Since I started keeping chickens, I've learned that... well, there's a learning curve. And unfortunately, while there is a treasure trove of information out on the internet, a lot of it is simply old wives' tales or misconceptions. As I've learned from personal experience, frostbite preventions and care are one of those areas that get a lot of nonsense spread about, so let's talk about it.
Simply put, frostbite is the freezing of tissue in extreme cold. But it's not just cold temperatures to be concerned about - the three main risk factors regarding frostbite are wind chill, below-freezing temperatures, and moisture.
The wind chill and moisture are often forgotten factors when it comes to frostbite, especially if a chicken has outside access. Even a properly ventilated coop may see a freezing effect from extreme winds or trapped moisture.
This chart from the NWS is helpful for determining risk in high winds. Notice how much quicker a human is likely to get frostbite when the wind speeds rise. (And it is possible to get frostbite when the temperature is above freezing!) A chicken is going to be more at risk, too.
Should I use Vaseline?
One of the most common frostbite prevention measures I've seen shared in Facebook groups and even by hatcheries is to apply Vaseline to combs when chickens are at risk for frostbite.
Unfortunately, this is NOT a reliable frostbite prevention method!
My background in cosmetic chemistry made this a huge "duh" moment for me. You see, petroleum jelly is an occlusive moisturizer, which means you are trapping moisture on the comb. As the petroleum jelly absorbs into the skin, the moisture is sitting on the tissue, increasing frostbite risk.
The one time I used Vaseline on a rooster's comb, he lost the entire comb to frostbite while all the other roosters without Vaseline applied didn't have any issues. I was so embarrassed and upset that I allowed "chicken talk" to overrule what I knew to be true from my professional background - that poor rooster!
Truth be told, absolutely no product can prevent frostbite below approximately 15° to 20° F because those kinds of products are not immune to freezing themselves. If the product freezes, how can it prevent the comb or wattles from freezing?
If you have temperatures between roughly 15° F and 32° F, a non-occlusive product that contains wax and/or lanolin, like Musher's Secret, can help create a breathable barrier while protecting the skin. Keep in mind that you need to apply thin layers often, don't slather it on despite any inclination to do so.
It's more effective to attempt to mitigate frostbite risk in other ways than using some kind of magic product to protect your chickens.
1) Keep moisture in the coop as low as possible.
Don't keep your waterers inside the coop during the winter. The water evaporates into the air at a constant rate, even in cold temperatures.
Deep litter works great above freezing, but once it gets too cold, it accumulates moisture as well.
If using the deep litter method, make sure to turn your litter often during freezing temperatures and add dry litter that absorbs moisture, such as pine pellet bedding that most feed stores carry in their horse department. In a pinch, there are also many brands of pine pellet kitty litter that also work.
Using poop boards under the roosts that are cleaned regularly also helps to minimize the amount of poop and thus moisture in the coop.
2) Keep moisture on your chickens minimal, too.
Try to avoid waterers that allow their wattles to get wet. We're a huge fan of the Farm Innovators Heated Waterer as well as the Premier Heated Waterer. Both have recessed nipples with a drip catch and are easier to fill than other heated waterers. Plus, you can hang them if you need to.
When it comes to feeding, a lot of chicken lovers feed warm oatmeal thinking they are helping their birds. In freezing weather, avoid foods that are wet (like oatmeal or yogurt) and contribute to frostbite risk on wattles.
When it comes to feeding your chickens to help them keep warm, whole corn, oats, barley, and wheat are some of the best ways to help them warm through digestion. As much as we love our chickens, they're not people and they don't digest their foods in the same way as we do!
3) Ensure your coop is draft-free but well ventilated.
It may seem like common sense, but most coops don't actually have adequate ventilation.
There is a lot of complicated math and science to figure out the ideal ventilation for each coop design out there, but who has the time for that?
Instead, a good rule of thumb is that there should be at least 1 square foot of ventilation for every 10 square feet of floor space. So, if your coop is 6 ft by 6 ft, you have 36 sq ft of floor space (6 x 6 = 36) and should have at least 3.6 sq ft of ventilation (36 / 10).
Signs of Frostbite
If there is a change in tissue color to a whitish, pale, grayish-yellow, or grayish-blue tone from normal or the tissue has blackened, your chicken is likely affected by frostbite.
The color change can vary from breed to breed due to the variance in skin tones. I personally think it is very difficult to see frostbite damage on fibromelanistic birds like our Ayam Cemani.
Our first case of frostbite was during our first winter of chicken keeping. Temperatures were just below freezing, but we made the mistake of keeping their waterer inside their coop. This rooster made a complete recovery but did lose the tips of his two toes. The photo to the right is post-recovery, he roosts and runs around like nothing ever happened.
If there is swelling or tissue that feels icy cold to the touch, it's likely frostbite. There may or may not be blisters that appear a day or two after exposure. Do not disturb blisters, if they do appear!
This rooster had Vaseline applied to his comb (but not his wattles). He has lost most of his comb in the healing process. His wattles also suffered from frostbite but made a complete recovering as it was nowhere near as severe. The photo to the right is what he looked like before winter hit.
If your chicken is limping, losing appetite, or acting lethargic or sluggish, and the conditions are right for frostbite, you may want to warm him/her up and then thoroughly inspect its feet, comb, and wattles for frostbite. That is how we discovered our first rooster's frostbite.
If your chicken does get frostbite, you must properly care for them to limit the damage. It's extremely easy to make frostbite worse than the initial damage, and your goal should be to limit the damage as much as possible.
Do not ever rub frostbitten areas. Try to minimize contact with the damaged tissue as much as possible. Frostbitten tissue is extremely fragile and should be handled with care.
If possible, use a spray like Vetericyn to clean frostbite damaged tissue rather than using cotton pads, swabs, or any other direct contact method.
Do not warm the tissue unless the chicken will be kept warm until fully healed. Refreezing causes much more damage.
When warming the chicken, do not use a hairdryer, heating pad, or hot water. Subjecting a chicken to a huge swing in temperature can cause shock. Use a lukewarm water soak or just hang out in room temperature air to warm a frostbitten chicken.
Do not remove any scabs, dead tissue, or blisters. Simply keep the areas clean and monitor for infection. If the feet are frostbitten, a daily soak in diluted chlorhexidine solution or saline solution will help keep them clean.
Boost the chicken's nutrient intake by feeding extra protein and using a vitamin and electrolyte supplement in their water while healing. We like black soldier fly larva because they are healthier than mealworms (more calcium, protein, healthy fats, phosphorus, fiber, and lysine.)
It can take months for a chicken to fully heal from frostbite. In some cases, they may lose significant tissue like their comb, wattles, toes, and even feet. Chickens are incredibly resilient creatures and do often acclimate to such losses. However, you must be able to care and tend for them through the healing process.
Because it can take so long to heal from frostbite, a gentle re-introduction into the flock may be necessary. Both of our roosters that have dealt with frostbite re-entered their flocks at the bottom of the pecking order and had to re-establish themselves. Just keep a careful eye on them.