Frostbite and ChickensEvery season brings something different. Excitements and hardships are unique to each season with our flock. In winter, we look forward to watching our chickens deal with snow, decorating their coop with Christmas lights and wreaths, taking pictures with a wintery background, etc. We worry about water freezing, being snowed in, temperatures being too cold, etc. Another major concern that worries many chicken keepers is the issue of frostbite affecting their chickens. Frostbite can cause minor annoyance for a flock or it can be a major problem that must be dealt with immediately, depending on the severity. In this article, we will be taking a look at what frostbite is, how it affects chickens, how to prevent and treat it, along with several other important facts and tips on how to best deal with it.
Frostbite, defined as, “injury to body tissues caused by exposure to extreme cold, typically affecting appendages and sometimes resulting in gangrene” is clearly not a good thing to have happen to our chickens, or us! It’s painful and very unpleasant. While it is treatable, like most impairments or injuries, it is best to try and prevent frostbite rather than treat it, which you will learn more about further on in this article.
Frostbite commonly targets and attacks chickens’ feet, combs, and wattles. Chicken breeds with large combs and wattles are thus more prone to frostbite. As you do your research on different breeds, you’ll notice that cold hardy chicken breeds will have tiny combs and wattles, while heat hardy breeds will have substantially larger combs and wattles. Combs and wattles help to regulate body temperature and blood flow. Chickens cannot sweat and therefore must cool themselves through the blood circulation in their combs and wattles. They are thick with blood veins and capillaries, which get cooled by the air around them and then are transferred back to the rest of body, keeping the chicken cool. This of course makes the meaning of the fact obvious why chickens created for hot environments must have bigger combs, and chickens made for the cold have small combs and wattles. The bigger the comb, the easier it is to freeze. Frostbite occurs when the comb freezes and cuts off circulation, which then prevents blood flow.
While it is pretty clear that cold temperatures cause frostbite, it’s helpful to know what aspects influence the ability for frostbite to occur. Poor coop ventilation, wind chills, lack of shelter, moisture buildup in the henhouse, constant exposure to snow, and lack of a heat source in the extreme cold are all variables that aid the probability of frostbite.
To help prevent frostbite, one could logically conclude that, from the previously stated information, it is best to provide chickens with a proper shelter from the cold with appropriate furnishings and ventilation. If you live in a cold area, make sure to pick the chickens breeds with smaller combs, i.e. Brahmas, Easter Eggers, Orpingtons, Cochins, Faverolles, Sussex, etc.
Make sure to line the henhouse with plenty of warm, thick bedding, such as straw. This will keep the chickens warmer as well as provide entertainment for them. Be sure to watch for moisture buildup in the bedding though, as when wet bedding freezes, it becomes a breeding ground for the formation of frostbite. Keep the nests stocked with warm bedding too. If necessary, provide a heat lamp for your birds. Heat lamps can also keep hens laying longer in the winter, due to the addition of extra light. However, heat lamps are a fire hazard so make sure, if you do install one, that you do so in an appropriate location in the coop, where the chickens cannot reach it.
When it comes to proper ventilating the coop, it is ideal to put in 1 square foot per bird of venting in the roof. Split it half and half on either side of the ceiling, one vent higher than the other. You don't want any venting near the floor, as this will create drafts. Proper venting makes it possible for the moist air from the chickens to rise into this positive air coming in through the lower vent and out the upper vent. Birds themselves put out heat. So they literally are roosting in a nice warm bubble of air. The moist air rises and goes out these vents. You don't want to disturb this air space around the birds with drafts, so make sure to seal up all cracks a foot or two above the birds.
Venting can be worked on those cold winter nights by closing off some of the lower vents to slow air movement in the coop. You never want to close off the higher vents though. You will not retain much heat by closing off the vents, but you will keep the birds drier, especially if it is a bitterly cold. Hot air meeting cold air creates condensation, so keep the air moving to prevent this. If the coop is not adequately ventilated, all the moisture is going to rise up to the ceiling since warm air rises, and if it has no place to go, it will fall back down on the birds, making them very cold and uncomfortable.
You can try and prevent frostbitten feet by shoveling snow to make a path for the chickens to walk on. Also, provide your birds with wide roosts. If you use 2x4s, they should be positioned so that the chickens sleep on the 4” side. Chickens, unlike other birds, actually prefer to sleep flat-footed. When they do this, their feathers cover their feet entirely, and their toes aren’t left uncovered.
The visible signs of frostbite include:
•Black or blue spots on the comb, wattles, or feet
•Blisters/swelling in these areas
•Inability to stand
Feet: If you discover one of your chickens with frostbitten feet, you should act quickly. First, bring the chicken inside or to a warmer area. Take extreme caution when bringing a chicken into a very warm room when she has just been outside in the cold. The sudden change in temperature can further damage her system and nerves. Soak her feet with warm water to wake up the circulation, and then apply Vaseline, coconut oil, or Neosporin. Keep her in a box or crate with a towel or other warm object. Depending on how bad your chicken has frostbite, her foot may lose enough tissue that she may be lame for the rest of her life. However if her feet are only partly frozen, then they should blister. This is a great sign. Do not pop the blisters or worry if they ooze green or yellow fluid. Soon the blisters should fall off, revealing new skin.
Comb and Wattles: If your chicken contracts frostbite on its comb or wattles, rub the same substances on them as you would for its foot. As long as they aren’t badly damaged, the chicken should be fine, as the frostbitten areas will turn black and eventually fall off, displaying new skin. Never try and cut the black spots or tips off! Healing can take anywhere from a few days to more than 6 weeks. Rubbing coconut oil or Vaseline on these areas does not prevent frostbite, but it can help tremendously.
Sometimes, in extreme cases, frostbite can leave a chicken lame or cause certain parts of the infected area to permanently be discolored. Because frostbite can cause parts of the body to literally shrivel and fall off, your chicken could potentially lose a limb or part of its comb or wattles. Surprisingly, chickens can function with the loss of a limb or toes, but they will also have a high likelihood of becoming subject to bullying by the other flock members. You will need to provide an area of protection for that bird for the remainder of its life or be prepared to cull that bird.
You can use certain herbs with your flock that aid in blood circulation as well. Cayenne Pepper, Lavender, and Garlic all help with circulation and blood flow and are great herbs to use in the winter, regardless of whether your birds have frostbite or not. You can give them to your flock fresh or dried. You can sprinkle them on the ground, in the nest boxes, or add them to the feed.
Frostbite is not fun to deal with. But, don’t lose hope; it is treatable and hardly ever fatal. As long as you keep your chickens dry and warm in a safe, properly ventilated coop with lots of bedding, food to eat, and water to drink, they should be fine. If they do still contract frostbite, treat it as soon as possible. Prevent against it using the tactics discussed in this article. Your flock will thank you!