Treating and Preventing Frostbite in Chickens Naturally

Did you know that frostbite is usually caused more by moisture and dampness than by the actual cold itself? Roosters and chickens with large combs are most susceptible, although wattles and toes can also suffer frostbite. Read how to prevent frostbite in your backyard chicken flock - and learn how to treat it naturally, if you need to.

-photo credit: Hens and Honey on Facebook-
Here in Virginia, we enjoy pretty moderate temperatures most of the year, but the humidity in the summer is a killer, as is the dampness and moisture in the winter. Our temperatures often dip below freezing and sometimes into the teens and twenties, and are usually accompanied by lots of moisture in the air. This makes for prime frostbite conditions, but fortunately, we've been lucky and have never had any problems.

Frostbite appears as black spots or regions on the tips of the comb or wattles. That is dead tissue and it won't grow back, but it does help protect the underlying tissue, so never try to break it off, rub it or trim it.  If you see blisters, leave them, they are also helping the affecting area heal.

If you think you have a case of frostbite, warm the chicken slowly. Never use a blowdryer, hot water, heat lamp, etc. If the feet are affected, you can soak them in warm (not hot) water to get the circulation going. Frostbite occurs when the liquid in the tissue freezes and cuts off circulation, denying blood flow to the area. In extreme cases, toes might actually fall off. However, keeping the chicken warm the rest of the winter and not allowing the extremities to refreeze and thaw can prevent further damage. Recovery of the frostbitten tissue can take 4-6 weeks.

Here are some ways to help prevent frostbite in your flock:

Thick Layer of Dry Bedding - Adding an additional layer of bedding (preferably straw for its superior insulating properties) and ensuring it stays dry helps to insulate the coop and keep it warmer.  Remove any wet bedding and even better, don't leave water inside the coop.

Ventilation - Even in winter, your coop should be well-ventilated (up high, above the heads of your roosting hens), to prevent a build up of moisture inside the coop.

Forego Coop Heat - Ironically, heating your coop can actually increase the chance of frostbite because the heat creates moisture. If you see condensation on the inside of your coop windows (whether you heat your coop or not), your coop is too damp, too warm and needs more ventilation.

Wide Roosting Bars - Prevent frostbitten feet with roosting bars wide enough for your hens to perch so that their bodies completely cover their feet from above and the bar completely covers their feet from underneath. A 2x4 with the 4" side facing up is perfect for roosting. (Note: Metal pipes aren't a good choice for roosts in northern climates obviously.)

Choose Breeds with Small Combs - Preventing frostbitten combs can be a bit more of a challenge. Choosing breeds with small combs if you live in the extreme north is prudent. Those breeds with small pea combs such as Easter Eggers, Buckeyes, Ameraucanas, and Wyandottes fare far better in the cold than breeds with larger combs such as Andalusians and Leghorns. Obviously roosters wtih large combs and wattles will be the most vulnerable. Hens generally tuck their heads under their wings, so they protect their combs at night that way, however roosters aren't apt to do that, so keep a close eye on your roosters.

Choose Cold-Hardy Breeds - some breeds are more suited for cooler climates than others. In general, those with large stout bodies tend to be more cold- hardy. Here's a handy list of some cold hardy breeds.

Apply a Coating - As a preventive, try coating large combs and wattles with softened coconut oil, Waxelene (an all-natural alternative to petroleum jelly), Sierra Sage Herbs Green Goo or my Homemade Frostbite Ointment (recipe below). This is easiest done after your flock has gone to roost. Don't attempt to coat already frostbitten tissue except as a last resort, because you might inadvertently break it off and cause more damage. As with most things, prevention is the best medicine!

-photo credit Judith Damron on Facebook-
-photo credit Brianna Kruse on Facebook-
It's a good idea to keep some first aid salve around anyway, but even more so in the winter. Dab on some of my Homemade Frostbite Ointment to help prevent frostbite. If you do spot frostbite, smearing some ointment on the as-yet-unaffected areas can help them from succumbing. If you do use the ointment on affected areas, apply it gently so as not to cause more damage.

Homemade Frostbite Ointment

This all-natural ointment can be used to prevent and treat frostbite.

2 ounces beeswax
3/4 cup coconut oil
1/4 teaspoon liquid vitamin E (helps repair damaged skin)
10 drops calendula essential oil (anti-inflamatory, aids in healing wounds)
10 drops lavender essential oil (relaxant, pain reliever, antibacterial, anti-fungal)
10 drops lemon essential oil (antibacterial, antiviral)

To Make
Grate beeswax and melt with coconut oil over low heat in a glass mason jar set in a saucepan of boiling water, stirring with a wooden chopstick. Remove from heat and stir in the Vitamin E and essential oils until well mixed. Leave in the mason jar or pour into a covered container and cool. Store in a cool, dry place and use as needed.

If you're not quite ambitious enough to make your own salve, Sierra Sage Herbs makes a wonderful all-natural, herbal first aid salve called Green Goo which can also be used on frostbite.

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  1. Hi and thank you for the info on frost bite. we experienced temps this past winter colder than I ever remember. Week after week of subzero temps, the worst was -26 in Maryland. I had a group of you chickens, maybe 4 months where one of the 2 roos got frost bite. I didnt know what it was at 1st and he hid the pain well. I crated him for months and he is just now out free ranging with his girl friends. He lost several toe nails and ends of his toes. He is getting stronger but hobbles and gingerly walks on any hard surfaces. Do you think that he will ever get any better than what he is now with time? do you think he is in pain? His feet are healed but I dont want him to suffer. Its been 4 months. He is a gorgeous Lavender Brahma. He is trying to breed but not sure he is successful, like he can't stay up there or grip the hen. I can give him time to improve, he really is a tame boy due to all the handling and being crated for so long. What would you recommend. I could get some pics of his feets if you would like to see them.

  2. I keep a heater in my coop. Only on for a couple of hours a night. One really cold I may leave the heater on low all night. keeps it around freezing. Birds are healthy no frostbite (only one roo with a big enough comb) Used to have a lot more birds last winter... had a couple of problems but with 6 adults I thought heat would be nice.