In extremely cold weather, backyard chickens are at risk for frostbite; the possible consequences of frostbite are pain, disfigurement, loss of mobility, decreased fertility in roosters and diminished egg production in hens. Mild cases are often unavoidable even with the best preventative efforts of diligent chicken-keepers, but knowing the causes, how to optimize a flock’s living conditions and how to treat frostbite if it occurs will reduce the risks and limit any damage.
WHAT IS FROSTBITE?
Frostbite is damage that occurs to bodily tissues from exposure to extreme cold when fluid in cells freezes. As a result of freezing, blood clots form depriving the cells of oxygen, causing tissue damage to varying degrees. In extremely cold conditions exposed tissues can suffer frostbite in minutes.
National Weather Service Wind Chill Temperature (WCT) index:
- Calculates wind speed at an average height of 5 feet, the typical height of an adult human face, based on readings from the national standard height of 33 feet, typical height of an anemometer
- Is based on a human face model (emphasis added)
- Incorporates heat transfer theory based on heat loss from the body to its surroundings, during cold and breezy/windy days
- Lowers the calm wind threshold to 3 mph
- Uses a consistent standard for skin tissue resistance
- Assumes no impact from the sun, i.e., clear night sky.”
Factors that can contribute to frostbite are:
- wind chill factor
- length of exposure
- high altitude
- diminished circulation
CHICKENS AT RISK
In cold weather, chickens are able to conserve body heat by restricting blood-flow to their combs, wattles and feet, the very parts of the body that give off excess heat in warm weather. The result is a decrease in warmth and oxygen to those extremities, which puts them at risk for frostbite.
Water dripping onto wattles puts the chicken at risk for frostbite in very cold temps. Chickens with large combs and wattles are especially vulnerable to frostbite, but any chicken can be affected if the conditions are cold enough. Wattles are especially susceptible to frostbite since drinking water often drips from the beak, down the wattles.
Roosters and breeds with single combs are at the greatest risk of frostbite due to their more prominent projection. Frostbite to feet is an equal-opportunity affliction.
Miraculously, Lola never had frostbitten feet, even though she insisted on walking in or standing in the snow.
This is a mild case of frostbite to the comb and wattles that occurred when temperatures were in the teens one day and the wind chill brought the temps to below zero. The roosters insist on patrolling the perimeter of the coops, which puts them at high risk for frostbite with their large combs and wattles. I no longer let my flock out of the fully covered (roof and walls) chicken run in super cold temperatures.
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS OF FROSTBITE
- color changes to tissues (whitening/lightening, pale, grayish-yellow or grayish-blue color)
- tissue may feel cold and/or hard to the touch
- blisters filled with clear or milky fluid, which may not appear until 24-36 hours after exposure
- blackened tissues
- loss of appetite
- the chicken may be listless in severe cases
Dos and DON’Ts of FROSTBITE TREATMENT
DO move a frostbitten chicken to a warmer location upon discovery of a severe case of exposure where the tissue is black or large areas of tissue are affected to stop any further cold injury from progressing. Alternatively, add a safe source of warmth to the coop. Read much more about safe coop warming options here.
DO obtain veterinary care immediately if possible.
DO consult a veterinarian for prescription medication for pain and inflammation (Meloxicam is a frequently-prescribed anti-inflammatory for chickens, but a veterinarian must prescribe it (dosage .5mg/kg 3 times/day). Alternatively, five aspirin (five grain each) dissolved in one gallon of water may be given for 1-3 days.
DO gradually warm the affected area(s). Frostbitten feet should be immersed in lukewarm water between 100°F and 101°F for 20-25 minutes to bring the tissues back up to temperature SLOWLY. For combs and wattles, washcloths soaked in lukewarm water can be held very gingerly against them. Avoid rubbing or any friction that could cause additional damage to tissues and extreme pain.
DO NOT begin the warming process until the chicken is no longer exposed to the cold. Thawing and re-freezing of the tissues will cause greater damage than a delayed response to the initial injury would.
DO NOT use direct heat to thaw the affected area (eg: hair dryer, heat lamp, heating pad)
DO NOT rub or massage the affected area- it can damage the tissues further.
DO NOT break any blisters- they are Nature’s Band-Aids and help protect the underlying tissue.
DO hydrate the chicken. Adding vitamins & electrolytes to the water can help with the shock of the cold injury for a couple of days.
DO keep the chicken in a temperate location while recovering from frostbite. If feet are affected, line the temporary housing area with soft towels.
DO NOT remove any blackened/dead tissue as it is protecting healthy tissue underneath it. Depending on the extent of the cold injury, it may or may not dry up and fall off. Areas that die and fall off do not ordinarily regenerate.
DO keep the injured area clean. I recommend either chlorhexadine 2% solution spray or Vetericyn VF Hydrogel spray 2-3 times per day until healed.
DO monitor the area for infection, signs of which may include: swelling, redness, oozing, foul smelling discharge, etc.
If infection occurs, antibiotics may be necessary, which will require a vet’s prescription.
DO monitor the chicken’s feed intake- the pain caused by wattles touching feeders and waterers may discourage eating and drinking. They will appreciate a poultry nipple watering system over a traditional waterer because their injured wattles will not touch the nipple system.
