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!
How Frostbite Occurs
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. When the fluid in the cells of the tissue freeze, the blood clots, allowing no oxygen to get to the cells. This causes the tissue damage that we call frostbite. There are several other factors that can contribute to frostbite as well, including temperature, wind chill, exposure time, altitude, and circulation.
Sooner or later every northern backyard chicken keeper will have to deal with frostbite, but there are some things that we can do to help prevent frostbite or keep frostbite cases from becoming worse. Several management ideas are listed below to help prevent frostbite:
In the Coop:
- Have good ventilation.
- Prevent excess moisture build up- water spillage, puddles, damp litter, etc…
- Clean up the droppings regularly- moisture in the droppings (droppings are up to 85% water!) evaporates adding to the moisture in the air. Fermented feed helps with this by reducing the amount of dropping produced by each bird.
For the Chickens:
- Apply an all natural salve- I use to recommend an 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 ground ginger to your feed- ginger stimulates circulation in the body.
- Provide wide perches- this allows a chicken to cover its toes while roosting.
- Put up a wind block to reduce wind chill factors
- Have a thick layer of litter in the coop and run to reduce exposure to cold surfaces
Chickens conserve heat in cold weather by reducing the blood flow to their combs, wattles, and feet. 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. It is especially important to keep rooster that you plan on breeding or showing from getting frostbite. Severe cases of frostbite can cause infertility in cocks.
A rooster’s wattles are also likely to get frostbite, especially if they are messy drinkers. Water dripping onto a chicken’s wattles provides ample opportunity for frostbite to occur.
Signs of Frostbite
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. Frozen tissue will usually feel cold and sometimes hard or brittle to the touch. 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 than just leaving the tissue how it is. Tissue that is severely frozen will also form blisters that are cold to the touch and are filled with a yellow fluid. Do not break the blisters, since they are protecting the tissue underneath.
Limping can be a sign of frostbitten toes. If one of your chickens is limping, pick it up and look at it’s feet. Feel it’s toes and see if any of them feel cold or look white. In sever cases, the toes may already look blue or purple. Limping can also be a sign of bumblefoot, so check to see if that is possibly the cause. Bumblefoot will look like a small, black dot on the bottom of the foot pad. See my post on treating chicken diseases naturally for more information on bumblefoot.
Treating Severe Cases of Frostbite
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. To unthaw serious cases of frostbite, first move the chicken to a warmer area. Feet or toes that are frostbite can be soaked in lukewarm water (100 degrees F) for around 20 minutes. Combs or wattles can be slowly unthawed using a warm washcloth that is held gently on the appendage. Don’t use direct heat to warm the area, you want to unthaw frostbite gradually. Frostbite that isn’t cared for will get infected, causing gangrene. Signs of infection include redness, swelling, oozing, and foul smelling discharge. Antibiotics will be needed if the frostbite becomes infected. In very severe cases, you might 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. If you have brought the bird into a warmer area, you don’t need to worry about what temperature it is. Chickens with frostbitten feet will benefit from nice towels placed on the bottom of their pen. Make sure the chicken that is affected by frostbite is eating and drinking properly. It may take months for severe cases of frostbite to heal and appendages that are lost due to frostbite don’t generally grow back.
Keep a nice draft-free, well ventilated, coop and your flock will thank you for it! Check out my post on Keeping Chickens Warm during the Winter for more ideas on how to keep your flock happy this winter! Warm wishes from the flock!