Bumblefoot is the common term used for a bacterial infection — ulcerative pododermatitis — causing inflammatory or degenerative reaction on the weight-bearing surface of the feet of birds (and rodents). The infection is common and occurs in all species of birds, but is primarily a problem of cage birds. Obese and inactive birds are particularly prone to developing bumblefoot. Pet birds typically suffer from bumblefoot due to an underlying problem with some aspect of their husbandry and environment.
Any bird species can be affected but the condition is most common in budgies, cockatiels, galahs and ducks. Birds of prey (raptors) are also prone to the condition.
The symptoms of bumblefoot may not be initially apparent. Lameness is usually the first sign to be noticed – the bird may appear unwilling to land, stand, or grasp normally with one or both of its feet. Initially there may simply be a loss of the normal scale on the feet and the skin may be seen to be red and thin.
The resulting cracked skin is susceptible to bacterial colonisation, which can lead to abscess formation. In more severe cases, the foot is swollen and there are plugs of necrotic (dead) tissue on the weight bearing foot surface. Ulcers may form on the pads of the feet and, in the most severe cases, the bones of the feet will become infected Once infection spreads to the bones and joints, birds become severely lame and the prognosis is poor. Surgery is usually needed if there is to be any chance of recovery.
How is bumblefoot diagnosed?
A history of lameness, combined with obvious redness and swelling of the feet are clear indicators of bumblefoot. X-rays of the feet may be required to determine the extent of the infection. X-rays will indicate if the infection has spread to the bones of the feet.
We may also take a swab from the site of the infection and for a culture and sensitivity test in our pathology lab. This determines which strain of bacteria are present and helps us choose the most appropriate antibiotic to treat the bacteria.
Veterinary treatment for relatively mild cases showing redness of the skin and minimal swelling is via an antibiotic ointment applied at least twice a day to the affected feet. Oral antibiotics may also be used as a systemic infection control.
Ball bandages may be used to relieve pressure on the foot and to allow the bird to stand comfortably – bandages need to be changed regularly.
Severe cases may need surgery to remove plugs of inspissated pus and dead tissue.
Very mild cases can clear up within a few days, but severe cases of bumblefoot can take weeks to months to resolve. The bird(s) may also be left with permanent damage to the feet so the sooner treatment is initiated, the better the prognosis for recovery.
As the primary cause of bumblefoot is most often environmental factors, there is a great deal the bird owner can do to minimise the possibility of your bird(s) contracting the infection. Good sanitation, a balanced diet and appropriate perches will help reduce the incidence of the disease.
Provide different perch sizes and types, as well as of a variety of materials. Branches of different sizes from native trees make good perches because the bird’s feet are not constantly held in the same position. Perches of uniform size and made of improper materials such as smooth dowelling or hard plastic, or perches covered with sandpaper are detrimental to the birds’ feet and should not be used. You can also soften perches by wrapping bandages or strips of cloth around them, but these should be changed regularly and frequently.
Ensure good cage hygiene. Perches that are infrequently cleaned can accumulate bacteria and spread to a foot that has already been damaged and lost its protective scales.
Check the bird’s diet. Poor nutrition – fatty foods, a dietary deficiency of vitamin A, and diets high in cholesterol and low in calcium are all associated with bumblefoot. Improve the diet by moving your birds onto a high quality pellet or crumble food and including, more dark green vegetables for increased vitamin A. Our staff are happy to advise on suitable balanced diets. For ducks, ensure they have access to grassed areas and a clean deep wading pool.
Obesity and inactivity are a major contributor to bumblefoot so ensure your bids are not overfed, or fed fatty foods, and give them plenty of exercise outside their cage. Get those wings and feet working.
Birds that have concurrent illnesses are more susceptible to disease and more likely to contract bumblefoot due to a compromised immune function. Have your pet bird checked at the hospital at least annually to pick up underlying health issues before they become severe. Check your bird’s feet at home at least once every two weeks.