Many areas have been hit with a deep cold already this season, with temperatures below zero and wind chills much colder. It takes about 10 minutes in below freezing temperatures to cause chicken frostbite. The most vulnerable parts for chickens are the combs and wattles. This is especially so for the birds with large combs, even cold-hardy chicken breeds. To prevent chicken frostbite, those exposed combs and wattles need to be protected from the bitter cold temperatures. We suggest using Vaseline, Bag Balm or other thick salves on those exposed areas.
If you are allowing your chickens out of the coops during the freezing weather, provide stumps, buckets, boxes or even pallets in the chicken runs so they are able to get up off the frozen ground to prevent feet and toes from freezing. Provide wind barriers to prevent exposure to the wind chill. Monitor frequently to make sure the birds are not succumbing to the cold.
Straw and hay are excellent options for bedding for chickens, and can be spread thickly in chicken runs and coops. This will help to keep feet from being exposed to the frozen ground and will help keep the birds active and warmer.
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Chicken frostbite is a serious condition, and can cause serious infection, leading to gangrene and loss of limbs if not treated. The area of frostbite will turn black, may swell and there will be a noticeable lameness in those chickens that are affected. If bad enough those limbs will either fall off or need to be amputated. If amputation is necessary, you will need to take the bird to a vet to perform that amputation. Even a vet that does not typically treat fowl will perform amputation and suggest follow-up care.
If any chickens show signs of lameness or severe frostbite of the comb or wattles, they need to be removed from the flock and treated promptly. Soak the limbs (feet, toes and legs) in room temperature Epsom salt water to gradually warm the frostbitten areas. This may take as long as a half hour of soaking. Dry thoroughly and rub bag balm or other salves on those areas. Place the bird in a carrier with bedding, food and electrolytes for chickens along with fresh water, in a warm area with no drafts. Check frequently to make certain the chicken is alert, eating and drinking normally. Examine the frostbite areas for any bleeding or infection. If there is bleeding, apply Blu Kote to prevent pecking, especially if you are treating more than one at a time. An application of Vetericyn will help prevent infection.
If a chicken loses a limb, it may become a special needs bird and may not integrate back into the flock as a result. Chickens can function with the loss of a limb or toes, but they may also become the subject of bullying by the other flock members. You will need to provide an area of protection for that bird for the remainder of its life or be prepared to cull that bird.
Prevention is always the best solution. Keeping your flock protected from the wind chill by providing wind barriers, providing an extra thick application of bedding materials, having objects within the chicken run for them to get up off the ground and keeping them in the coops on the coldest days will help prevent the most serious effects of chicken frostbite.
What precautions do you take to prevent frostbite in your flock?
Originally published in 2014 and regularly vetted for accuracy.