Updated April 10, 2020
Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of ducks with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a bird is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy bird look and feel like, but regular handling may help in keeping the bird calm in more stressful situations. Be prepared to check them over at least every six to eight weeks*! For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.
Because their feathers are so thick, ducks require a thorough examination to reveal any hidden ailments. By paying regular attention to the flock, you may see some subtle cues in the event that something is amiss. Signs of a sick, injured, or otherwise distressed duck include:
- Hiding more often than they used to
- Changing their daily schedule
- Labored breathing or a constantly open mouth
- Discharge from eyes or nares
- Immobility, inactivity or unresponsiveness to your approach
- Sitting far more often than usual
- Avoiding the rest of the flock
- Being bullied more by the rest of the flock or a quick pecking order reduction
- A limp in their step, standing with one foot slightly off the ground, or constantly shifting their weight
- Unusual or abnormal droppings including all white stool, blood in stool, or worms
- Reduced hunger or thirst, or excessive water drinking
- An odd posture like hunching, standing very upright (if abnormal for their breed), a tucked back head, or ruffled feathers
- Partially or fully closed eyes
- Drooping or abnormally positioned wings
- If they lay eggs, a quick drop in egg laying
- Pecking at or plucking their skin and feathers, or general paleness
- A strong, foul, sour, or cheesy odor
Conducting The Exam
In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the duck. Generally, the examination should begin at their feet, working your way front and upward to their head, as the head examination can be extra stressful to a bird. It’s important to keep regular documentation of these checkups, including weight and any abnormal findings, in order to keep an easy-to-follow set of information in case a veterinarian needs the duck’s history.
It can be easier to conduct the examination after they’ve went to bed as they tend to be less fussy.
Once you have the duck ready for a health examination, conduct the following observations:
A duck should have soft, fairly smooth skin on their feet. Check for any bumps, lumps, swelling, scabs, and cuts on both the top and bottom of their feet. If there is any bulging or discoloration on their feet, ensure that they do not have bumblefoot or another infection, as this can this can cause debilitating mobility issues and if left untreated can cause life-threatening sepsis. The webbing between their toes should be smooth and supple, though it can become more dry and cracked as they age. If they have lumps of mud stuck to their feet, soak them off with warm and soapy water rather than attempting to pull them off. Don’t remove scabs! Carefully check their foot’s range of motion for cracking sounds, pain, resistance, heat, or swelling. If the duck happens to have long toenails, you can trim them.
A duck’s legs (also known as shanks), shouldn’t have any cuts, lumps, or any mites. If their legs are raw and painful, they might have Scald, which is a result of poor housing conditions leading to ammonia burns. This requires medical treatment. Carefully check their range of motion for cracking sounds, pain, resistance, heat, or swelling. Like their keel, larger ducks are prone to inflammation and sores on their hocks that require vigilant attention to prevent infection. Do not attempt to drain infected joints!
A duck’s feathers typically should look shiny and lay flat against them. Bloody feathers is a clear sign of a problem. Feathers should not be dirty, dull, missing, tattered, frayed, ruffled, or broken. Any of these issues could be symptomatic of a stressed out bird, parasites, flock behavior issues like boredom, over mounting, bullying, nutritional deficiencies (especially protein), and infestations in their living space like rodents or flies. If the duck is molting, be very mindful of their pin feathers, as these emerging feathers are very sensitive to handling and can bleed quite a bit if broken. If their feathers don’t seem to be developing or won’t fold into their normal position, this is also indicative of a problem. If the duck’s feathers look damp and dirty, they might have Wet Feather, where they do not have access to clean water and a dry space to keep their feathers well-maintained.
