How To Prevent Frostbite In Chickens

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Frostbite in chickens can often be prevented with proper coop management. Learn how to prevent frostbite in chickens and how to treat frostbite if it occurs.

What is Frostbite?

First, lets go over what exactly is frostbite and where it most commonly occurs in chickens. Frostbite occurs when the cells in tissue freezes. This causes blood clots which prevents proper blood flow in the area.

Typically, frostbite occurs most often in a chicken’s combs and wattles, but it can also occur on their feet. Chickens with large combs are more likely to get frostbite than those with smaller combs. Since roosters typically have larger combs, they are the most susceptible to frostbite.

prevent frostbite in chickens
This poor hen is standing in the snow. To prevent frostbite on chicken’s feet, it is best to clear an area of snow for the chickens to play in.

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What Causes Frostbite

There are many factors that contribute to frostbite, cold weather only being one of them. Too much moisture in the air is a huge reason that chickens get frostbite. But wind chill and length of exposure to the cold air and wind also play a part.

Chickens also have the ability to restrict the flow of blood to their combs, wattles, and feet to conserve body heat. This decreases the amount of oxygen and blood flow to the areas and puts them at a greater risk of frostbite. (In the summer they use this ability to increase the blood flow to those areas to remove bodily heat and cool them down.)

Ways to Prevent Frostbite

Proper coop management is the best way to prevent frostbite in chickens. What is proper coop management? Well, I’m glad you ask!

Provide Adequate Ventilation.

First things first! Your coop should not be airtight. Proper ventilation is necessary to remove the moisture that exists in the coop from chicken poop and just the natural respirations of a chicken.

However, your chickens shouldn’t feel drafts. The best way to provide the necessary ventilation is to provide openings near the top of your coop. One easy way to do this is to leave a couple inch gap between the roof and the top wall of the coop. Be sure to cover the area with hardware cloth so no predators can get in.

These openings allow excess moisture to escape without creating a draft on your chickens. Remember, wind chill is a contributing factor to frostbite.

Raise Cold-Hardy Breeds

Raising cold-hardy breeds means you will be less likely to have to deal with frostbite in your flock. Cold-hardy breeds tend to have smaller combs, like pea or rose combs. The comb is closer to the chicken’s body, therefore it retains more heat.

chicken with a small comb
This chicken has a small comb and is better suited to handle the cold weather than ones with larger combs.

And don’t think you are limited to just few breeds that are better suited to cold weather. Breeds that are better able to with stand the cold include:

  • Ameraucana
  • Australorp
  • Brahama
  • Buckeye
  • Buff Orpington
  • Chantecler
  • Cochin
  • Delaware
  • Dominique
  • Easter Egger
  • Jersey Giant
  • New Hampshire Red
  • Plymouth Rock
  • Rhode Island Red
  • Welsummer
  • Wyandotte

That’s quite a lengthy list and I’m sure there are others. And since roosters of any breed tend to have larger combs, wattles, and feet, they are more likely to get frostbite than the hens.

Use Flat Roosts

This may seem like an unusual way to prevent frostbite, but hear me out. By using wide, flatter boards, your chickens can rest their feet on the board instead of wrapping it around the post. Then when they sleep, they can cover their feet with their body and feathers and keep their feet from getting chilled.

Contrary to popular belief, chickens actually prefer a flat roost. They aren’t like most other birds that wrap their feet around a log or post. (They can wrap their feet around a round post, they just prefer the flatter roosts.)

Flat roosts will also make it easier for your chickens to huddle together at night to keep warm. My flock tends to divide themselves into three groups that sleep together in the same place each night.

And just to be sure you understand, don’t use anything metal as a roost. Metal conducts cold quickly and this will actually cause your chickens to get frostbite more easily.

Insulate the Coop

Another way to help prevent frostbite in your flock is to insulate the coop. However, please do so with care. Do not insulate with fiberglass insulation or styrofoam that is uncovered. Chickens peck at anything and will eat the insulation. Neither fiberglass nor styrofoam is good for your flock.

If you don’t have a good way to insulate the coop you can use bales of straw. (But be sure you use STRAW not HAY!) Straw bales work best if placed inside the coop, but even placing a layer outside the coop will cut down on the wind that could chill your chickens.

As a bonus, the hens will love to jump and play on the straw bales if they are in the coop and you can compost them right alongside the litter from the coop in the spring.

Keep Waterers Outside

Another simple way to keep moisture out of the coop (which will help prevent frostbite) is to keep the waterers outdoors. Chickens don’t eat or drink overnight so there really is no need for the waterer to remain in the coop.

Keeping it outdoors also prevents it from being turned over in the coop and adding more moisture to the bedding. Just be sure to give your chickens access to the outdoors and the water source shortly after dawn.

Also consider using black rubber bowls for their water. Since they are rubber, not metal, they won’t freeze as fast. And if they are outside in the sun, the black rubber will absorb heat and warm the water a bit.

