Roosters (and some hens!) have spurs – a claw-shaped projection on their legs just above their feet. Spurs start out as small bumps on young chickens and gradually grow into long, curved, sharp weapons. And they are weapons. Roosters use their spurs to defend themselves and their flocks. When a rooster attacks, he propels himself forward feet first, intending to slash his opponent with his spurs. People who engage in cockfighting (which, thankfully, is now illegal in all 50 states after Louisiana banned it in 2007), cover their fighting roosters’ spurs with long metal spikes called gaffs. This guarantees that the spur, which can be injurious enough in its normal unadorned state, will be even more harmful—thus increasing the blood, fatalities, and excitement for the spectators of the “sport”. I’m referring to this brutality as sport only because that’s how it is characterized in the parts of the world where it remains legal. But I’m getting a bit off track from the topic I really want to talk about—trimming roosters’ spurs to make them less dangerous. In addition to removing a weapon, spur trimming also helps protect hens from being injured while mating with the rooster. And since spurs can become amazingly long, shortening them can actually make it easier for the rooster to walk.
Last week, my wife, Kathy, astutely noticed that one of Emile’s spurs was so curved it was almost winding back into his leg. Spurs sometimes can actually grow all the way back into a rooster’s leg, causing pain and lameness. I don’t know how Kathy even noticed Emile’s spurs since his legs are covered in dandy feather pantaloons all the way down to his feet, in the usual Cochin style. But when I got a chance to get a closer look, I saw the curved spur as well and decided it was time for Emile to get a pedicure, and I further decided that we would take care of all the guys while we were at it.
If you were to x-ray a chicken spur, you would see that the tip is solidly made of the same keratin-rich horny material that covers the entire spur—it’s the same material that is in a chicken’s toenail and it’s dead—there are no nerve endings or blood supply. Starting about half-way down the spur and going all the way to the leg, there’s an inner core of living tissue, and inside this core is bone—an extension of the chicken’s tarsometatarsus. (Watch me toss around the hundred-dollar words! That’s the official name for the bone a chicken’s leg shank.) The presence of an inner core of bone make spurs more analogous to horns than toenails.
It’s good to have a mental picture of the inside of a spur when you’re trimming. If you trim too closely to the leg, you'll cut live tissue and could even cut into bone. If you cut in the right place, it’s as simple and painless as trimming toenails.
Spur trimming is really a two-person job. You need one person to hold the squirming, frightened rooster, and one person to wield the trimming tool. There are three different methods—each with its own tool:
One choice is to trim the spurs with a sharp dog nail clipper. The operative word here is “sharp.” A dull clipper can function more like a nutcracker and actually crack the entire outer layer of the spur—not good! You should trim about a third of the distance from the end and keep in mind if you trim too much you’ll be cutting into live tissue. It’s a good idea to have styptic powder on hand in case you hit live tissue and cause bleeding.
A second method is to use a Dremel pet grooming tool—an electric tool with a rotating file at the end that’s designed for filing dog toenails. There’s no chance of cracking the spur with a Dremel and you’re probably less likely to go too deep and cause bleeding since filing is such a gradual process. The down-side of a Dremel is that it is gradual. Filing a spur can take some time, and meanwhile you’re holding this unhappy, frightened rooster. And then, a Dremel is a bit pricier than even the best clipper.
Another technique is to grab the spur at the base with pliers and gently squeeze the pliers while wiggling the spur back and forth. Eventually the entire outer layer of the spur will detach and you can pull it off, leaving the living core behind. You will definitely need styptic powder for this procedure—there will be blood. Many resources that I respect offer “uncapping” as viable method for trimming spurs, but I can’t get past the notion that it’s on par with pulling out someone’s fingernails. There’s no denying that desheathed spurs will bleed and that the rooster will feel pain.
I'm a proponent of the dog-clipper method, and that’s exactly what we did. It was quick and painless. The hardest part was managing to apprehend all three guys!
Kathy was the holder and I was the trimmer. Each rooster in turn got quickly and painlessly trimmed while frantically thinking, "What is HAPPENING TO ME!?"
Emile's nearly ingrown spur
Not only is Paul the smallest of the roosters, but he's also covered in very silly frizzled feathers. So it's so ironic that he has HUGE spurs. Ah, life.....
[This post has been shared on Clever Chicks Blog Hop #227]