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Preventing Frostbite and Protecting Chickens in Winter

Posted by Mandi Chamberlain, Tue, Feb 11, 2020

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.

As with almost everything, prevention is key! The most obvious thing that can help prevent frostbite is a dry, draft-free shelter area for the birds. In colder temperatures, chickens will spend less time venturing out and more time inside the coop. Your chicken coop should feature cross ventilation (one window won’t cut it). When thinking about the word “dry,” we usually make reference 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 and 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 on which the chickens can hang out outside of the coop. 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 badly on her feet that three of her toes became necrotic and fell off. It took over a month of nursing her back to health and healing the tissue, but she went on to live a normal life after that. Since that event, I’ve always put 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 during the colder months. If you have a rooster with an incredibly large comb or wattles, you can use petroleum jelly to coat those body surfaces and aid in prevention. Another amazing option is to apply Hen Healer™ ointment to the large comb or wattles. This will aid in keeping the areas supple, and as a bonus it can also be used gently as a frostbite treatment! Cold air is very dry, so the application of Hen Healer or jelly helps prevent evaporative cooling in temperatures that hover around freezing. Once the temperatures dip well below freezing, petroleum jelly will also freeze, so be mindful of that. You wouldn’t want to create more harm!

At first glance frostbitten wattles and combs will begin to appear gray 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 indicates 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, to set up a safe space for him. I used ambient heat and deep bedding to keep him comfortable and 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 and he was as good as new! Paying attention to the bird’s behavior can be helpful as well. Chickens and similar birds are relatively good at hiding pain, so knowing their normal behavior and recognizing 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 that is only deep enough for the feet to soak. Do this for 15–20 minutes as well. You may be surprised—most don’t fuss about this at all. Once the areas are warmed and dry, isolate the bird in deep bedding where you can keep a close eye on them. Spraying a hydrogel on the area, such as Theracyn™ Wound & Skin Care Spray, promotes natural healing and provides a protective barrier. In some rare cases you might see 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 regarding different breeds.

Here’s to a happy and healthy winter with your flock!

Mandi Chamberlain

Hi everyone! My name is Mandi. I am a registered veterinary nurse, who fell in love with the art of living slow so I moved to the country. Most who know me would say I do anything but live slow these days though! I live on just over 4 acres in the Midwest. I raise a herd of registered Nubian dairy goats, a tribe of chickens, and a large garden. I have a huge passion for learning, and then teaching others what I have learned. I find country life to be rewarding and challenging every single day, but I wouldn't trade a thing. Thanks for joining me! I am here to help with anything!

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