Part the duck’s feathers around their body if they aren’t too sensitive. Feathers can hide skin illnesses and injuries. This is the time to ensure you are checking and feeling every area of the individual’s body, not just those included in this list. This thorough section of the exam is critical to ensure that nothing that can be addressed early is missed.Their skin should not have lice, mites, nits, lumps, cuts, cysts, bruises, gangrene, larvae or maggots. Generally, waterfowl have very tightly packed down and do not get as many skin parasites as other birds. Because of this tightly packed down, it can be difficult to see down to the skin. Sometimes it is easier to feel for issues than to look for issues on certain parts of their body. Their skin should generally be clean and soft and pale pink and translucent. Blackened skin could indicate frostbite, which requires immediate treatment.
A duck’s breast should be blister-free and firm. Their keel (central breast bone) should not be sharp, protruding or bony (indicating possible weight loss), nor should it be tough to find or surrounded by fat (indicating possible obesity). The keel should not be curved, which may indicate a nutritional deficiency, especially a calcium and phosphate imbalance or a vitamin D deficiency, which could mean too many treats in their diet! Larger ducks are prone to pressure sores on their keel. Any keel sores should be treated early on before they risk infection. If there’s a keel sore that moves along with the bone underneath, this could indicate that they already have a bone infection.
A duck’s abdomen should be soft, and shouldn’t be hard, fluidy, or swollen. If their abdomen feels odd, this could mean a number of serious issues including egg binding, yolk peritonitis, egg yolk impaction, a bacterial infection like salpingitis, fluid blockage, or heart failure. You should consult a veterinarian if you have abdominal concerns.
At the base of the duck’s tail is the preen gland. Apart from the lobe of the gland itself, it should not have any additional lumps or blockage. Orange-tinged oily discharge from the tip of the preen gland is normal. Ensure that it does not have any parasites around it. An enlarged preen gland could indicate impaction or cancer. Impaction can be handled with a warm compress periodically applied to their preen gland, but it should be evaluated by an expert before beginning treatment.
A duck’s vent (a fancy way to say their butt), should be clean and moist (but not wet). It shouldn’t have any discharge, excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty, bloody, or dry. Check for rat wounds, as this is where they tend to bite; the presence of rat wounds is a major red flag that you must control your rodent population before they cause more damage. Ensure that it doesn’t have any mites, lice, tapeworms, or other parasites. Make sure that the vent (and in the case of male ducks, their penis) isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding). If it’s prolapsed, you should consult with a veterinarian.
Take a look at the duck’s wings. You will likely have to check the wing held close to you in a later part of the examination when you reposition them to check their crop. They should be held close to their body, generally symmetrical, and there should be movement in their wings’ joints when they flex. A duck’s wings should be checked for cuts, swelling, and other injuries. Make sure to check the area underneath their wings for lice and mites.
A duck’s crop is at the base of their neck before it meets the chest. If holding the duck close to your chest up until this point, you will likely have to set the duck onto the ground (while keeping them secure) in order to check their crop. Though smaller and more difficult to evaluate than a chicken’s, their crop is the area is where food is stored before entering a duck’s stomach. It should feel empty (or impossible to feel at all) before they eat for the day or after digestion, and full after eating, though in general, feeling “nothing” is normal. Be careful when checking the crop as it may be filled with water the duck just drank and you could cause them to regurgitate. If the crop is hard this indicates a problem. If the duck has bad or sour-smelling breath, this also indicates possible crop issues, such as sour crop, which is a fungal yeast infection that requires treatment. If the crop remains full and firm and they haven’t eaten in a while (or overnight), the crop could be impacted (or blocked). If you are concerned about a duck’s crop, you should consult a veterinarian. It’s important to get to know what a crop feels like both full and empty so you can more easily monitor it for abnormalities. Make sure the duck has appropriate grit for healthy digestion!
How are they holding their head? It’s best if they’re holding it up on their own volition. If they’re shaking, hunching, or tucking their head, this could indicate illness or injury. Their ears should not have any discharge coming from them, which could indicate an infection.