Use the Deep Litter Method

I have long been a fan of the deep litter method for raising chickens. If properly managed, a coop with litter provides a healthy environment for your flock. As a bonus, the litter will provide insulation on the coop floor to keep your flock’s feet warmer. Pine shavings are much warmer than the sand that is often recommended for the coop.

Also, many people say that as the litter decomposes it produces a small amount of heat. Be sure to add a layer of fresh litter weekly during the winter.

If at any time you smell ammonia in the coop, you should remove some of the bedding and replace it with fresh. Too much ammonia build-up is harmful to your chicken’s lungs. You can also purchase a coop odor neutralizer to help remove odor and moisture but it is no substitute for proper coop management.

Coat the Chicken’s Comb With Wax

This is probably the most labor intensive way to prevent a chicken’s comb from getting frostbite, but I want to mention it, especially if you live in a relatively warm climate and suddenly experience colder than normal temperatures.

To help prevent frostbite, you can coat your chicken’s comb with wax. A product like Green Goo Animal First Aid would be your best option. However, in a pinch, petroleum jelly can be used.

This probably isn’t a practical way to prevent frostbite in chickens in a really cold climate, becuase it would need to be applied every night to every chicken. However, it is an option for those particularly cold nights and may help provide an additional bit of protection.

Provide an Area Free of Snow

If you live in a climate that recieves lots of snow, your chickens will appreciate having an area outdoors or in the run that is snow free. You can cover part of your run with tarps or shovel an area so that your chickens will have a place to get out of the coop for a while.

chickens on a path in the snow
This path cleared of snow is a nice place for chickens to get outside during cold weather.

It is always best if your chickens have access to the outdoors, even on the coldest days. However, many chickens don’t like the snow and walking in it is more likely to cause frostbite on your chicken’s feet.

Provide them a snow-free area if possible, but don’t force your chickens outdoors if they choose not to go.

Provide Supplemental Heat

Providing supplemental heat should only be done as a last resort. Adding heat to the coop is dangerous with flying chickens and pine shavings. If you must use supplemental heat, please don’t use a heat lamp. Too many coop fires occur every year from their use.

If you must add heat to your coop, use a radiant heater or an oil-filled heater. While not without a bit of risk, these options are much safer than heat lamps.

And don’t heat the coop too much. There isn’t any need to heat it above 34 degrees or so. Your chickens are wearing feathers for a reason. If they get too used to the warmth, they may shed those feathers. Then if the power goes out and you have no way to warm them up, they would be far worse off than with no heat at all.

How to Spot Frostbite in Chickens

So how do you know if a chicken has frostbite? First, look for patches of discoloration on their combs and wattles. This can be a lighter white area or blackened tissue. You may also see blisters depending on the severity of the frostbite. The tissue may feel leathery to the touch.

Signs of frostbite in the feet include swollen feet and possible limping.

Treatment of Frostbite in Chickens

Unfortunately, even with the best of prevention methods, chickens can still get frostbite. There are a few options for treatment and a few things you shouldn’t do for frostbite.

First, don’t rub any frostbitten areas to warm them up. This can be quite painful and make the damaged area fall off. Also, don’t heat the area with a hair dryer or other device.

Second, don’t pop any blisters as they are providing protection to the skin underneath. Watch for infection as that is what will cause the most harm to the chicken.

If the chicken’s feet have frostbite, you can place them in a pan of lukewarm water to slowly warm up.

It can take a month or two for frostbitten areas to heal. Monitor the frostbitten areas for signs of infection or other injuries from being pecked by flockmates. Hens may not lay well until they are completely healed and roosters may not be as fertile. Try to prevent the chicken from getting frostbite a second time as the damage will likely be worse.

What Not to Do to Prevent Frostbite In Chickens

There are a few things you should never do to prevent frostbite in your chickens. As I stated earlier don’t use a heat lamp. Just don’t. The risk to your flock is too great.

chicken on a roost wearing a sweater
Two things are wrong with this picture…Just say no to the chicken sweaters. They actually do more harm than good. And the round slick roost post is a no-no too! My heart goes out to this poor girl!

Secondly, don’t give your chicken a sweater. (This is not the same as a chicken saddle.) You may have seen these for sale recently as they have become somewhat trendy.

These chicken sweaters are “supposed” to keep your chickens warm during the winter. Please, please, please, don’t fall for the hype. Chickens don’t need sweaters to keep them warm. And actually, a sweater for your chicken will do more harm than good.

The sweater compresses the chicken’s feathers so they don’t fluff out as much. This is turn keeps the chicken from being able to regulate her own body temperature so she may end up being colder than without the sweater. Leave the chicken sweaters at the store. (But feel free to buy yourself a new sweater if you need one.)

Other Posts on Keeping Chickens During the Winter

While preventing frostbite in your flock isn’t always entirely possible, there are things you can do to help your flock during the winter. For more information on keeping you flock healthy during the winter, check out the posts below.

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