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Frostbite

Frostbite is common welfare issue for backyard chickens living in areas which experience below-freezing temperatures. It is a misconception among poultry owners that "cold-hardy" breeds are invulnerable to frostbite. All chickens are susceptible to frostbite, no matter the breed. The parts of the chicken's body that are most vulnerable to frostbite are their extremities---the comb, wattles, toes, feet and legs. Roosters with single combs and large wattles have an increased risk of developing frostbite in those parts of their bodies.

Chickens and other bird species experience something called a hunting reflex, which consists of intermittent vasodilation to help preserve tissue viability in their extremities. However, as the temperature continues to drop, this vasodilation stops. As the tissue freezes and blood flow stops, extracellular ice crystals develop. This results in cell death and increased blood viscosity, which can lead to thrombosis. Vascular inflammation and thrombosis may not be limited to the damaged extremity. Birds have an increased risk of secondary damage to their heart.

Stages of frostbite


Frostbite severity can range from complete resolution without significant secondary complications, to gangrene, sloughing, and amputation of extremities following frostbite. The severity depends on factors such as absolute temperature, wind chill, duration of exposure, wet/dry cold, immersion, age, and overall health of the bird.

Frostbite - chicken feet
  • First degree – Often referred to as frostnip, it involves the freezing of the surface level of skin. The bird's comb or wattles will turn an off-white, pale color. If their 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.
  • Third and fourth degrees - In severe frostbite, this stage affects all layers of skin and the tissues beneath. As the affected tissue dries, it will turn black (as a result of gangrene), and slowly mummify and fall away from the surrounding healthy tissue---at what is known as the line of demarcation. The line of demarcation in birds may take 3 to 6 weeks to develop.
Frostbite -Comb and wattle
When birds develop frostbite, the long-term effects seen in the surviving tissue includes increases susceptibility to cold re-injury, sensory loss, decreased circulation, and osteoarthritis.

Treatment


If tissue is still frozen rapidly rewarm in a warm water bath. Once the affected tissue is warmed up, gently 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. Make an appointment to take them to see your veterinarian. Depending on the severity they may require overnight hospitalization.

What Not to Do
  • 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 let chickens walk on frostbitten feet or toes, as walking will increase the damage. Restrict movement through the use of a sling-type restraint, splinting, or wrapping.
  • 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 secondary infection.
  • Do not put the chicken back outside.
  • If there is potential for refreezing of an area, do not attempt to thaw, as thawing followed by refreezing can cause even more damage to the area.

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

Diagnosis

  • History
  • Clinical signs
  • Physical exam

Reported Cases

  • Case 1: Frostbite in a Parrot An approximately 5-year-old female grey-headed parrot was evaluated after exposure to outdoor temperatures below —20°C (—4°F) for approximately 22 hours. Severe frostbite affecting multiple digits, as well as dehydration and a depressed attitude, were diagnosed. Treatment included oral antibiotics, antifungals, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs), pentoxifylline, and topical aloe vera. Surgical amputation of the affected toes was not performed. Mild to moderate pododermatitis over the intertarsal joints developed because of a shift in weight bearing after the loss of most digits. Within 5 months after initial presentation, all frost-damaged toes had self-amputated, and the bird was able to function independently with no limitations in mobility. Ref

Treatment

NameSummary
Supportive careBring the chicken inside and call your vet. Treatment depends on the damage.
Wound care
Pentoxifylline15 mg/kg PO q8–12h for 2 to 6 weeks; has been shown to significantly improve tissue survival in frostbitten animals, both alone and in combination with aloe vera cream (in rabbits) and aspirin (rats).J Wellehan 2003
AntibioticsMay be indicated to help prevent secondary infections.
Pain medication

Support

Prevention

  • Provide your chickens protection from cold temperatures by winterizing coop (insulate and prevent cold drafts), keeping bedding dry, ensuring proper ventilation to prevent moisture build up, and providing a heat source (other than a heat lamp).
  • Perform a physical exam on each chicken, especially ones with large combs and wattles, after cold nights for signs of frostbite.

Scientific References

Good Overviews

Age Range

Adult roosters with large combs are more prone to frostbite

Risk Factors

  • Exposure to temperatures which drop below 32°F (0°C), factoring in wind chill.
  • Roosters and/or large comb breeds - Frostbite is most common in roosters, as they typically have larger combs and wattles.
  • Dehydration - Keep chickens hydrated, as dehydration can increase the risk of developing 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.

Case Stories

Seasonality

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