Frostbite in Chickens
Mandi Chamberlain, RVT, BS.
Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and the underlying tissues. In chickens it occurs when fluid freezes in the cells of the wattles, comb and sometimes the feet. Since the surface area is so small, it does not take an extensive amount of time for frostbite to occur. Recognizing and treating frostbite at the first signs is crucial for a speedy and full recovery.
Like almost everything, prevention is key! The most obvious thing that can help prevent frostbite is a draft free and dry shelter area for the birds. In colder temperatures, chickens will do less venturing out spending more time inside the coop. Your chicken coop should have cross ventilation, one window won’t cut it. When thinking about the word dry, usually we reference that to being “out of the elements”. This also applies to the bedding inside the coop. I suggest implementing a deep litter method, and turning over the bedding often. By doing this, the droppings that chickens produce can be more readily absorbed, thus created less humidity and moisture inside the coop keeping it dry.
Inspiring the birds to venture outdoors can be of great benefit as well. If your space allows it, you can place things on the ground such as dry straw, pallets, or logs to create a dry landing space for the chickens to hang out on outside of the coop. Having dry material is crucial for protecting their tiny toes too! I once had a chicken stand in the snow for an hour or so just walking around. Sometimes they aren’t the brightest animals. She got frostbite so bad on her feet, three of her toes became necrotic and fell off. It was over a month of nursing her back to health and healing the tissue but she went on a lived a normal life after that. Since that event, I always have straw down to aid in preventing this. A few easy alterations to the barnyard and I haven’t had an issue since!
Hydration is another key factor in preventing frostbite, so always have a warm water source for the chickens in the cold months. If you have a rooster with incredibly large wattles or comb, petroleum jelly has been used to coat those body surfaces to aid in prevention. Another amazing option is to apply Hen Healer to the large comb and or wattles. This will aid in keeping the areas supple and bonus, it can also be used gently as a frostbite treatment! Cold air is very dry, the application of the Hen Healer or jelly helps prevent evaporative cooling around temperatures that hover around freezing. Once the temperatures dip well below freezing, petroleum jelly will also freeze so be mindful about that. You wouldn’t want to create more harm.
At first glance frostbitten wattles and combs will begin to appear grey in color, whereas feet will first become a darker red. In roosters with very large combs and wattles, you might notice the area beginning to swell as well. Swelling would indicate more than just minor frostbite, and if you notice tissues that are black or necrotic looking this would be considered severe and most treatment at this stage wouldn’t be beneficial. I have had a situation like this happen on my farm. We had well below zero wind chills, and it took only a few hours for frostbite to set in on one of my rooster’s large combs. I quickly noticed the black tips and brought him into the garage out of the elements and set up a safe space for him. I had ambient heat and deep bedding to keep him comfortable and I let the area return to normal for a day without doing anything. Rubbing the area could have made it worse. Once his comb started to look like healthy tissue, I applied a coconut oil balm to his comb and he was good as new! Paying good attention to the bird’s behavior can be helpful as well. Chickens and alike birds are relatively good at hiding pain, so knowing their normal behavior and any deviations can be a good first defense as well. If you think your chicken has frostbite, here is what you can do.
When caught in the early stages, there are things that can be done for the affected areas. Intuition would tell us to quickly warm the areas, but I strongly caution against this. Rapid warming of frostbitten tissues can cause more harm and inflict more pain. Don’t use a heat lamp and don’t rub the area. For combs and wattles you can gradually warm the area with a damp, warm cloth for 15-20 minutes making sure the cloth stays warm. If your chicken falls victim to frostbitten toes, place the bird in a warm water bath only deep enough for the feet to soak. Do this for 15-20 minutes as well. You will be surprised, most don’t fuss about this at all. Once areas are warmed and dry, isolate the bird in deep bedding where you can keep a close eye on it. Spraying a hydrogel, such as Theracyn Wound and Skin care spray on the area promotes natural healing to the area and provides a protective barrier. In some rare cases you might have blisters that rupture, skin sloughing and loss of tissue. Monitor these areas closely for signs of infection.
By giving your chickens a warm draft free area, coupled with good ventilation you shouldn’t have too many troubles, even in northern climates. It is also noteworthy that some chicken breeds are more cold-hardy than others, so do your research on breeds.
Here’s to a happy and healthy winter with your flock!