Knowing the signs of hypothermia and frostbite in your animals can alert you as to when you should intervene.
Cows on Alex Zetterman's St. Agatha farm are not bothered by the cold or snow as they munch on their breakfast of fresh hay. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

The last thing any farmer or homesteader wants is an animal with frozen extremities.

But it can happen when temperatures drop and puts livestock and poultry at risk for hypothermia and frostbite — two conditions directly related to the cold.

Providing a warm and dry environment for your animals is a crucial part of being a livestock or poultry owner, as doing so can prevent avoidable medical emergencies. But knowing the signs of hypothermia and frostbite — and the correct ways to treat them when they do occur — can alert you as to when you should intervene.

The three most important things when it comes to farm animals’ winter health are warmth, staying dry and being out of the wind, according to a member of the state’s animal health team.

All animals have what Carol Delaney, livestock specialist with the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry, said is a specific thermal neutral zone. These are the temperature ranges in which an animal or bird is able to maintain its core temperature and function using minimal energy.

“Each animal has a range they are okay in,” Delaney said. “Then there are [temperature] zones below the ranges where they need to work harder to stay warm.”

Thermal neutral ranges are species specific, so knowing those ranges is key to cold weather care.

Cattle and goats, for example, have a thermal range between 32 and 77 degrees Fahrenheit. Pigs, on the other hand, are at risk of hypothermia once temperatures drop to 50 degrees.

Poultry’s lower thermal neutral range zone is even warmer at 60 degrees.

Once the temperatures drop below the low end of the neutral zone, cattle, cows, goats and poultry need extra help to stay warm.

Making sure the animals have a place out of the wind with dry bedding such as straw or wood shavings goes a long way in helping them maintain their body heat, Delaney said. Upping their caloric intake by increasing the amount you feed also helps.

Otherwise, the animals or birds can experience a dramatic drop in body temperature leading to hypothermia.

With hypothermia, metabolic processes slow down and blood is diverted from the extremities to protect vital organs. This leaves livestock’s ears, teats and even scrotums susceptible to frostbite. In extreme cases of hypothermia, the heart rate slows to a stop and the animal or bird dies.

Signs to watch out for, according to Delaney, are shivering or the animal looking depressed.

“They may be shaking or just not moving because they are concentrating on getting warm,” she said. “You need to get them out of the elements [and] dry them off if they are wet.”

Exposure to freezing conditions also can cause frostbite. That’s when skin and tissue freezes and actually dies.

Wind combined with the cold are the biggest factors for causing frostbite, according to Delaney.

“It’s what happens when there is a part of the body that can’t maintain enough heat to not freeze,” she said. “And what freezes are the extremities.”

In poultry that is often the combs and feet. With livestock, the ears are most at risk.

Areas of frostbite will appear red or purple. Treating it can be tricky. Heating a frostbitten area can cause more damage than the frostbite itself and can be quite painful for the animal, so consult a veterinarian.

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.