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How to treat frostbite in chickens and other poultry

These young roosters with large combs will need more winter protection to prevent frostbite.
These young roosters with large combs will need more winter protection to prevent frostbite.
Kim Willis

In many parts of the United States this has been one of the coldest winters on record. If you are a chicken keeper you may be wondering how this cold weather affects your flock. Chickens will lay fewer eggs during very cold weather and roosters often become sterile for a while. Chickens may also experience frostbite on the comb, wattles and toes. While regular egg laying and fertility will resume with warmer weather frostbite may require some care from the chicken keeper.

Frostbite first shows up as whitish areas on the comb, wattles and toes. The comb is usually the part most affected, especially in breeds that have large combs. After a few days the white areas began to turn black. Usually these blackened areas occur on the tip of the comb or ends of the wattles, (fleshy areas under the beak.) Keep a close eye on these blackened areas. Don’t rub or coat them with anything at this point. Older birds, bantams and birds with large floppy combs are more susceptible to frostbite.

Treatment of frostbite

Generally the blackened areas will simply dry up and fall off. This doesn’t hurt the chicken but it can ruin their looks for showing. Even the tips of toes can dry up and fall off without great consequences. If the frostbitten areas are shriveling and dry looking its best to leave nature alone, they protect the tissue below them from further frostbite. Occasionally, however, the frostbitten areas may get infected. If the area gets crusty, weepy, bleeds or looks like its draining pus you will need to treat it. And if other chickens are pecking at the area you will need to separate the injured bird from the flock.

First clean the area with warm water and soap, dry it with clean paper towels and get a good look at it. The first thing to try is to use an antibiotic ointment on the infected area. Pet and farm stores sell antibiotic creams that are safe for birds. A vet who treats farm animals may also have such an ointment or cream. Clean the area and apply fresh antibiotic cream at least once a day. If the area is on the feet the bird should be kept on a clean surface such as newspapers that are changed several times a day.

If the infected area doesn’t heal in a week or seems to be getting worse you may need to trim the infected area off. A chicken keeper can do this, at least on the combs and wattles. If toes are infected and not healing its best to find a vet to treat the bird, although chicken owners can do it in a pinch. Trimming the comb and wattle is painful to the chicken but it is not unbearable pain and it’s the best chance the bird has for recovery if the area is infected and not healing. A vet can inject local painkillers before trimming wounds, but it’s sometimes hard to find a vet that works on chickens.

Clean a good, sharp pair of scissors with alcohol. A scalpel or sharp knife may also be used. Whatever you use must be strong and sharp enough to make a good, clean cut. Clean the infected area with warm water and soap, dry and then clean with rubbing alcohol. Then simply trim off the infected area, making your cut just below the infected area in clean flesh. If you are removing part of a toe a sterilized dog toe nail trimmer is the best tool.

The bird will scream and there will be some bleeding, although bleeding from combs and wattles is generally minor. You can just wipe it off with sterile gauze or cotton. When the bleeding stops you should apply an antibiotic cream thickly to the wound. Clean the area and re-apply antibiotic cream twice a day.

You will need to apply pressure to a toe that’s removed using sterile gauze or cotton and pressing against the cut surface for a few minutes. It should then be wrapped with a bit of gauze and tape. A styptic powder is sold in pet and farm stores that will help control bleeding and can be used. A toe can bleed a lot and you must keep a close eye on the bird for the first 12 hours or so to make sure heavy bleeding doesn’t re-occur. The bird must be kept on a clean surface until the wound heals.

Any bird that has had a bleeding wound has to be separated from the other birds in the flock until the wound has healed. Chickens and other forms of poultry are notorious for picking at open wounds on injured birds and can cause serious damage. Since the bird may be in shock from the handling and procedure it should be kept warm, between 65-75 degrees F, for the first 24 hours. If you have a large cage hang a heat lamp over one end that the chicken can get under or away from as desired.

When the bird is re-introduced to the flock there may be some fighting so keep an eye out for the bird being overly bullied. It helps to return the bird to the coop after the lights are off for the night. After a wound has healed a hen should return to laying, ( some will lay right through the event) and a rooster will eventually regain fertility. Infertility is caused by the cold that caused the frostbite, not the frostbite itself. A wound should be healed in 10 days.

Preventing frostbite

Keep chickens and other poultry inside during very cold weather. If the coop is dry and draft free the temperature has to get below 0F for at least a few hours for frostbite to occur. Not all chickens exposed to this cold will get frostbite either. If your winters are usually this cold for several days a season you should look for chicken breeds that have small combs close to the head and heavy feathering. Breeds with large floppy combs are more susceptible to frost bite.

Having a coop that isn’t too big will help the birds stay warm and the more birds in a coop; the warmer it tends to stay. There is a fine line between overcrowding in the winter and letting the birds warm the space with their body heat however. It can help to have a smaller inside area for night time roosting and a larger inside area for daytime activities. Chickens should have roosts off the ground, if they are large heavy breeds, or breeds that have difficulty roosting there should be deep, dry litter on the floor.

The best way to prevent frostbite is to hang heat lamps above the perches or to heat the coop to just above freezing. Hang lamps 18 inches above perches and make sure birds can move away from the lamps if they get too hot. Don’t heat the coop to more than 40 degrees. Coops that are too warm in winter tend to build up moisture and ammonia fumes which can be worse for poultry than cold. Smearing petroleum jelly or other things on the combs of birds doesn’t prevent frostbite and is labor intensive.

Safety issues

One of the biggest causes of farm fires is using heat lamps and heaters around animals. Make sure all heat sources are kept away from flammable items like wood shavings and straw. Use strong wire or chain to hang heat lamps and don’t hang them from their cords. Protect cords from chewing and pecking by animals. Cords should hang in a way that doesn’t make poultry think that they are a new area to perch on. There should be enough room that birds can fly on and off perches without hitting the lamps.

Also keep heat sources away from water. A splash of water on a heat lamp can send hot pieces of shattered glass into flammable bedding or cause an electric arc that causes a fire. Heaters with open flames deplete oxygen and aren’t recommended around animals. You can buy smoke detectors that will send an alarm to your house if a fire starts. Look for them in farm and greenhouse supply catalogs.

Most chickens adapt to winter quite well. Frost bite is rarely fatal. Generally frostbitten areas heal on their own and chicken keepers will only rarely have to resort to trimming off dead areas. Keep a watchful eye on your flock and you will all make it through the weather just fine.

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