Frostbite in Chickens

Feb 01, 2021

By Candice Johns, MannaPro 
Frostbite is an injury caused by freezing of the skin and the underlying tissues. In chickens, it occurs when fluid freezes in the cells of the wattles, comb, and sometimes the feet. Since the surface area is so small, it does not take an extensive amount of time for frostbite to occur. Recognizing and treating frostbite at the first signs is crucial for a speedy and full recovery.

As with almost everything, prevention is key! The most obvious thing that can help prevent frostbite is a dry, draft-free shelter area for the birds. In colder temperatures, chickens will spend less time venturing out and more time inside the coop. Your chicken coop should feature cross ventilation (one window won’t cut it). When thinking about the word “dry,” we usually make reference to being “out of the elements.” This also applies to the bedding inside the coop. I suggest implementing a deep-litter method and turning over the bedding often. By doing this, the droppings that chickens produce can be more readily absorbed, thus creating less humidity and moisture inside the coop and keeping it dry.

Encouraging the birds to venture outdoors can be of great benefit as well. If your space allows it, you can place dry straw, pallets, or logs to create a dry landing space outside the coop to entice the birds to remain outside. Dry material is crucial for protecting their tiny toes, too!

Hydration is another key factor in preventing frostbite, so always have a warm-water source for the chickens during the colder months. If you have a rooster with an incredibly large comb or wattles, you can use petroleum jelly to coat those body surfaces to further protect them from the elements. This will aid in keeping the areas supple, and as a bonus it can be used gently as a frostbite treatment. Cold air is very dry, so the application of petroleum jelly helps prevent evaporative cooling in temperatures that hover around freezing. Keep in mind once temperatures dip well below freezing, petroleum jelly will also freeze. You wouldn’t want to create more harm.

At first glance, frostbitten wattles and combs will begin to appear gray in color, whereas feet will first become a darker red. In roosters with very large combs and wattles, you might notice the area beginning to swell as well. Swelling indicates more than just minor frostbite, and if you notice tissues that are black or necrotic-looking this would be considered severe and most treatment at this stage wouldn’t be beneficial. Chickens and similar birds are relatively good at hiding pain, so knowing their normal behavior and recognizing any deviations can be a good first defense as well.

Take the following steps if you suspect your chicken has frostbite.  Intuition would tell us to quickly warm the areas, but I strongly caution against this. Rapid warming of frostbitten tissues can cause more harm and inflict more pain. Don’t use a heat lamp, and don’t rub the area. For combs and wattles, gradually warm the area with a damp, warm cloth for 15–20 minutes, making sure the cloth stays warm. If your chicken falls victim to frostbitten toes, place the bird in a warm-water bath that is only deep enough for the feet to soak. Do this for 15–20 minutes as well. You may be surprised—most don’t fuss about this at all. Once the areas are warmed and dry, isolate the bird in deep bedding where you can keep a close eye on them. In some rare cases, you might see blisters that rupture, skin sloughing, and loss of tissue. Monitor these areas closely for signs of infection. 

By giving your chickens a warm, draft-free area coupled with good ventilation, you shouldn’t have too many troubles. It is also noteworthy that some chicken breeds are more cold-hardy than others, so do your research regarding different breeds.

For more information on livestock care, stop by your local Co-op to talk with our experts. Find your nearest local Co-op here.

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