may also be best to have a partner or helper for this if it is your first time. One person will hold the chicken and the other will do the trimming.
Having everything set up before you begin will make the whole thing go smoother. If you can it will help to have a small table set up so that you can set out all of your supplies. I generally use a bucket that is flipped upside down. Have the styptic powder, flour, or cornstarch setting on the table with the lid loosened, so that it can be easily accessed if needed. Have your trimmers clean and readily accessible. Have clean toilet paper or cotton balls already set out in manageable amounts. Have the rubbing alcohol poured out into a small container.
When you are ready, go out and catch all of the chickens you intend to trim and put them in a smaller holding pen. This will save lots of time and effort if all the birds are already right there within your reach. This will also allow you to keep better track of who's been trimmed, since once you've finished with a bird it can just be put back into the run. A dog kennel or other cage works well for a holding pen. Be sure whatever pen you choose will be easy to catch the birds and remove them individually from the pen. Don't worry too much if the pen is crowded, since the birds will only be in there for a few minutes, however, if you have a large number of birds it may be best to use more than one pen.
A nice, healthy set of chicken nails.
When do Nails Need to be Trimmed?
Chickens that are active and healthy will spend a lot of time scratching in the dirt. Bet you never knew that they were actually trimming their nails all by themselves! The act of scratching naturally wears down the nails of a chicken. This means that new growth is gradually worn away as it grows in and that most chickens will never need to have their nails trimmed.
Cage raised chickens and those raised in runs with softer bedding don't get this natural ware to keep their nails nice and neat. Overtime their nails will get a bit too long and can even effect their ability to walk if left to grow for long enough.
A nail that is the proper length will be short and will be level with the bottom of the toe. A nail that expands below the toe or has begun to curl will need to be trimmed. You may also want to trim a chicken's nails if they have developed a sharp tip, as these sharp nails can cause deep scratches. If left long enough untrimmed nails may grow to a length that interferes with walking, scratching, and other natural behaviors of the chicken.
Keeping the nails of roosters trimmed is especially important. When breeding a hen a rooster will mount her. If he has sharp nails he can injure the hens when he breeds them and leave deep gashes in their skin. Keeping them short will prevent this problem from happening.
How to Hold a Chicken For Nail Trimming
Secure both feet with one hand and flip the bird onto its back. Face the bird's head toward you while leaving on it's back. Cradle the bird in your other arm and use that arm to pin the wings down. If you are doing this by yourself, grab the bird's feet with the same hand you cradled it in and this will free up your other hand for trimming.
If you are by yourself, then it may be easier to use a different technique. Sit in a chair or on a bucket and rest the bird upside down in your lap. Face the bird away from you so that you have easier access to the feet. Once the bird has calmed down a bit they will usually sit perfectly still. You may also choose to wrap the bird gently, but securely in a towel with its wings pinned down. This way the bird may be less inclined to flap.
Holding a chicken for nail trimming.
Steps to Nail Trimming
- With a damp rag wipe any dirt or mud from the feet. Clean feet will be easier to trim.
- Grasp the chicken's toe between your thumb and forefinger to keep it still. A chicken will often try to pull its foot away from you while you trim its nails, so it is important to hold it still. Don't worry, you aren't hurting them, they just don't like their feet touched.
- Clip a small portion off the tip of the nail. It is best to take only about an 1/8"-1/4". If you cut too much of the nail it will bleed, but I talk about this later.
- Once you are finished, put the bird in a separate pen or mark it with a sharpie so that you remember that you already trimmed its nails.
- Dip the clippers in the bowl of rubbing alcohol. This will sanitize them before you use them on another chicken and help to prevent the spread of anything the chicken may be carrying and also remove any dirt or nail that may still be left on them.
A Brief video demonstrating proper nail trimming technique.
The Quick and What to Do if It Bleeds
A Diagram showing the location of the quick inside the nail shaft. The blue line demonstrates where to cut.
