Q: My chicken has frostbite. How do I help them?
A: Frostbite occurs when the body becomes very cold and sends a signal to constrict blood vessels in the extremities in order to direct more blood to vital organs. Because the flow of blood and oxygen to the affected parts of the body--such as the comb, wattles, and feet--is disrupted, the tissue may eventually freeze. Frostbite may cause minor damage to just the tips of the comb, wattles, or toes, or it may be more extensive, causing loss of use to major body parts.
There are three stages of frostbite:
1. First degree - minor, causes irritation of the skin
2. Second degree - causes blisters on the skin, but not major damage
3. Third degree - involves all layers of the skin and causes permanent tissue damage
Click here to see pictures of serious frostbite damage progressing over time.
Frostbite damage to the wattle
- Pale, gray, or white tissue on the comb or wattles, usually around the edges
- Feet or toes may appear more red than usual, or tissue may turn dull or white when fully frozen
- The chicken may appear to be in pain and/or show signs of lethargy
- Affected tissue will usually swell and may begin to blister.
- In severe cases, tissue may have a waxy appearance and, if touched, will be firm.
- Eventually, the affected tissue will turn turn black.
- The chicken may show signs of pain, such as lethargy and unwillingness to eat or walk as usual.
- As the affected tissue warms, it will be painful and itchy.
Frostbite damage to the comb
To protect your flock from frostbite, make sure that your coop has adequate ventilation but no drafts. Ensure that there is a way for hot, moist air from respiration and droppings to escape, especially in small coops. You can provide supplemental warmth during very cold weather using a safe, infrared heater near the roost.
If a member of your flock is showing symptoms of frostbite, it is advisable to contact your local veterinarian for treatment options. If you don’t have a veterinarian available, you can attempt to treat the chicken at home using the tips found below.
- Infection, particularly gangrene
- Loss of body part, including surgical amputation
- Pecking at painful or itchy tissue, causing further damage
While prevention is best, if your chicken has signs of frostbite, you can treat mild cases at home. In severe cases, it is always best to consult a veterinarian.
- Bring your chicken to a warm room and provide soft bedding that won’t scratch at the affected tissue. Keep the bird indoors in a warm location until fully healed; do not allow tissue to re-freeze.
- If found early, while the affected tissue is still frozen, warm the affected part slowly, but do not rub the area or use any source of heat, such as lamps or heating pads.
- The bird's feet may be gently warmed by soaking in tepid water no warmer than 100-degrees F, for 20 minutes. Use caution--heating badly damaged tissue too quickly can lead to shock and additional tissue damage.
- In mild cases, you can gently apply a hydrogel (water-based) protective covering such as aloe vera gel or Vetericyn.
- For major cases where severe swelling and blisters form, contact your local veterinarian for treatment.
- Never pop blisters or remove blackened tissue without the direction of your veterinarian.
- When feet are affected, avoid keeping the chicken in a large space; provide food and water close-by and try to limit walking on the damaged feet until they heal. For mild cases, you may wrap the affected part in dry, sterile dressings, forming a “boot” to protect the foot as it heals.
- If affected tissue is not healing, and/or if there is fluid leaking or a bad smell to the area, wet gangrene may have developed. This is a serious complication that must be treated promptly and may require surgery to prevent further infection. Consult your local veterinarian right away if this occurs.
- In extreme cases where sufficient recovery is unlikely, a veterinarian may recommend the suffering bird be euthanized.