Frostbite in chickens is a common problem that has affected my flock and many others. However, there are simple steps you can take to avoid and prevent frostbite, and, in the event that your bird does develop some frostbite, there are ways you can treat it to get it to heal or prevent it from becoming worse.
The best way to deal with frostbite is to prevent it in the first place! Contrary to popular belief, it is not necessarily cold that causes frostbite, although it is certainly a factor and you couldn’t develop frostbite without it. It is actually moisture that causes frostbite, so wet cold is much more dangerous for your birds than dry cold. Water condenses on a bird’s comb or feet and legs and then freezes in the cold, resulting in frostbite. Straight comb roosters are especially at risk for this. A chicken coop in the wintertime can be a very wet place. Chickens exhale a lot of moisture when they breathe, and their droppings also contain a lot of water. Chickens also tend to spend a lot of time in the coop when it’s cold and snowy and the weather is yucky. All these things combined can lead to a very wet environment. So what’s the solution?
Ventilation! Lots and lots of ventilation. Ventilation is not just for the summer months. It’s also not just to prevent respiratory distress, although it is necessary to prevent a buildup of ammonia as well. No, during the wintertime you should not be blocking those nice vents that allow in the breeze in the summer. On the contrary, open them as wide as you can! If you’re worried about your birds getting cold, don’t be! Chickens can survive temperatures of -30 fahrenheit. As long as you have the proper type of ventilation, cold should not be an issue.Make sure your ventilation is as high as possible. You want it to be above the birds and NOT blowing directly where they roost. Hot, moist air rises, so you want the vents up high to siphon this off. Make sure you position your vents across from each other – it’s the cross-breeze that carries off the damp air. And do as much ventilation as you can, there is no such thing as too much as long as your coop is not drafty.
But what if it’s winter and you don’t think you have enough vents and you’re really worried about your rooster? Well, the other, much more time consuming, method of prevention is to slather your birds’ combs and wattles with Vaseline every other day. This makes a barrier from the damp air and prevents frostbite. However, going out every other day, chasing birds down, and slathering them up gets old fast, so ventilation is the way to go. This method also works well if you have an extreme cold snap coming through and are worried about your birds for just a few days.
A final, and somewhat controversial, method of frostbite prevention is simply to remove the area before it can get frostbite. In other words, dubbing, the removal of the comb and wattles. This may be useful in areas that suffer extreme cold frequently, but generally speaking, as long as you take other precautions, this is not necessary. If you do decide to go this route, there is an article on how to do it posted on this site if you want to look for it.
Signs of Frostbite
Rooster that has lost points of comb to frosbite.
Rooster that has lost points of comb to frosbite.
Signs of frostbite include swelling, bleeding, areas turning white, and areas turning black. When an area first freezes, it will swell up. This is most common with rooster wattles. If you catch it early there is a good chance you can save the area from completely dying. Once an area turns black it is too late to save it as the tissue has died. Here are some pictures of frostbite:
So maybe your ventilation wasn’t as good as you thought, or a cold snap took you and your rooster by surprise and now he’s frostbitten. What now? First and foremost, DO NOT try to warm the bird’s frostbitten areas back up unless you can keep them warm after. Refreezing of a frostbitten area leads to worse damage. Once you have identified you have frostbite, bring the bird in and use warm (not hot) water to warm the area back up slowly and unfreeze it. Do not use heat packs, hair dryers, heating pads, etc. Only warm water. This can take up to an hour, and afterward, you can assess the damage. If your bird is acting lethargic or behaving abnormally, you may want to get some electrolytes into them, such as the packs they sell for chicks, a little Gatorade diluted with water, or some diluted apple juice.
Once you’ve assessed the damage and have a feel for how serious it is, you can decide whether the bird can go back outside or should stay in for a while. Coat the area with Neosporin – no pain relief, this is important – and return it outside or settle it in an area where it can heal. If you return it to the flock, you need to reapply Neosporin daily. This will help it heal and form a barrier to prevent more frostbite – as previously stated, you don’t want it to freeze again. Make sure your other birds aren’t bothering the frostbitten area and reapply Neosporin daily until healed or the dead tissue falls off. If an area turns black, the tissue has died, and the bird will lose it. Not a big deal – my straight comb rooster lost his points his first winter, as pictured above, and he does fine.
So there you have it! Always try for prevention first and foremost, but if you do end up with a frostbitten bird, don’t panic. Treat as best as you can, and remember, frostbite is not fatal. I’ve never lost a bird to frostbite and I’ve never heard of anyone who has.