Wednesday, November 27, 2013

How to Help a Chicken with Frostbite

By Leigh -

You know? I didn't think it could happen to any chickens in my own flock. But it did, and it took my by surprise... suddenly I found myself with a chicken with frostbite. The tips of her comb were all blackened! How did this happen?

In general, frostbite affects chickens that live in poorly ventilated coops. Read more about this here: Winter Chickens – Mother Nature Versus the Coop. In short, moisture can't escape from a coop without good roof/ceiling vents and with nowhere else to go, the moisture condenses on the warm comb and wattles of your chickens. This moisture then freezes and causes frostbite...

But this particular chicken roosts in a very well ventilated hoop coop every night. How did she end up with frostbite?

I took her inside and used a warm, wet compress on her comb. Nothing fancy - just a paper towel soaked in warm (but not hot) water. Hot water on a frozen area can be very painful and can injure the tissue.

I was cautious not to rub the damaged tissue. Rubbing an area with frostbite can cause further tissue damage and invite infection. But even without rubbing, the wet paper towel came away with blood on it.

Upon further inspection under a bright light, it became evident that this pullet's comb had been cut during breeding. (I have a roo that likes to grab the girls by the comb when he mounts). Combs can bleed quite a bit. Apparently this poor pullet was still bleeding when she went to roost, and that blood froze over night when the temperatures dropped well below freezing.

After soaking the affected area, I slathered her comb with Nu-Stock ointment which has a base of pine tar. Because of the nature of frostbite, water-based or water-soluble cremes should not be used as they can freeze and make matters worse. Oil, wax or petroleum-based products will work best. I have also heard that extra-virgin coconut oil is wonderful for this kind of injury. Avoid mentholated oils or products with eucalyptus as they could potentially be very painful on frostbitten areas.

I waited until outside temperatures had risen above freezing before putting her back outside. Those who live in colder climates may not see temperatures over the freezing mark for days at a time, so wait until you are sure the chicken is on the mend and there are no wet or damp areas anywhere on the chicken prior to putting it outside again.

Unless it has a particularly severe case of frostbite, it is best to get the chicken back outside sooner rather than later - you don't want it becoming too accustom to warmer temperatures or you could end up with more problems when you do try to put it back outside a few days later.

Happily, by the next day her comb looked much, much better! I had been worried she would lose much of her comb because of the amount of discoloration I had initially seen, but it turns out the discoloration was mostly dried/frozen blood.

Frostbite Treatment Summary:
  • Use a warm (not hot) compress on the affected area, or soak lower extremities in a warm tub of water. Never use hot water.
  • Don't rub frostbitten tissue - it could cause further injury.
  • Inspect affected area(s) carefully and pat dry very gently or allow to air dry.
  • Slather frostbitten areas liberally with a natural oil-based ointment or salve. Those that have natural antibiotic properties (like Nu-Stock or pine tar) are very good choices as is organic, extra virgin coconut oil.
  • Be sure the chicken has no wet or damp areas before putting it back outside.
  • Badly frostbitten birds should be isolated and allowed to recover in a protected area until there are no open wounds present.
My dear friend (and NCK contributor) Justine lives in a far colder climate than I. Because of a well constructed coop, she has had almost no issues with frostbite... but she did have a lovely pullet by the name of Margaret that fell into the duck's water on a very, very cold day. Although Justine pulled her out of the water right away, the poor pullet's feet froze solid almost instantly. 

You can see Margaret's story here:


Justine shared a heart-wrenching article that will make you think twice about heating your coop or barn. I urge you to read it here: Fire Safety in your Chicken Coop & Barn 

Aside from poorly ventilated coops or random accidents like a bloody comb or an accidental mid-winter bath, frostbite should not be a big concern for most chicken keepers. Most chicken breeds are well suited to cold weather. They tend to nestle down over their feet when they sleep to keep them warm under their feathers and they tuck their heads under their wings to protect their comb and wattles. Tucking their heads under their wings serves another purpose too as it spreads the naturally occurring oils from their feathers onto their fleshy wattles and combs. These oils help to naturally protect the tissues and prevent frostbite. 

And if you are seeing frostbite in your flock, please check the amount of ventilation present in your coop!

Wishing everybody a happy and healthy Thanksgiving! 

- Leigh

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  1. I had a girl with an injured comb, probably pecked, and I put Bag Balm on it. Its used on a cows utters. I am sure you know it. It did help but it also attracted dirt! I will ck out the ingrediants. Thank you for your information. jlblvn at gmail dot com

  2. Could we have an update on how your girl's comb is doing?

    1. LM - she has been healing beautifully and while she did lose a few of the tips of her comb, she had a large comb to begin with and I think I could still show her! I'm very pleased and happy with how well she has done.

      Thank you for asking :-)

    2. I've heard that hens with frozen combs will not ever lay again. Is that true?

    3. Coleen - no, it's not true. The worse the injury to the bird, the longer their body will need to recover and start laying again... but they will lay when they get better.

  3. I have been using the fermented chicken feed and love it. When I make mine I add the herb Oregon Grape Root powder. I noticed this winter my roosters crown never turned black as it usually does. I fed them the fermented foods especially when it was very cold.

  4. Thank you. I've just put an extra 10 holes in my coop today. We are having a cold winter here in NZ and I have limited experience with roosters and your advice is appreciated.


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