Frostbite and Heating the Coop

Discussion in 'Emergencies / Diseases / Injuries and Cures' started by amdk, Feb 14, 2016.

  1. amdk

    amdk In the Brooder

    Feb 14, 2016
    Hi everyone. New member here, reader since we got our first chickens last spring and I'm having some issues with some of my girls getting frost bite on their combs and I've been doing a ton of research but I'm still not sure what to do. I'll detail our setup and I'd love some advice if anyone cares to share any.
    We've got a rather small coop for our 20 chickens (expansion to come, we started with 6 pullets and raised 14 chicks from day-old for my dad, who then wanted them to stay with me, so they moved from a mobile coop into the big house with the older ladies just in time to start laying) so we struggle a bit with moisture but use a droppings board and a couple of high vents to help with that. It's a raised coop, double walled construction 2x3 framed and OSB chipboard interior and exterior, but not insulated. We have a covered run with two of three sides tarped (so only one large side with the man-door untarped) and plastic sheeting covering the three sides of the under-coop portion to cut down on snow and wind in the run and heat loss under the coop. The run is sand covered by hay which we freshen every week or two and the girls love to snuggle into. The girls love their run and being outside no matter the weather and have some big branches mounted from the roof that they snuggle up on. They don't care to leave the run since there's been any snow on the ground and other than a couple of days where there was grass visible on our yards paths, and they were frolicking, I don't expect they'll want to come out much until the thaw (we've currently got a couple of feet of snow in most spots). We've got a cookie tin water heater that works in all but the coldest weather that we switched to when the heated nipple waterer started freezing and leaking water all over. Bedding in the coop is shavings, usually changed about weekly depending on how much time the girls have been inside mucking it up.

    So my dilemma is some of the girls are showing signs of frostbite on their combs (even the small combed breeds) and we're in a cold snap of -35C (-45C windchill, -31F, -49F windchill) and that's too dang cold. Some have the pale discolourations and others have purplish discolourations and swelling. The coop keeps them protected from the wind but it isn't much warmer than the outside temps, maybe a couple of degrees, if that.

    So we caved and put a heater in there. And this is what I'm losing sleep over. Hubs installed a shelf, he put up chicken wire so the girls can't get on it or near it, he put it on low and set the thermostat to low (it's a little box style heater, the kind I've used under my desk at an office job, we didn't want to do a heat lamp because of the horror stories we've heard nor were we set up for one, the fixtures are still attached to the brooder in storage buried in a shed), and he installed a smoke alarm. The coop is about 25ft from my bedroom and I'm sleeping with one ear open and working from my bedroom, not to mention the window open just a hair in case the smoke alarm goes off. And the heater is also on a remote so we can turn the power to the plug on and off from inside the house if we wanted to. I'm paranoid, can you tell? Everything I've read says don't heat your coop, they don't need it, they'll adapt, but then I read that these people writing these things are talking about temps that sound like they're barely below freezing (I'm not very familiar with fahrenheit but 20F, which is one of the coldest I've read, is not that cold to a Canadian, that's collect the eggs and check on the girls in a nighty weather). And it's clear to me that it must be too cold right now because even when we vent the coop all day to dry it out, they're still getting signs of frostbite. So anyway we've been heating the coop since Friday evening (it's Sunday morning now), keeping it around -15C (5F) which the chickens seem very happy with and we kept them inside most of the day Saturday letting them outside only to eat and for the first time ever most of them finished eating and high tailed it back inside right away so we're doing so again today and we even moved their feeder inside so they don't have to go out at all today.

    After today the temp is supposed to go back up to -5C (23F) for a couple days and then back down to -20C (-4F) and then back up so I'm planning to take out the heater and clean it and the filter in between cold snaps (we only plan to use the heater in extreme cold) to reduce the risk of fire, but I'm still so dang nervous. The horror stories of coop fires have me freaked out but I can't have all my girls suffering half of their combs falling off because I can't figure this out.

    I'm also worried about the damage the girls have already suffered. They don't seem to have any issues on their feet or waddles, just their poor discoloured and somewhat swollen combs. I'm hoping that keeping them locked up for 2 days will help them start to heal but after that I have no idea what to do. There are too many showing frostbite for me to set up an infirmary in my house for them.

    So any advice on the heating or the frostbite would be very much appreciated.
  2. ryanhodapp

    ryanhodapp Songster

    May 5, 2010
    St. Louis
    We don't have those cold temps in Missouri but when it gets to 20 degrees F, it is just miserable.

    I think you do what makes you comfortable. If you are ok with half sleep, so be it. Have you tried Vaseline on the combs? People down here do that.

    Relax, your a good mum.
  3. Blooie

    Blooie Team Spina Bifida Premium Member

    Feb 25, 2014
    Northwestern Wyoming
    My Coop
    I'm in Wyoming, in the corner of the state which also encompasses Yellowstone National Park. When in gets cold here, we are talking cold. This photo of the wind chills was taken last winter. This winter our little corner of Wyoming has been warmer than normal. But more is coming - winter ain't over yet! Wind chills only matter if your chickens are out in the wind - otherwise they have no effect on your chickens.


