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Frostbite

Overview


The unfeathered parts of a chicken’s body (comb, wattles, toes, feet) are highly vulnerable to frostbite when exposed to freezing ambient temperatures below 0°C (32 °F). However, any skin surface can suffer frostbite with significant cold exposure, especially in birds with less feather coverage. In addition, certain breeds of chickens are more adopted to living in cold weather climates than others.

Frostbite occurs when the fluid in tissues freezes, resulting in loss of blood supply which deprives the cells of oxygen. Without oxygen, the cells die, along with the tissue. The risk of frostbite for chickens that are in chicken coops, is directly correlated with increased humidity level, decreased ventilation, decreased ambient temperature, and length of exposure.

Stages of frostbite
Frostbite has varying degrees of severity, ranging from mild to severe or temporary to permanent damage.
Frostbite - chicken feet
  • First degree – Often referred to as frostnip. Simply freezes the surface level of skin. The skin of the comb or wattles will turn an off-white, pale color. If the feet and legs are affected, they will appear slightly reddened.
  • Second degree – If freezing continues, the skin may completely freeze and harden, but the deep tissues are not affected and remain normal. 1-2 days after thawing, the affected area will usually develop blisters or sores which harden and blacken and will appear worse than they are. The affected area will usually heal after several weeks.
  • Third and fourth degrees - In severe frostbite, this stage affects all layers of skin and the tissues beneath. After the affected area is rewarmed, fluid-filled blisters (usually with blood) may appear. As the affected tissue dries, it will turn black (as a result of gangrene) and fall away from the surrounding healthy tissue.
Frostbite -Comb and wattle

Clinical Signs

Discoloration or blackening of tips or edges of comb and/or wattles
Reddening of feet or toes
Cold and/or hard skin
Blackened areas of toes
Swelling of comb, wattles and/or toes
Blood-filled blisters

Diagnosis

  • History
  • Clinical signs
  • Physical exam

Treatment

NameSummary
Treatment Goal #1 - To gradually bring the temperature of the affected tissue back to normalThis can be accomplished through passive warming (relocating the chicken into a warmer environment and/or wrapping in blankets) or through active warming, in which the affected tissues are immersed in warm water at 104-108 °F (40-42°C) or a warm cloth is held against the area.DO NOT use direct heat (such as a heat lamp, hair dryer, heating pads, etc,) to rewarm the affected area.
DO NOT rub, massage, shake, or otherwise apply any physical force to frostbitten tissues, as it can cause more damage to the affected area.
DO NOT disturb any blisters or skin that has blackened.
DO NOT let chickens walk on frostbitten feet or toes, as walking will increase the damage. Excessive movement of frostbitten tissue can make it worse. Restrict movement through the use of a sling-type restraint, splinting, or wrapping.
DO NOT put the chicken back outside. If there is potentially for refreezing of an area, do not attempt to thaw, as thawing followed by refreezing can cause even more extensive damage to the area. Place the chicken in supportive care, in a warm environment.
Treatment Goal #2 - Supportive careOnce the affected tissue is warmed up, gentle wrap the affected area (not too tightly!), if multiple toes are involved, make sure to wrap each toe separately. After wrapping, place the chicken in a quiet, comfortable recovery area that does DOES NOT run the risk of re-exposing them to the cold. Healing time will differ depending on the severity, but may take up to 6 weeks. Provide supplemental vitamins, quality feed, and a constant supply of fresh, clean water.DO NOT trim the blackened areas. These areas actually protect the remaining, living tissue. Removing the blackened areas can expose the living tissue underneath and increase the risk of infection.
Monitor for signs of infectionSigns of infection include swelling, increased redness, blisters that release a foul-smelling dischargeIf you suspect an infection, it is best to take the chicken to your nearest veterinarian, who may provide antibiotics for secondary infections and depending on the severity of the injury and health status of the chicken, amputation may be necessary.

Prevention

  • Provide your chickens protection from cold temperatures by winterizing coop (insulate & prevent cold drafts), keeping bedding dry, and ensuring proper ventilation to prevent moisture build up
  • Cover combs and wattles with petroleum jelly - which helps with mild freezing
  • Perform a physical exam on each chicken, especially ones with large combs and wattles, after cold nights for signs of frostbite
  • If you live in colder climates, choose chicken breeds which are more cold-hardy and less prone to effects of frostbite
  • Monitor humidity levels in the coop with wireless weather station sensors.

Scientific References

Good Overviews

Blogs

Age Range

Adult roosters with large combs are more prone to frostbite

Risk Factors

  • Roosters and/or large comb breeds - Frostbite is most common in roosters, as they typically have larger combs and wattles, however any hen with a large comb can be vulnerable.
  • Dehydration - Keep chickens hydrated, as dehydration can increase the risk of developing frostbite. Make sure chickens have access to water that is not frozen, through the use of water heaters.
  • Poor ventilation (air flow) - Chickens that are housed in uninsulated, unheated, poorly ventilated coops have an increased risk of frostbite. This is because chickens tend to generate alot of moisture, from their droppings, and through breathing, thus increasing the humidity level. When temperatures drop below freezing, coupled with the humidity (that produces moisture or water on the areas of the body with the least amount of blood circulating through them, i.e. combs, wattles, and toes), it leads to frostbite.
  • Living in high altitude areas - Chickens living at higher elevations have reduced oxygen supplied to the capillaries.
  • Pre-existing health conditions - Chickens with certain health conditions, such as metabolic disorders or atherosclerosis which may have reduced body circulation.
  • No access to shelter - Any chickens that are left outside without shelter.
  • Wind/Rain/Snow - The presence of wind, rain and/or snow. Feather legged chicken breeds are particularly susceptible.

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