Many northern chicken keepers, including me, have to watch out for frozen combs and wattles when the temperatures dip below freezing. Frostbite can happen suddenly and if not treated quickly, it could develop into a major problem! Some say that even a 10 minute exposure in below freezing temperatures can lead to frostbitten combs and wattles!
Surprisingly, frostbite is more a management issue, rather then cold temperature induced. Moisture in the air will gather on the comb and wattles of a bird, encouraging freezing of the tissue. Several management ideas are listed below to help prevent frostbite:
- Have good ventilation.
- Prevent excess moisture build up- water spillage, puddles, damp litter, etc…
- Clean up the dropping regularly- moisture in the dropping evaporates adding to the moisture in the air. Fermented feed helps with this by reducing the amount of dropping produced by each bird.
Several other frostbite preventatives are listed below:
- Apply an all natural salve- in an earlier post about winterizing your coop (click here) I recommended un-petroleum jelly as a preventive for frostbite, I just recently learned though, that the oil based lubricants can actually trap moisture next to the skin, increasing the chance of frostbite. I make my own slave using a recipe from www.fresheggsdaily.com.
- Add cayenne pepper to your feed- cayenne pepper improves circulation throughout the body.
- Provide wide perches- this allows a chicken to cover its toes while roosting.
Cold hardy breeds, such as ones with small or pea combs and feathered legs, are less likely to get frostbite. Crested breeds are also a good choice, although they tend to have more problems with lice and mites.
At night, hens will tuck their head under their wing, helping prevent frostbite as well. Some say roosters don’t tuck their heads under their wings, thus making them more likely to get frostbite. I found that both of my roosters tuck their heads in their wing, but their combs are so tall that I still take preventive measures.
Signs of Frostbite and How to Treat It
A comb, wattle, or toe that has white on it is usually the first sign of frostbite. The white is from the tissue initially freezing. If it stays frozen it could cause gangrene. Warm up the area with a warm, damp cloth for 15 minutes or until it is unthawed. Do not rub! Apply a salve once it is unthawed and isolate the bird until the tissue returns to normal coloring.
If the tissue has already unthawed when you find it, it will look puffy, hot, and swollen. Apply salve very carefully and try to prevent the tissue from re-freezing. Constant freezing and unthawing of tissue can be more dangerous then just leaving the tissue how it is.
Seriously frostbitten appendages will turn black, shrivel up and fall off. What ever you do, don’t pull the black off! It is actually protecting the tissue underneath. Frostbite that isn’t cared for will get infected, causing gangrene. In that case, you would have to surgically remove the appendage to prevent the spreading of the infection. Surgical removal is best left to a professional.
To help prevent infection in already frostbitten areas, I spray the area with Vetericyn or Poultry Aid. Make sure to spray the appendage only when the temperature is above freezing, otherwise you would be defeating the purpose by applying moisture. Also, be careful not to spray in the eye or ear of the bird.
Keep a nice draft-free, well ventilated, coop and your flock will thank you for it!