    I don't heat or insulate my coop. I have operable windows on 3 sides ( but not the north side, where our worst winter winds howl in) and at least one of them is open at all times. On nice days (anything 20 degrees F and above) they are all open. I also keep the pop door between the coop and the run open 24/7 so they can go in and out as they want. Food and water is kept out in the run, and since we cover the run with plastic in winter (with lots of ventilation at the top of the run and the south side) it helps keep the humidity down in the coop. I have yet to have any issues with the cold and my chickens. Well, except for one little chick.

    Some folks say to rub Vaseline on their combs and wattles. I would prefer castor increases circulation and has enough healing properties to help heal the spots that are already frostbitten. You aren't necessarily doing anything wrong - frostbite can happen, period. That tiny chick I mentioned got frostbitten feet when our temps went from the 60s to the 20s, and settled out at 17 below zero, all in the span of 26 hours. He'd gotten his feet wet at the waterer and they froze. Castor oil was a huge part of his treatment. He grew up to be a beautiful rooster with badly deformed feet, but he didn't even notice they were strange. So in my mind, while frostbitten combs are unsightly, they won't stop your chickens from being, well, chickens. You certainly do want to prevent more from happening if you can. As I said, some coat them with Vaseline, some with Bag Balm, and some with Castor Oil.

    Worrying about heating the coop is common, and you are right - every year we hear horror stories about coops burning down. If any heater I could buy was as efficient at keeping my chickens warm as their down and feathers are, I'd take the risk. But they are wearing a coat you and I would pay a fortune for. Go out and pick up one of your chickens in the cold coop at night, and put one hand under the feathers. Feel how warm that skin is? You don't need to do anything but keep them dry and out of direct drafts for them to maintain that. But the combs and wattles are another story - so coating them seems to make sense. Good luck!
  4. amdk

    amdk In the Brooder

    Feb 14, 2016
    20F are temps I am currently looking forward to but I can see how that would be miserable if that's the worst you get. It's all relative right? Thanks for the reassurance, I need it.

    Wow. I haven't seen wind chill like that -63F since I lived in Manitoba. I'm in Ontario now and thankfully we haven't seen anything quite that bad. Unfortunately the way our yard is configured, it's very open and even though the girls are mostly protected from the wind in the run, the coop and run themselves get beaten by wind and it will still make it colder in the coop as it causes more airflow through the coop as well as more heat loss just by the wind blowing over the walls. Same thing happens with my old house and the coop isn't as well built as the house (even though it's a crummy old house).

    We also have 3 windows (the 4th side is another seperate section for storage of feed pails and the electrical works) and always have a window or two open a crack for ventilation to keep the moist air moving up and out. We only keep the pop door open dawn til dusk as we've got predators that prowl around and I'm afraid one will make it through the hardware cloth one night so that helps keep the drafts down at night too. The girls have no interest in being outside after dark. They are scaredy chickens.

    We're also considering making a roost hood to go above the roost area but haven't been able to find a source for affordable Styrofoam (we've got a tight budget).

    I've also considered putting vaseline on their combs but when I was reading about that, I again came across everything from indifference and complaints about the mess to horror stories of how it caused more harm than good causing worse frostbite and causing one rooster to lose half his comb. Yikes. I see some of my girls look like they're quite dry in the comb and wattles so I was thinking about putting some homemade lip balm on to moisturize and prevent chapping (I don't actually have any vaseline on hand) but it has a bit of cocoa butter in it and I think I read that theobromine in chocolate is toxic to chickens and I can only assume cocoa butter would contain that as well. I was a so much more easy going chicken mama up until last week, let me tell you.

    I know the girls do indeed do a magnificent job of keeping themselves warm in most cases. They have more than enough roost space but they snuggle together and we give them all the food they want and some extra scratch and corn to fuel the furnace. We never planned to heat until this cold snap had my heart breaking for them. I've seen flat panel heaters that mount on the wall which are intriguing but I'm not accustomed to shopping online and it wouldn't help the immediate situation anyway so it's neither here nor there for the moment.

    Thank you for your reply. I appreciate it.
  5. amdk

    amdk In the Brooder

    Feb 14, 2016
    We had a new problem Sunday afternoon. We noticed a bit of blood in the shavings and hunted down the injured party. It was a toe nail injury, bleeding pretty steadily so we must have caught it right away but we have no idea how it happened.

    After washing the affected foot and applying pressure we couldn't stop the bleeding so we applied some superglue and bandaged, then vet wrapped, and the hen (now named Dorothy) wouldn't stop picking at it so we used some duct tape to secure the vet wrap to itself and make it uninjestible. This also happens to be the hen suffering the worst of the frostbite on her comb so I think her warm vacation in our living room infirmary is good for her if a little boring.

    Now we haven't changed the dressing on her toe since Sunday afternoon because I'm afraid taking it all off will cause the bleeding to restart. Should I be changing the dressing and washing the toe and if so how often?

    Also, she hasn't laid an egg since being in the infirmary and I know that frostbite can affect her production as well as the stress of being in this crate alone, but as a chicken that usually lays everyday, when should I start to worry about her not laying?

    The other girls are back to a normal schedule now that the temps have come back up and are enjoying their time outside again, but should I be concerned that those with frostbite already shouldn't be outside in the cold? Or let them decide for themselves now that the outrageous cold is over?

    Thanks for any advice.

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