Since much of the country is experiencing the inevitable cold and freezing temps of winter, I thought I would share with our readers an experience I had a couple of years ago when Henrietta, my Buff Orpington, lost a few tips of her comb due to a case of frostbite.
2011 – 2012 had been one of the mildest winters on record at my Southwest Missouri property. One would think that with unseasonably warm weather, freezing combs would be the least of my concern, especially since I purposely chose winter-hardy chicken breeds. The problem was that the chickens hadn’t really had an opportunity to acclimate to the cold.
During the day of the incident, my flock enjoyed free-ranging in a 40°F drizzling rain and returned to the coop that evening with their feathers soaking wet. That night the temperature took a dramatic drop to 7°F! It was the moisture, added to the freezing temperature and lack of acclimation to the cold, that increased the chance of frostbite.
|Day 1–Initial stage of frostbite…|
My daughter was the first to notice the change in Henrietta’s comb. I knew immediately what had happened and I really didn’t think there was much I could do to treat frostbite. There are a few tips offered by Gail Damerow (Storey’s Guide to Raising Chickens) to minimize the possibility of frostbite including: reducing the humidity of the coop by removing damp liter, providing shelter in the form of an adequately ventilated coop, coating the combs with petroleum jelly and heating the coop (not an option for me). What I did find interesting was that Henrietta didn’t seem to be in any pain at all… She continued her daily routine of foraging, scratching and laying an occasional egg. She even allowed me to touch her injured comb without any change in her behavior.
I wondered, “Do chickens even have pain receptors in their combs?” I took this question (as silly as it seemed) to the experts. eXtension is one of my favorite online sites that provides information from university based educators. The poultry section of this site includes articles, free webinars and educated answers to many questions from new and experienced chicken keepers. If you can’t find the answer to a particular concern you might have, you can “Ask an Expert” as I did. Here’s their response to my question:
The tips of chicken combs often will freeze in cold weather, generally when temps get into the single digits and below. I assume there are some pain receptors in their combs however chickens’ response to pain is different than ours. They will adapt and not dwell on the pain, unless it is particularly severe. There is no treatment that will save the tips. The frozen tissue essentially dies and will eventually fall off and not grow back. Prevention requires housing the birds so that they are not exposed to extreme low temperatures. In addition, dubbing, the process of removing some or all of the comb tissue, as required when showing Game type chickens, either removes the comb completely or removes the tips so freezing is unlikely. – James Hermes Extension Poultry Specialist Oregon State University
*This was a mind case of frostbite to a chicken’s comb. If you encounter a serious frostbite injury to the comb or involving the feet – contact a veterinary for medical advice and treatment. Henrietta ended up losing 3 tips of her large comb, but as long as she doesn’t see her reflection – I doubt if she cares. I still think she’s beautiful – with or without a comb!