Bumblefoot is a condition which is found in many small caged pets of the rodent family and occurs when the normal calluses which all of these animals form on their feet become inflamed. The skin can break, because of the pressure of fluid building up behind the hard callus and this creates a pathway for infection to enter. It can cause some serious infections, but is always extremely painful.
How bumblefoot starts
When an animal such as a chinchilla is living in the wild, it walks on all kinds of different surfaces, but often on grass or soft soil or sand. This means that the skin on the soles of its feet thickens but it is not often stressed by walking on sharp or uneven surfaces for more than a few paces at a time. If the chinchilla’s feet start to hurt, it will rest them by staying off the unsuitable surface and so bumblefoot in the wild is rare.
In a cage situation, the chinchilla is often walking on a wire cage bottom or shelving the whole time, so there is never any respite for the bottoms of its feet, and so they become very sore. Because the skin is very hard, the serous fluid builds up behind it and will eventually break the skin. It is just like a blister on the whole of the bottom of the foot, and up the back of the leg where it rests. Then bacteria can get in and eventually the result is osteomyelitis, an infection right into the bone which can require amputation of part of the limb.
Signs that your chinchilla has ulcerative pododermatitis
Possibly bumblefoot might be less well known if it was always known as ulcerative pododermatitis, because it is a bit of a mouthful, but it says exactly what it is, if you break it down. Ulcerative speaks for itself. Podo is from the Greek for foot, and again, dermatitis is clear enough, meaning of the skin. The first signs that your chinchilla has bumblefoot are that it will be unwilling to move and certainly won’t want to climb. It will hunch, trying to keep its weight evenly on all its feet, but for preference it won’t put any weight on them at all and may curl up. If there is a part of the cage which is padded, it will probably make its way there and be unwilling to move. It also may become bad tempered with you and its companions, but this is just because of the pain.
If the infection has got a deep hold, it may become lethargic and this is a possible sign that a blood stream infection is in progress. Chinchillas show whether they have a temperature when their ears blush pink, and if this is also happening, you should consult a vet without delay. Dressings are hard to keep on a chinchilla, but the vet will be able to dress the feet at least temporarily and make sure that suitable antibiotic therapy is provided.
Treatment for bumblefoot
The foot must be cleaned thoroughly and kept clean. The cleaning is not a job for anyone but a vet, as some tissue may have to be gently removed and also the underlying bone must be checked to see if it has been affected. This will need an x-ray and although this can be pricey it is vital to find out at this stage whether there is bone involvement as it will be much worse if the skin heals over with a deep seated infection trapped beneath. If the animal will tolerate a dressing, this is a good way of giving the skin of the feet a rest. Not only will it help keep the skin clean but will probably slow the chinchilla down a bit, therefore not putting too much pressure on the healing skin by jumping. The floors and shelves of the cage must be padded, not just through the healing process but permanently. If the chinchilla has bad bumblefoot it may be that it will never be thoroughly better and will always be prone to recurrence, as the scar tissue will not be as strong as the previous healthy skin.
Not all chinchillas living in wire floored cages will go on to develop bumblefoot, but it is a good idea to make sure that all habitats have at least some softer and solid surfaces. If you can pad a shelf or two you will not only give the chinchilla’s feet some respite, but you will also notice if it tends to favour this surface and this may be an early warning sign of bumblefoot. If you do pad surfaces, with old towels, for example, be careful that you can keep them clean. Damp surfaces can harbour mould and this will not help if the chinchilla’s foot skin is compromised.
If your animal is one which likes to be handled – which does not apply to all chinchillas by any means – you might be able to massage some moisturiser into its feet to prevent cracking. Make sure that it is a moisturiser that will not make the skin soggy or you could be inadvertently making the situation worse. Vitamin E oil, which is easily obtainable from many supermarkets, is a very good one to choose and is not messy to apply. If the chinchilla likes you doing this, it also gives you a good opportunity to examine it in general, which is never a bad thing as early intervention is often the key to successful treatment, no matter what the condition.