How a Chicken Newb Tried to Prevent Frostbite, but Failed and Treated It

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Yup, my chickens have frostbite. All over their combs. 

Ok, that's a bit of an exaggeration. It's not ALL OVER, and they all don't have it. 

Thankfully, I had been reading all the posts about preventing frostbite, putting salve on their combs, added extra straw to their coop for insulation, and keeping an eye on the coop temperatures and humidity levels. Had I not done those things, I imagine it would be much worse.

Freshly salved comb and wattles. Ready for night of cold temps!

Freshly salved comb and wattles. Ready for night of cold temps!

I Did Everything Right, So How Did This Happen?

Honestly, I'm not 100% sure. I know a lot of chicken keepers had this issue this year, so I'm not alone. I'm also not a "chicken expert". I'm totally a newb, just doing my best. I have a theory though. One of the things I didn't do this year was cover their run. Why would you need to cover their run? Chickens love fresh air and sunshine. It also rains, and chickens will hang out in the wind, getting rained on, while their feet are totally submerged in mud.

They won't venture out into the snow, but as long as the ground isn't white you can you bet your chickens are hanging outside.

Well, Carol Pacey will come out in the snow for treats. No one else will though!

Well, Carol Pacey will come out in the snow for treats. No one else will though!

I filled their run with straw to end the chicken mud wrestling that went on all of October and November. I also brought my hair dryer out to the coop one Friday evening after they spent the day in freezing rain. You would think I would have covered their run after all that, but sometimes I'm a bit dense. Wet chickens increase the humidity in the coop, which increases frostbite risk.

So my best advice to prevent frostbite (in addition to all the great things I learned from everyone else about salving, insulating, and venting your coop, read this article by a real chicken expert) is to give them a dry, wind blocked area to enjoy the outdoors during the fall and winter. I think the frostbite began on a day the windchill was in the negatives, and it was wet and gloomy out.

I keep a  hygrometer  in the coop to monitor humidity and temperatures. 85% is high! A fresh layer of straw and airing out the coop usually brings it down a bit, as long as it's not raining or snowing. It is humid a lot in Southern Ohio.

I keep a hygrometer in the coop to monitor humidity and temperatures. 85% is high! A fresh layer of straw and airing out the coop usually brings it down a bit, as long as it's not raining or snowing. It is humid a lot in Southern Ohio.

We're creeping up on late January now, so it's a little late for winterizing the run here. Our plan is to build a roof over 1/2 of the run, so they will always have a dry, snow (and rain!) free area to hang out in. I'm also going to plant more flowers that vine on 2  sides of it, then leave the dried stems up for the winter to create a wind block. I could have done that this year, I had plenty of morning glories growing! I selfishly wanted to see the chickens enjoying their run, so I pulled them down. Lesson learned.

I'm opting not to cover it in plastic because I hate throwing that much plastic in the trash. Living low waste is one of my life goals. We also have killer wind storms here, so securing that kind of thing to the run roof and hoping to reuse it is iffy at best.  

But what about heating the coop? Wouldn't that prevent frostbite? Probably not since heat increases humidity, and for where I live in Southern Ohio the fire risk is not worth it. Our lows are usually in the teens, this year we had over a week of negative lows straight. That's very unusual. Chickens are also built to handle cold temps. While blow drying them, I admired how many soft down feathers they had. Just like wild birds they puff them up with air and their body heat warms it keeping them insulated and comfy. I don't doubt this, because I watch my chickens voluntarily hang out in the cold and wind while they do this. I know chickens have a reputation for being "bird brains", but if they were cold, they would go back inside. Some areas with sustained temperatures below freezing may need extra insulation or supplemental heat inside the coop for young or less cold hardy birds. If that's you, I definitely recommend you follow Lisa Steele and keep an eye on what she does for her flock in Maine, or find a chicken blogger in your area to check out. Some people buy heating panels instead of lamps (lamps are a fire hazard in coops filled with dry straw and flying birds), and there are these neat heated roosts to keep their feet warm. If the power goes out though, your chickens won't have acclimated, which could cause them to die in temperatures they would have been fine in had they been used to them. Still concerned? Watch this great video from Chickens & Wine.

Blow drying chickens. On the low setting making sure not to directly heat their comb and wattles is totally safe (and enjoyable, sort of!)

Blow drying chickens. On the low setting making sure not to directly heat their comb and wattles is totally safe (and enjoyable, sort of!)

You've Discovered Frostbite, Now What?    

Don't panic, and whatever you do, don't beat yourself up. We all make mistakes. I know I personally had a hard time getting over that it happened, so if that's you, read this first then come back. 

Mild frostbite is not the end of the world and can easily be treated and monitored by a newb chicken keeper (like me!). If you discover serious frostbite, I recommend a vet visit.

Frostbite can be a bit painful, and the blackened parts of the combs or wattles will fall off and won't grow back when they heal. Your chickens don't need any pain relievers (many human pain meds can be toxic to your chickens, so save the pain relief for more serious injuries). Your biggest concern is preventing infection. Every chicken keeper should have a first aid kit, fully stocked so you can spring into action in moments such as this. My first aid kit contains: Comb & Wattle Salve, Vetericyn (with a spray nozzle), Green Goo, VetRX, a syringe, saline, vet wrap, gauze, and probiotics. I keep it all in a tackle box in the mudroom. A lot of our first aid kit came from our Henny & Roo Subscription box. I know there are a few things I need to add, but it's growing along nicely.

I used to keep the first aid kit in the garage with the other chicken stuff, but when I went to treat my hens with frostbite I discovered my Vetericyn had frozen solid. Now I have a salve wound disinfectant as well that doesn't freeze, the Green Goo. Just in case it ends up in the garage or barn and freezes again.

To treat the affected area, gently clean and warm up the combs and wattle with a wash cloth dipped in warm water. Don't use a hair dryer or hot water to quickly warm up frost bitten areas. To prevent injury, it's best to do it slowly. You'll want to continue until the area has thawed out and circulation has been restored to the tissue that isn't black. I disinfected the blackened areas with vetricyn (the spray bottle was a mess when aiming for small injuries on combs, if I had do it again I'd use the green goo), then applied a generous layer of comb and wattle salve to protect it being careful not to rub the frostbitten skin. Rubbing it could cause the blackened bits to fall off and bleed, and will exacerbate any pain. None of my hens were bleeding, but if they were I would separate them to prevent their flock mates from pecking at it.

You can expect frostbite to take several weeks to heal. In the meantime, monitor for infection, clean as needed, and salve up the combs and wattles when temps are below freezing to prevent further damage. 

Pro tip for applying salve, warm the container in hot water for 10 minutes before use. It scoops out easier. Don't microwave it, it turns into a liquid mess and warps the container.

Mild frostbit freshly cleaned and salved.

Mild frostbit freshly cleaned and salved.

While I hope your chickens never get frostbite, I found comfort in knowing what to do when it happened. We do our best for our animals, but sometimes despite our best efforts it just doesn't go right. 

Cheers!

Bev

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This post contains ads & affiliate links (this links to our full disclosure about browser cookies, and way more than you probably wanted to know about ads and affiliate marketing). We make a small commission when you purchase from some of the links shared in this post. Making a purchase from a link will not cause you to pay more or affect your purchase in any way. It will however, support our wildest farmin' dreams, which is mighty awesome of you.