Correcting Spraddle or Splay Leg in Baby Birds

Ron Hines DVM PhD

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What Is Spraddle Leg?

Spraddle-leg or splay-leg is a distorted leg problem that only affects birds that are still immature and growing. The problem occurs when abnormal lateral forces on a growing bird’s legs and feet causes the bones (femurs , tibias , pelvis and toes)  to distort and bend outward or sideways. Both legs are usually affected – although one may appear worse than the other.

The cause of this condition is usually a nesting area or nesting container, which is too slick for the young bird to grasp well. Not having enough shredded bedding or bedding of the wrong kind within a nest box also causes this condition. Another common cause is too rapid a growth rate in overfed, hand-reared birds. People occasionally bring me immature song birds with a single distorted leg. I assume that those cases result from the chick’s leg being tightly stuck in a crevice of the nest for a long period. A diet too low in calcium or vitamin D3 or too high in phosphorus could theoretically cause this problem or make it worse; but I have not personally seen spraddle leg cases that I attribute to that.

Baby birds that are in the process of developing spraddle leg are much like novice ice skaters whose legs slide outward from the midline.

Can My Baby Bird Be Cured If It Develops Spraddle Leg?

Correcting this problem in a rapidly growing chick (baby) is a fairly straightforward proposition. Reversing the forces that cause its legs to protrude sideways will bring the legs back to the mid line – if – the bird has sufficient remaining growth time. The same technique, performed more slowly and more cautiously will help birds of any age (but the results may not be as spectacular).

No two veterinarians or aviculturalists fix this problem in identical ways. Luckily all techniques are successful if they reverse the lateral forces that caused the problem in the first place. What is important is that no force be great enough to injure the bird’s delicate legs and joints and that no device or apparatus restrict circulation, bone or muscle growth. Bone and cartilage are dynamic tissues that continuously reform and re-contour in response to stress forces. In correcting spraddle leg, you redirect those forces. You never want to rush the process, tear or deform existing joint and bone architecture.

I do not like methods that limit normal motion of the legs with foam or braces because they do not allow for normal bone and ligamental development while the bird heals. This is particularly true during the phenomenally fast growth spurt of newly-hatched chicks. Preventing normal motion of a joint is sufficient to “freeze” that joint up and result in ligament and muscle shortening within less than a week.

To protect the baby’s legs, I wrap a 1/8 to 1-inch wide strip of two-sided foam sticky tape, that is normally used to attach picture-hanging hooks around either foreleg (tibias). I leave a wide gap in the tape on the medial (inner) surface of the leg so that circulation to the foot is maintained. Then I fashion and apply a shackle (hobble or handcuff) made of a 1/8 to 1 inch strip of Curity™ type white bandage tape so that the legs can no longer splay outwards. This apparatus is positioned just proximal (above) the ankle or tibiotarsus. Ouchless tape and bandages fall off too easily. When the time finally comes to remove the shackle or when it needs to be changed, olive oil and a pledget of cotton will remove remaining tags of glue adhesive.

I reapply the tape daily so that inward tension on the legs is always very mild. Each day the legs are positioned closer to the midline. If X represents the bird’s body and o the bird’s leg, first the legs will look like o——-X——-o then gradually over a few days; I move them more toward the midline: o—–X——o, then to: o–X–o. Then, finally, to oXo. The entire procedure should take 7-30 days in immature birds. It can take much longer in birds that are no longer actively growing. During this period attempts should be made to massage the feet and allow the bird to perch so that the toes and feet do not become atrophied and contracted. As soon as possible I get them on large-diameter perches because the feet and toes are also usually abnormally shaped due to the spraddle. One has to be sure circulation, temperature, color and consistency of the feet always remain normal – if not, the bands are too tight or one is putting too much torque on the legs to quickly. It has always amazed me how quickly the bones of the leg and pelvis remodel and correct the problem. If splay-leg is advanced, angulation at the “ankle” (tarsus) accompanies bowing of the upper legs. This ankle angulation is harder to correct but does not incapacitate the bird. The younger the bird, the more likely the ankle problem self-corrects when the upper legs are straightened.

As I mentioned, the older the bird, the harder spraddle–leg is to correct. This is because bones of older nestlings and adults are more calcified and rigid and cell structure less adaptable to change. Correcting the problem in grown or nearly grown birds sometimes requires that a veterinarian cut and wire abnormally shaped bones in a procedure somewhat similar to the “ triple pelvic osteotomy ” performed in humans and dogs. In these birds, the legs will probably never return to a completely normal anatomy and function.

Mature parrots with marked uncorrected spraddle leg do quite well when given additional perches and climbing ladders. They will need their toenails trimmed more frequently and they will often develop skin ulcers at pressure points on their body. None are life threatening. As for other bird species, I question the humaneness or kindness of keeping walking and perching birds that can not adequately walk or perch the way God intended them to. It can be done, but I try to talk my clients out of doing so.

Does Every Case Of Spraddle-leg Need Treatment ?

All birds with spraddle leg need to be tended too as soon as the problem is noticed. This goes for minor deviations as well as major ones. Birds rapidly adapt to their disabilities when they are young. However, with time, abnormal forces, even small ones, that are placed on bones and joints leads to their deterioration. So arthritis, joint swelling and inflammation will occur in untreated birds with this problem at a much younger age.

Can I Do The Taping Myself Or Do I Need A Veterinarian To Do It?

It takes a person with a gentle touch who is experienced raising baby birds of the same species as yours, to handle a routine spraddle leg case. That person might be a veterinarian or it might be an aviculturalist, wildlife rehabilitator, veterinary technican or human nurse. Success lands on the shoulder of those with experience and dedication – not credentials. Once a bird’s skeletal growth has slowed or stopped, it will take a veterinarian with bird experience to help. Bones may need to be cut and re-positioned  to gain any semblance of a normal leg and grasp. You can read about some of the techniques I use here and here

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