When the bitter cold winds strike there is little to protect a chicken against the below freezing temperatures in Colorado. This is why chickens, more than any other animal, are vulnerable to frostbite. Frostbite occurs when the fluid in tissue freezes, depriving that tissue of the oxygen and nutrients it needs to survive. When deprived of oxygen, it does not take long for the cells in the tissue to die and become necrotic. Necrotic tissue is often black or dark green and retains none of the functional properties of living tissue. It often has also lost its ability heal and must be removed or completely replaced by new healthy tissue for healing to occur.
What parts of the chicken can be affected?
The un-feathered parts of a chicken’s body are the most vulnerable to frostbite. This includes the comb, wattle, and toes. Some breeds are more tolerant of cold conditions, but ALL breeds may potentially get frostbite under certain circumstances. There are varying degrees of frostbite which can range from first and second degree (only the surface level of the skin is affected) to third and fourth degree (all layers of skin and tissues beneath affected). The latter usually results in black, gangrenous tissue that will fall away from surrounding healthy tissue as it dies.
Symptoms of frostbite in chickens
The most common clinical sign is a discoloration of the comb, wattle, or toes with blackened areas in more severe cases. It is also common to see swelling, hardened skin, and blood-filled blisters in the affected areas. It is important to consult your veterinarian immediately after noticing ANY degree of potential frostbite. Treatment may include supportive care, anti-inflammatory medication, and antibiotics to treat possible secondary infection. More severe cases with subsequent infection may require amputation.
How do I protect my chickens from frostbite?
- Insulate the coup from cold drafts
- Keep humidity and moisture low
- Keep bedding clean and dry
- Monitor the flock frequently
The best way to avoid frostbite and a trip to the vet is PREVENTION. It is important to insulate the coop from cold drafts, while at the same time providing proper ventilation to prevent moisture from building up. Provide ventilation as high up on the walls as possible so that the air over the roost remains still. High humidity levels in the coop are directly correlated with increased risk of frostbite. If the bedding or ground is wet, combined with a cold draft, frostbite is almost a certainty. Major sources of moisture in coops includes droppings and drinking water sources. Managing both of these factors is important in keeping the moisture level down in the coop. Lastly, check on the chickens frequently and thoroughly when it has been an especially cold night. Chickens actually have an impressive tolerance to cold, so if these factors are well mitigated flocks will do just fine even through the coldest winter nights.