DO soak frostbitten feet in lukewarm water and chlorhexadine 2% solution once or twice a day for several weeks while keeping the chicken as comfortable as possible in a temporary indoor facility. Soft bedding will make the chicken more comfortable (think: old towels). Severe cases may cause toes or even the entire foot to fall off, but chickens can survive these cold injuries and live reasonably normal lives if infection can be controlled.
DO expect it to take many months for the full extent of frostbite to be realized and for recovery to occur.
PREVENTION : In the Coop
DO limit moisture inside the coop. Most breeds tolerate cold extremely well, but freezing temperatures inside the coop in addition to moisture expedites frostbite on exposed tissues. Moisture does not cause frostbite, but it can hasten it in cold temperatures. Frostbite is most likely to occur overnight in a cold, poorly ventilated coop where damp litter and moisture from droppings and respiration cannot escape. Chickens generate a great deal of moisture from respiration (breathing) as well as from pooping as droppings consist of 85% water. If the windows of the coop have condensation on them in the morning, there is not enough ventilation in the coop and/or the coop litter needs to be changed or cleaned
DO NOT cover windows or other drafty spaces with towels or blankets as they will retain moisture, expediting cold injury in a cold coop.
DO put a digital thermometer/hygrometer inside the coop to monitor humidity and temperature.
DO install droppings boards to eliminate a major source of humidity inside the coop each day.
DO keep drinkers out of the hen house. While controlling moisture from respiration and droppings is manageable with excellent ventilation, it is impossible to keep ahead of the moisture curve if waterers spill in the litter. Chickens do not drink or eat at night; as long as the flock is given access to water at daybreak, there is no need for water inside the coop. Chickens should not be without water for more than an hour or so during the day.
DO keep litter dry and clean. I highly recommend the use of sand as litter inside the chicken coop because it evaporates moisture more rapidly than other litter and stays drier as a result. Sand also retains warmth better than any other bedding and given its high thermal mass, keeps coop temperatures more stable than other materials such as pine shavings and straw.
DO utilize the deep litter method of chicken waste management ONLY IF you can implement it properly. Deep litter requires careful management, which includes stirring and and monitoring moisture content. The deep litter method implemented improperly is a serious health hazard to the flock. Much more about the deep litter method on my blog here.
DO try to select cold hardy breeds with small combs and wattles in very cold climates if possible
DO ventilate the coop properly. The goal is to get as much air exchange throughout the coop as possible without drafts, particularly in the roost area. Ideally there will be windows and/or vents on all four sides of the coop. Ventilation holes towards the top of the coop, far above roost height and chicken height are best for achieving effective cold weather air exchange. If your coop does not have adequate ventilation, create more. Think: windows, not little holes. A reciprocating saw, some hinges, hardware cloth and washers/screws are all the supplies necessary to install additional ventilation in an existing coop. Install as much ventilation as high up on the walls as possible while ensuring that the air over the roost remains still. You want the warmest, heaviest air moving up and out of the coop. Much more on winterizing the chicken coop can be found on my blog here.
Ally McBeak is a Tolbunt Polish Frizzle and while Frizzles are not typically thought of as cold-hardy, she does brilliantly in the cold since her comb and wattles are protected by feathers.
DO provide flat, wide roosts for the birds to cover their feet with their bodies/feathers. 2″x4″ boards are better than a round roost.
DO apply a coat of a wax-based NON-moisturizing product to combs and wattles at night ONLY in temperatures above the freezing point of the product. Once temperatures are cold enough to cause frostbite, no product applied for the purpose of keeping the comb dry, can prevent frostbite.
I have tried cream type moisturizers in the past, but I don’t use them anymore because the creams freeze. I’m sticking with the theory that waxes like Musher’s Secret do a better job preventing moisture from clinging to combs and wattles.
DO NOT use a dangerous heat lamp inside the coop. If a heat source is deemed necessary, use a less hazardous form of heat such as a flat panel, radiant heater. Only supply enough heat to raise the coop temperature a few degrees above freezing-the coop should not feel warm to you.
PREVENTION : Outside Shelter
DO provide outdoor shelter and windbreaks for protection when temperatures are severe and windchill reduces them even further. Chickens should have a protected outdoor space to avoid confinement in the coop.
DO NOT try to force, cajole, encourage or bribe chickens into going outside if they would rather not.
DO cover run walls with contractor’s plastic sheeting or tarps to provide the flock with a warmer run by keeping rain, wind and snow out
during the day and to keep the coop warmer and draft-free at night.
DO use common sense. When temperatures are extreme and/or are accompanied by precipitation and/or wind, chickens would be well served by being contained to a covered run. Extreme cold in addition to wind/snow/rain puts chickens, even cold-hardy breeds, at risk for frostbitten feet, combs and wattles.
Some time inside the basement with some friends gave Blaze the opportunity to heal away from the cold. It also allowed the scabs to heal without pecking from curious hens. We may not be able to avoid frostbite completely in our backyard chickens, but with a little forethought and some planning, we can drastically reduce the number of cases and severity of frostbite when it does occur. After a chicken has healed from frostbite, they should be re-introduced to the flock as if he were a stranger. This will avoid power struggles, conflict and injuries. Click here to learn about the Playpen Method, which is the process I recommend for the reunion.
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