It has been said that a good offence is a good defense where frostbite is concerned. There are, in fact, things that can be done before frostbite happens that can prevent this serious damage from occurring.
Many people have misconceptions as to what frostbite actually is. Frostbite is damage that occurs to tissues when they are exposed to extreme cold. Basically, the fluid inside the cells freeze. Because of this freezing, blood clots can form which prevents cells from getting oxygen. This, then, causes the tissue damage.
You want to prevent frostbite from happening in the first place. Too much moisture in your coop is the top cause for developing frostbite. Chickens create a lot of moisture just from breathing. The more birds you have in your coop, the more you need to ventilate that moisture out. I keep the windows open all year round. They are high enough so that they do not cause a draft. Adding roof vents to your coop can keep air circulating. Put a digital thermometer/hygrometer to measure the temperature and the humidity in your coop so that you can always be on top of any changes. If the windows have moisture or condensation on them then you need to increase your ventilation.
Another way to limit moisture in the coop is to make sure that you do not have damp bedding or moisture from droppings. If possible, keep waterers out of the coop. If you have a watering system that creates a lot of spillage, you may want to switch to a nipple water system. Pine shavings stay dryer than straw or hay. Make sure you are changing the bedding and removing the droppings to reduce moisture. The dry litter method works well but remember to keep the bedding stirred up and fluffy. Use dropping boards under your roosts for easy clean up daily.
Attention should be made to the chicken’s roost. During colder weather, most chickens will fluff up and poof out their feather. They are trying to cover their combs, wattles and feet with their feathers and bodies. Flat, wide roosting boards are best. Rounded perches can be slippery. A 2X4 board will work well and allow them to cover their feet with their bodies. Install as much ventilation as you can as high up as you can. The openings should not cause drafts on their roosts. Silkies that do not roost high up but instead sleep on the floor will need extra protection from drafts that can occur from pop doors. I use squares of reflective insulation to block drafts.
Apply a coat of a wax based product to combs and wattles at night. I like Waxlene or Musher’s Secret. Other good choices are Bag Balm or Coconut oil. Make sure that whatever you use, that it is wax based. Do not use a cream based product as the water in them will freeze and increase your chance of frostbite. If your bird is hard to catch, wait until it is on the roost at night and then gently remove to apply the product.
Chickens need protection outdoors as well. Provide windbreaks through the use of clear tarps. For more information on setting up tarps on your run look here. Add wooden planks to perch on outdoor so that their feet can keep off the cold ground. If it is too cold out, just simply keep them indoors. It won’t hurt them to stay inside for the day.
There are many things to can lead to frostbite. Drafts on the floor, cold temperatures, wind chill factor, how long your bird is exposed to cold temperature, humidity or moisture in the air, high altitude, no access to shelter, rain or snow leaking into the coop, high humidity due to too many droppings or simply not enough bedding.
The early sages of frostbite are called frost nip. In cold weather, chickens are able to conserve or hang onto their body heat by restricting blood flow to their combs, wattles and feet. These are also the places that allow a bird to release heat in the summertime. The results ends up being that the decrease in warmth and oxygen puts these regions at a risk for frostbite.
Wattles are very susceptible due to water dripping on them as they drink. A change to a nipple watering system with a pail and pail deicer can work in the cold weather. They also sell a cold weather nipple system already put together. Bearded silkies have their wattles protected with feathers but nonbearded silkies would need some frostbite protection.
Symptoms of frostbite include: a whitening or pale gray color to tissues, swelling of the tissues, combs and wattles feel cold or hard to the touch, blisters form that are filled with fluid, tissues become blackened, bird is limping (frostbite to feet) loss of appetite and listlessness.
Remove a frostbitten bird to a warmer area and gradually warm the injured area. Avoid rubbing it as that will cause additional damage Do not use something like a hair dryer to try to warm it but let it gradually become warmer. Do not break any blisters that have formed. Do not remove the blackened tissue as this is protecting the healthy tissue under it. The blackened part will dry up and eventually fall off. Those areas will not grow back.
Keep the area clean with neosporin or Vetericyn VF Hydrogel spray. Use it on the infected area 2-3 times a day until it is healed. Watch out for infection. If you see swelling, redness, oozing, or bad smelling discharge you may want to call a vet. Soak frostbitten feet in lukewarm water and keep it indoors on soft bedding.
Watch to make sure that they are eating and drinking . Add vitamins and electrolytes to their water to keep them hydrated. Watch out for other chickens pecking at their frostbitten areas. Blue -Kote could help with that. Frostbite takes around 6 weeks to heal.
The consequences of frostbite include pain for the bird, disfigurement (their combs will always look rounded), loss of movement in their feet, decreased fertility in roosters and loss of egg production in hens.
Luckily, silkies have walnut combs which give them protection from frostbite. If you live in areas of cold weather try to choose breeds of birds that have small combs. Single comb birds have the worst time with frostbite, but even small combed breeds can suffer if it gets cold enough.
Other blogs of interest include How to Deal with Below Zero Temps in the Chicken Coop, and Tips For Winterizing You Chicken Run.