A duck should have wide open, clean, alert eyes. They should be free of discharge and clear. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, or crusty eyes indicates likely illness or injury. Their pupils should be about the same size and react properly to bright light (get smaller and then return to normal). Ducks have a third eyelid, known as the nictitating membrane. It should be cloudy white and retract when stimulated, rather than red, swollen, or non-retractable.
Is the duck’s bill open or closed? If mostly open, they may be stressed, overheated, or have a respiratory illness. Their nares (duck nostrils) should be free of scratches, bubbles, discharge, and general crustiness. In general, you should be able to see clear through from one nare to the other. A hot bill could indicate a fever or pneumonia. Drooling could indicate a blocked crop, requiring veterinary intervention. Bloody discharge from their nose could be indicative of Duck Virus Enteritis. If their bill or nare needs cleaning, use a soft cloth rather than your hand as the bill can be damaged by excessive pressure.
A duck’s mouth should not be foaming or contain discharge. You shouldn’t be able to hear them breathe in ideal circumstances. Their breathing should not be labored, loud, wheezy, rattly, sneezy, whistling, or squeaky. Now look inside their mouth (especially at their tongue). They should not have any ulcers, lesions, lumps, or discoloration. If there are lesions that look “cheesy”, this could be due to mold toxicity, cancer, or Wet Fowl pox. Their mouth shouldn’t have a strange odor. If they do, they may have sour crop. Sticky saliva could indicate dehydration.
It’s important to know the accurate weight of each of the birds in your care, as a healthy adult duck should maintain weight consistently. If a bird has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or parasites like coccidiosis. If a bird has gained weight, it’s critical to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding them, especially with treats and snacks. Obesity-related complications can lead to serious health problems in ducks, especially given their already fragile legs and feet. If you need to lower their food intake, you must do it gradually because a quick drop in nutrition could lead to serious health repercussions. In addition to weighing each bird, you should also pay attention to their body condition. Does a bird feel thin with a prominent keel, but based on the number on the scale, they have not lost weight or have maybe even gained? A loss in body condition without their actual weight going down could indicate a serious health issue such as abdominal fluid or a tumor.
Duck droppings tend to be much runnier than chicken droppings, but like chicken droppings, duck droppings can look quite diverse. If they’re poorly formed, pasty, watery, strong smelling, black, bloody, yellow, neon green, or foamy, it could be a sign of parasites, illness, or improper nutrition. If you’re particularly concerned by a dropping, you can bring it into your veterinarian for a fecal float test for analysis, though you should consider fecal testing healthy-seeming birds once every three months to check for internal parasites.
If you notice that a duck is unhealthy, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian and/ or compassionate care expert and prioritize accurately diagnosing the problem. Depending on the health concern, it may be necessary to isolate the duck in order to protect the rest of the flock from a potentially infectious disease. However, with some illness, such as pneumonia, often once a duck is showing symptoms, the other residents in the flock have already been exposed. In these instances, you will need to weigh what is in the best interest of all of your residents. A sick duck who is isolated from their flock may become more stressed, which could delay recovery. However, if the duck is being bullied or cannot compete with the rest of the flock for food, or if you need to more closely monitor their food and water intake and fecal output, you may need to separate them at least temporarily. You may find that keeping them in a quiet space with a calm duck companion is a good compromise until they are well enough to rejoin the flock.
If you find anything concerning, take a look at our Common Duck Health Issues page to help identify what may be amiss, but you should always discuss any potential health issues with a qualified avian veterinarian or expert.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a duck and what good duck health looks like, you’ll be an excellent duck health ally in no time!
Writing It All Down
As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your duck health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable duck health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!
Common Duck Diseases | Countryside Daily (Non-Compassionate Source)
Understanding Waterfowl: Duck Digestion | Ducks Unlimited (Non-Compassionate Source)
Waterfowl Diseases | Call Duck Association UK (Non-Compassionate Source)
Duck And Goose Poo Page | Backyard Chickens (Non-Compassionate Source)