Chicken Coop Chatter©
Winter can be difficult to deal with, especially when deep cold strikes in areas that do not commonly see cold winter weather.
It does not hurt to leave your flock closed in the coop when the weather is below freezing. And it's best to keep them out of drafts and wind chill to prevent illness, so even if you let them out of the coop, at least provide shelter from the bone chilling winds.
We have heard from many people that their roosters have succumb to frostbite on their combs and wattles. It's most common in roosters due to their larger and more exposed combs. Some breeds, such as Wyandotte with the rose comb and Ameraucana with their pea comb are less apt to suffer, however you will note in the photos here that even the lower profile combs can succumb to frostbite in deep freezing weather conditions or if exposed to severe windchill, that can freeze the combs within 10 minutes if not protected. If you do live in a very cold climate, you may want to consider the heavier feathered breeds with the small comb, rather than Mediterranean breeds that typically have large exposed combs and are lighter weight breeds with less feathering and down to protect them from the cold. Though we speak of combs and wattles they are only part of the frostbite scenario. Feet exposed to ice and snow can also be subject to frostbite, and if bad enough, they will lose their toes, and possibly the entire leg.
Make certain that perches are wide enough so that when the birds perch at night, they are able to cover their feet with their feathers. By fluffing their feathers, they are able to stay warm and is how they protect themselves and their feet from the freezing temperatures.
Regardless of the breeds you have or want, you need to watch for the frostbite and protect your birds from the exposure. Coops do not need to be heated and we do discourage it, however you do need to protect from drafts yet provide good ventilation in the coops, and especially if the birds have to be kept indoors until the worst weather passes.
Generally a good rule of thumb is if the wind chill is too cold for you, when properly dressed for the cold, then it's too cold for your birds as well. It takes about 10 minutes of below freezing weather with wind chill factored in for frostbite to occur, and exposure to the frozen ground will in fact cause frostbite on poultry feet or all animals feet that have no protection for the foot pads. If you're allowing them out of the coop, provide stumps, boxes or crates for them to sit on so they can protect their feet from freezing.
If your birds get frostbite, treat immediately by soaking their feet in room temperature epsom salts solution. You want to bring their feet slowly back to a temperature above freezing. Dry the feet gently and apply an antibacterial/antibiotic ointment such as bag balm®. Wrap the feet loosely with gauze, just to prevent bacteria exposure. Monitor their feet a few days. They will be best cared for if placed in a pet carrier where you can tend to their special needs regularly. With frostbite, the toes, comb, or wattles will turn black, then white and then if bad enough, those areas will drop off and infection is possible and bleeding may occur. Apply Blue Kote if bleeding does occur so it does not attract attention from other birds, that may cause them to peck at it and make the situation much worse. As with all stresses, we suggest you use an Apple Cider vinegar solution of 1 T. to one Gallon water, to help keep their system in balance. If it happens the frostbite is on their feet, frozen toes will fall off or need to be amputated to prevent gangrene, and you will have a disadvantaged bird for the remainder of its life. Chickens as with most fowl and in fact all animals, can get around with loss of limbs and continue to function, but be aware, they may be special needs birds for their remaining life and may need special housing if they cannot be integrated back into the flock. If infection sets in we recommend using Vetericyn for treatment after each Epsom salt soak. If the toes need to be amputated we recommend you have a vet do that. Even a vet that does not typically treat fowl, can amputate as needed.
Prevention is the absolute best remedy. Remember, keep your birds from cold wind and draft exposure; provide a wind shelter if they are outdoors, provide stumps or other objects they can perch on during the cold and make sure the coop has ventilation with perches wide enough to prevent their feet from exposure to the minus temperatures. Provide warm bedding inside the coop and if they are outdoors, a layer of straw in the run will help keep their feet from exposure to frozen ground and snow. Protect the large combs and wattles by applying a thick layer of bag balm®, vaseline® if that is all you have, which is better than nothing, or other thick salve which will help prevent the cold from penetrating. We do recommend bag balm® for it's healing properties, and it will not be easily rubbed off. Apply as often as needed and any time the temperatures are below freezing.
Please note: *Fluffy Feathers*, the little California White pullet used in our photos, was unable to reach the perch that might have protected her feet from severe frostbite. Instead she spent the night on the floor of the coop where her feet were exposed to the frozen ground. It took several weeks of daily treatment to keep infection from setting in. Her toes have since fallen off, however we're happy to report that she is doing well even with her disadvantage and has become a resident house chicken. Through all of this she did lay her first egg and functions well, all things considered. Though Fluffy will always be a special needs hen, chickens are very resilient and can function with missing limbs. We thank Karen Flowers of Annabelle's Homestead for providing the photos and for allowing us to assist with the advice for treatment of *Fluffy*. Blueberry AKA: Fluffy Feathers is recovering nicely, eating and drinking well, laying eggs and getting around as a house chicken with special needs. Thank you for the updates Karen and photos showing the progression from frostbite to active little hen.
Please Note: Rooster comb and wattle photos provided by Shawna Corbett. The Roosters were badly affected by some deep freezing weather and are currently being treated. Shawna will update us as the roosters heal. Current treatment is Vetericyn and Blu Kote as needed. If the temperatures drop again, we have advised that Shawna apply a thick coat of Bag balm or other thick salve to protect those already frostbitten combs. The roosters appear to be doing well in spite of their ordeal. Thank you Shawna for allowing us to use your photos for examples in this article and providing us the opportunity to assist in the healing process.
Photos of frostbite feet and comb/wattles used with permission and are the soul property of those that have provided the photos.
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