The quick is a small blood vessel that supplies the blood to the nail. It is encased within the nail shaft and is visible as a small, pink line inside the clear nail. If the quick is cut the nail will begin to bleed. While this is not a fatal amount of blood, it can be a frightening experience for those who have never had it happen. If the quick is cut it is important not to panic. Though it may seem that way at times, a chicken isn't going to bleed to death through its toenail.
If you only just nicked the quick, then it may not even bleed or will only produce a drop or two of blood. If the quick has been deeply trimmed back there can be quite a bit of blood and it may bleed for several minutes and it is important to stop this bleeding as soon as possible.
Styptic Powder or a Styptic Pencil are both very good for stopping bleeding since this is what they are designed for. A popular product for Styptic Powder is Quick Stop, which can be purchased at any pet or feed store. Styptic Powder and Styptic Pencils can also be purchased in the cosmetics section of most department stores. Styptic Powder works as a clotting agent and almost instantly stops the bleeding on a quicked nail. To stop the bleeding simply put a small amount of the powder on the tip of your finger and press the powder onto the end of the nail. Be sure that the powder has been applied to the entire tip of the nail and forms a slight coating. The bleeding should stop very quickly, but if it doesn't simply apply the powder a second time. For a Styptic Pencil simply press the end of the pencil against the tip of the nail and roll it back and forth gently until the bleeding has stopped.
If you do not have any Styptic Powder on hand Corn Starch and Flour are both useful substitutes. Stopping the bleeding with these two materials isn't quite as quick as using Styptic Powder, but it does get the job done. To stop bleeding using Corn Starch or Flour pinch a bit between your fingers and press it onto the end of the nail. Press your finger against the tip of nail to apply a bit of pressure and help the bleeding to stop. Apply pressure for one minute before removing your finger to check if the bleeding has stopped. If the toe is still bleeding, apply pressure for another minute and check it again. Repeat this process until the bleeding has stopped fully.
Another thing that can be used to stop the bleeding is a small piece of toilet paper, tissue, or paper towel. To use these to stop the bleeding fold a small piece, about 1" square, into a small square and place it over the end of the nail. Place your finger over the piece of tissue and apply pressure. The pressure should be firm, but not too hard. Apply pressure for one minute and remove the tissue to check if the bleeding has stopped. If the bleeding has not stopped place the tissue back over the nail and apply pressure for another minute. Repeat until the bleeding has stopped fully.
After the bleeding is under control and the bird has gone a full minute without having any more problems they can be released back into their pen or into the holding pen with the other birds that have been trimmed. The bird may be a little hesitant at first with putting weight on the quicked nail, but most of the time they don't seem to be bothered. The nail will very rarely, if never, become infected after being quicked and the end of the nail will be solid again within a week or so.
Trimming Down Extremely Long Nails
If a chicken has nails that are abnormally long then they will need to be trimmed down over a period of several weeks. I will note that these severely long nails are often only found on ex-battery hens or on those birds raised by breeders who cage raise and have too many birds to care for them properly in the nail department. Most of the time these long nails are the result of 6 months or longer without proper trimming maintenance or access to rough surfaces to ware them down naturally. A lot of the time it is just the result of those who did not know any better about the care of their birds and had no idea they would be in need of nail trimming.
If you do find yourself with a bird that has a severely long set of nails it is important to remember that these nails cannot be trimmed all the way to a normal length in one trimming. As a nail grows longer, so does the quick. This means that a long nail will also have a long quick. These long quicks can make nail trimming quite difficult, but don't worry, the quick will shrink back down as the nail is trimmed shorter.
To begin trimming these nails back down to a healthier length you will need to start small and go slow. At the first trimming session trim only a small amount of the nail. Hold the nail up to the light so that the quick will be clearly visible and be sure that you do not trim to close. One week later check the nail to see how much the quick has receded. If it looks like there is enough nail to trim without hitting the quick, then do so, but if the quick has not shrank back it is best not to risk trimming it further. Repeat this trimming over the next few weeks until the bird has nails that are the proper length.