Updated: Jan 16
A lot of the country has been experiencing below-average temperatures this winter. Even places that don’t normally freeze have been experiencing the effects of winter for the first time in decades. Those of us that live in cold climates may already be pros at preventing and treating frostbite in our flocks, but for those of you that have never had to face the threat it can be distressing to think of your birds in pain. That’s why today we wanted to go over ways that you can prevent, identify and treat this winter ailment in your backyard flock.
What is Frostbite?
Frostbite is a topical injury caused by exposure to extreme cold. It results in damaged skin, nerves, and blood vessels just below the top layer of the skin. In chickens, it most commonly occurs when fluid freezes in the cells of the wattles, comb, and feet. While frostbite isn't generally fatal to chickens, it can be incredibly painful so, as the old saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Recognizing the Signs of Frostbite
Frostbite in chickens generally appears first as small black spots, or pale, gray/white tissue around the tips and edges of the comb or wattles. In feet, it can present as redness, dullness, or whitening of the toes.
There are three stages of frostbite:
First degree - minor, causes irritation of the skin
Second degree - causes blisters on the skin, but not major damage
Third degree - involves all layers of the skin and causes permanent tissue damage
Potential Complications of Frostbite in Chickens
While a minor case of frostbite is easily handled, failing to recognize and treat the condition can have some pretty severe complications including but not limited to:
Infection, particularly gangrene
Loss of body part, including surgical amputation
Pecking at painful or itchy tissue, causing further damage and making them susceptible to pecking and injury from other flock members.
Preventing Frostbite in Chickens
For the first few steps, we’ll start with some proper planning tips that need to occur long before the threat of cold has even set in.
Choose The Right Breeds
For hopeful chicken keepers who live in cold climates, plan accordingly and prioritize breeds that are known for being cold-hardy. (You can find our helpful list of cold hardy breeds especially suited to cold climates here.) When looking at breeds for cold climates, it’s best to opt for breeds that have small “pea combs” or “rose combs”. Generally speaking, the larger the comb, the more susceptible that chicken will be to frostbite.
Generally speaking, roosters of any breed will tend to have larger combs and wattles than the hens making them more vulnerable to frostbite. Additionally, hens will generally tuck their heads under their wings at night which offers a nice natural protection. Roosters on the other hand aren't apt to do that. So if cold temperatures are a concern in your region, opt for a ladies-only club.
Pay Attention to Coop Ventilation
Did you know that frostbite is more likely to be caused by excessive moisture and dampness within the coop than by the actual temperature itself? That’s why it is so important that even in winter, your coop remain well-ventilated to prevent a build-up of moisture inside. Just remember, ventilation is not the same thing as a draft. You want to make sure that your coop is draft free and that ventilation is placed high above the heads of your hens so that moisture can escape without causing an unnecessary chill.
Install Wider Roosting Bars
It’s always a debate in the chicken-keeping world, 2x4 wide side up or narrow side up? Well turns out that if you live in a climate that routinely sees freezing temps, wide side up is the answer! Providing your flock with wider roosting bars allows their bodies to completely cover their feet from above and the bar to completely cover their feet from below.
Deep Bedding or Litter
There are pros and cons to the deep litter method of coop keeping, but it is an ideal solution to winter warming. Providing your flock with a layer of bedding that is at least 6” deep will help add insulation to the coop. Additionally, the bedding at the bottom will begin the composting process with the deep litter method, adding heat from below. Just make sure that the bedding stays dry and opt not to leave water inside the coop.
Spice up Their Diet With Cayenne
Adding cayenne pepper flakes to your flock's food can help improve blood circulation which can aid in preventing frostbite in the extremities. Cayenne can also act as a mild natural pain reliever if you happen to have a chicken who is suffering from frostbite. And, don’t worry, chickens don't taste capsicum or the heat of the pepper.
Add a Layer of Protection
As a preventive measure, before a dip in temperatures is expected, coat larger combs and wattles with softened coconut oil, or if there are no other alternatives, Vaseline can be used, though it is best to avoid petroleum products. However, Vaseline is better than frostbite! If you would like to make your own Homemade Frostbite Ointment, there is a great recipe for it over at Fresh Eggs Daily that I can’t wait to try!
Skip the Heat?
Yup, you read that right. While the obvious choice in frostbite prevention would be to add heat, ironically, heating your coop creates excess moisture which can lead to unnecessary frostbite. Not to mention the fact that adding heat can be dangerous and potentially cause a fire hazard.
Treating Frostbite in Chickens
Below is a list of things that you should and should NOT do if you discover a chicken with frostbite damage.
Move the chicken to a warmer area to prevent further frostbite damage.
Consult a vet whenever possible
Gradually warm infected areas. Soak feet in warm (not hot) water that is around 100 degrees for 20 - 25 minutes to bring the temperature up slowly. For combs, and wattles VERY gently hold a warm cloth to the affected areas. Do not rub!
Keep your chicken well hydrated with water that has been boosted with electrolytes and/or Apple Cider Vinegar. This can help your bird manage the shock from the injury and promote healing.
Monitor your chicken's food intake. The pain from frost-bitten wattles can make eating and drinking uncomfortable. Consider switching to nipple-style watering containers.
Monitor the bird for signs of infection including swelling, redness, oozing, or a foul smell.
Keep the chicken in a warmer location for the duration of the season. Thawing and refreezing with result in worse or additional injury.
Begin the warming process until the chicken is no longer exposed to the cold. Again, thawing and then refreezing will cause greater damage and delay the healing process.
Use direct heat such as a warming pad, heat lamp, or hair dryer. Using any of these items will heat or thaw the area too quickly causing needless pain and potentially additional injury.
Rub off or remove any damaged tissue or blisters. Once the tissue reaches this stage, it is dead and won't grow back, but it does help protect the underlying tissue, so never try to break it off, burst, rub it or trim damaged skin.
Keeping Things Warm and Dry
Mother Nature loves to throw us curve balls where the temperature is concerned. And while we can’t always avoid frostbite careful planning, preparation and management can help to reduce its effects on our flocks and minimize the damage. Remember that the recovery time for frostbitten tissue can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks, so always aim for prevention!
What’s your winter chicken routine? Tell us all bout it in the comments below, and as always, until next time: