By Randy Stevens
As published in Backyard Poultry Magazine
Dubbing is the practice of removing the comb, and the wattles of your fowl, to help prevent frostbite, and the complications that come with it. If you live in a area of the country that experiences below freezing temperatures, you might want to consider dubbing an option to prevent this, because it can lead to serious infections, fertility problems, permanent tissue damage, and even death. It does not hurt the bird to do this, and will make your whole flock healthier in the long run. Like many things that concern chickens, everyone has their own methods of dubbing, and along with that, different reasons for doing it. Birds, like the Old English Bantams, require dubbing to meet the standard for showing them, and some people like to dub their birds at a specific age, to help control the size of the adult bird. I dub all my fowl, including the hens, to promote better health, and prevent them from getting frostbite, which can be a real problem where I live.
To get the best results, dubbing is primarily done when chickens reach breeding age, and their combs and wattles are pretty much full grown. The first thing I make sure of when I am going to dub birds, is to do it at the right time of the month, so the bleeding is kept to a minimum. It is best to dub a bird the last two, or three days of the moon cycle, just before the new moon. This puts the blood of the bird more in the feet, and less in the head of the bird. I also prefer to do it in the evening, when the birds are calm, and will not be doing a bunch of running around after they are dubbed. It is best to avoid doing it during the hot summer months too, because the heat thins the blood. It is also a good idea to take the water away from the bird you plan on dubbing the day before, so their blood will be thicker, and will clot better. Some people also supplement Vitamin K to their birds prior to dubbing, by feeding alfalfa meal in with their normal feed, or using red cell in the drinking water. Others swear by dunking the birds’ head in a cold bucket of water before, and after dubbing too. All of the things I mentioned are meant to help keep bleeding to a minimum, and any of them will help, but they aren’t required. I have seen many a bird get dubbed without following the above steps, and do just fine, but I am trying to provide you with tips to make the process easier on you, and your fowl.
After deciding on a day, the next thing to do is to prepare to do it. You will need a very sharp, high quality pair of scissors that are capable of cutting through the flesh. I use a pair of leather trimming shears, but some people buy scissors specifically made for this. You can purchase them from most high quality poultry supply companies. I can say, don’t skimp on this, as it makes it much easier to dub a bird if you have a good pair of scissors. You will also need some rubbing alcohol, a towel, and some blood stop powder (You can use flour for this too, if you don’t want to spend the big bucks for the blood stop powder.) Next, you will need to decide what you are going to dub. I dub my combs tight to the head most of the time, which is as close as I can, because I like the look it gives my birds, and I remove the wattles and earlobes too, if they are excessively long. Most people dub the comb approximately a quarter inch off the head, and the wattles, and earlobes tight. The birds that have the worst problems with frostbite, are the tall, straight combed birds. Pea combed fowl need to be dubbed too, but most rose, and walnut combed birds are tight enough to the head, that you shouldn’t have a problem with them.
Once you decide how you are going to dub your bird, you need to take your bird to an area for doing this, preferably outside, as you will get some blood. Take your towel, and spread it out on your work area, grab your bird by the feet with one hand, and cradle the breast with your other hand. Lay the bird at one end of the towel, with his head and feet hanging over the edges. Make sure the bird’s wings are tucked in tight, and still holding the feet, roll the bird up in the towel. If done properly, you will have a bird with only it’s head, and feet hanging out of the rolled up towel, and it is unable to move. If you have a helper, it makes this easier, because you can now have them put their hands around the bird, to keep it calm and unable to wiggle loose. If not, I sit down, and put the bird between my legs, and hold it with my knees. You now need to disinfect the area of dubbing, and your scissors, with the rubbing alcohol. You don’t need much, just a damp cloth to clean the comb, and wattles if you desire. Take care not to get alcohol in the birds’ eyes. Ok, at this point, you are ready to start cutting. Remember, you can not replace flesh that you cut off, so if you are not sure what you are doing, it is better to take less off, and trim down to where you want to go, than to take too much off by accident. I like to start at the back of the head. I take the comb between my fingers in one hand, pull it up away from the bird’s head, then place the scissors behind the comb, tight to the top of the birds’ head, and angling up towards the middle of the comb, for the first cut. Once you make the first cut, you will see blood, don’t worry about it, just finish your cutting. Some birds will bleed a lot, some won’t bleed at all, either way, I will talk about what to do about that, after the dubbing process is finished. Next, you want to hold on to the tallest part of the comb left, and pull it tight. Place your scissors parallel to the head, at the distance you have decided on, and make your next cut. You should be done with the comb at this point, unless you need to do some trimming, for cosmetic reasons. If you decide to cut the wattles and earlobes off, now is the time to do it. If your birds have wattles that are over a quarter inch long, I recommend cutting them. These are much easier to cut, as they are thin, but it is very important to not pull on these when you cut them. If you pull them tight, and cut them off where it looks flush, you will end up having a large hole in the side of their necks from cutting too much off. If you do this, don’t worry, it will heal fine, it just looks scary at first, and leaves a larger wound, and will take longer to heal. With cutting the wattles, it is best to cut off less, and trim your way flush to the neck. If properly done, there will just be a slit in the skin where the wattle was. Some people like to trim the earlobes too, but it isn’t necessary to dub them, as it is not an area that will get frostbite typically, unless they are unusually large. If you decide to dub the earlobes, do them the same way you did the wattles.
After you have finished the cutting, you will want to stop any severe bleeding. Most of the time, the bleeding is very minor, and you can just put the bird back in its pen, and it will be fine. If you get a bird that is bleeding excessively, just apply pressure to the area with a clean cloth until it slows down. If you get bleeding that doesn’t want to stop after a couple minutes of pressure, just sprinkle some blood stop, or flour in the wound, and it will help stop the bleeding. The next day, you will want to check the bird and make sure that its nose isn’t plugged with dried blood. If it is, take a moist cloth, and clean it out so the bird can breath properly. It is also a good idea to treat the bird with a broad spectrum antibiotic for a couple of days to help prevent infections. Most dubbings will heal completely within 2 to 3 weeks. If you have a bird that has frostbite, I dub the bird immediately. Doing this, will keep your bird from getting infections from dead tissue, and they will heal from the dubbing much faster than waiting for the dead tissue to fall off. If the wattles, or earlobes, are swelled to the point that you can’t dub them, I like to cut a slit for the excess blood, and liquids to drain. Usually, after 24 hours of draining, the swelling will have went down enough that you can dub them.
Along with worrying about the head of your fowl, you need to think of your bird’s feet too. Make sure that your roosts are wide enough, that when they are on them, their breast feathers cover their toes. I use 2×4 lumber for my roosts, thin side up for bantam sized birds, and the wider side up for larger breeds. Doing this, will virtually eliminate loosing toes. Chickens can handle the cold surprisingly well, even better than they can handle extreme heat. If you have a spot for them to get out of the elements, keep them dubbed, and have nice wide roosts for them, they should be able to handle just about anything!