Updated April 10, 2020
Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of turkeys 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 every six to eight weeks*!
Due to their large feathers, turkeys require close examination to reveal potential ailments and injuries that they may be concealing. 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 turkey include:
- Hiding more often than they used to
- Changing their daily schedule (such as reduced dust bathing)
- Labored breathing, gurgling sounds, or a constantly open mouth
- Gasping with an extended neck
- Immobility, inactivity or unresponsiveness to your approach
- Sitting far more often than usual
- Avoiding the rest of the flock
- Getting bullied more by the rest of the flock or a quick pecking order reduction
- A limp in their step or frequent standing on one foot
- Unusual or abnormal droppings including all white stool, blood in stool, or worms
- A pale or discolored caruncle, snood, or wattle
- Reduced hunger or thirst, or excessive water drinking
- An odd posture like hunching, a tucked back head, or ruffled feathers
- If they lay eggs, a quick drop in egg laying unrelated to seasonal changes
- Pecking at or plucking their skin and feathers
- A strong, foul, sour, or cheesy odor
- Fecal matting underneath the vent
- Swollen sinuses or swelling around eyes
- Discharge from the eyes or nares
- One or both wings drooping
- An abnormally large crop or a large crop before the turkey has had access to food
Conducting The Exam
In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the bird. 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 turkey’s history.
It can be easier to conduct the examination when the turkey is ready for bedtime as they tend to be less fussy. Large turkeys will likely require two people to properly conduct the health examination. Ensure you are not wearing any jewelry when conducting a turkey health exam! Turkeys have been known to snatch and swallow earrings and other shiny things with dramatic speed.
Once you have the turkey ready for a health examination, conduct the following observations:
The turkey should have smooth and non-raised scales on their feet, unless they’re starting to naturally develop raised scales absent of parasites due to advanced age. Check for any bumps, lumps, swelling, scabs, and cuts on both the top and bottom of their feet and toes. If there is any bulging or discoloration on their feet, ensure that they do not have bumblefoot or another infection, as this can cause debilitating mobility issues and if left untreated can cause life-threatening sepsis. Some larger turkeys naturally develop large calluses on their feet that are not infected. 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 unless you have been trained by an expert and are very experienced in evaluating foot infections in turkeys! If you find a scab covering a swollen and hot or fluid-filled area, or if there is discharge seeping out from the scabbed area, you should have the turkey evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Carefully check their foot’s range of motion for cracking sounds, pain, resistance, heat, or swelling. Make sure that their toes are elongated and straight; twisted and folded toes is not a good sign. Check their natural perching reflex on both feet by placing a finger under their feet and ensuring that they grip around it. Check their nails to ensure that they’re normal length and even, not curling. You may have to trim or file them if overgrown. Due to their large size, turkeys are prone to arthritis. Because of this, make sure to regularly check for inflammation in their feet and toes.
The turkey’s legs (also known as shanks), should also have smooth scales that aren’t lifted away from their body. If they’re flaky, crusty, or raised, they might have scaly leg mites. However, older turkeys tend to develop raised scales naturally over time. Their legs shouldn’t have any cuts, missing scales, lumps, or any mites on or under the scales. 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, especially in their hocks for cracking sounds, pain, resistance, heat, or swelling. Because of the conformation of their legs, assessing range of motion issues in their stifles and hips is difficult. Like their keel, turkeys are prone to sores on their hocks that require vigilant attention to prevent infection. Do not attempt to drain infected joints! Due to their large size, turkeys are prone to arthritis. Because of this, make sure to regularly check for inflammation in their leg joints. If a male turkey has dangerously long or sharp spurs, you should trim them. If you have identification bands on your bird, make sure that they are not causing pain or leg damage.
The turkey’s feathers typically should look shiny and lay flat against them. Bloody feathers is a clear sign of a problem. If the bird isn’t close to their molting season, feathers should not be dirty, dull, missing, tattered, frayed, ruffled, or broken, and they should have up to 18 tail feathers. Any issues could be symptomatic of a stressed out bird, parasites, flock behavior issues like bullying, nutritional deficiencies (especially protein), and infestations in their living space like rodents or flies. If the turkey 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. As a note, some turkeys (especially large commercial breeds such as broad-breasted turkeys) commonly might have a feather-free section between their chest up to their vent all the time because of their large bodies.
Part the turkey’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. It should generally be clean and soft. Older turkeys will gradually develop redder skin.
The turkey’s breast should be blister-free and firm. Their keel (central breast bone) should not be sharp, protruding or bony (indicating possible weight loss). Due to their overbred size, turkeys 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.
The turkey’s abdomen should feel small and soft, and with the exception of possibly the gizzard, you should not be able to feel any defined structures. A turkey with a distended, hard, or fluidy belly should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible as they could have a number of serious issues including egg binding, yolk peritonitis, egg yolk impaction, a bacterial infection like salpingitis, fluid blockage, or heart failure. Shiny cysts on the skin in this area can be a sign of a Fluke infection. You should consult a veterinarian if you have abdominal concerns.
At the base of the turkey’s tail is the preen gland. Be sure to familiarize yourself with what a normal turkey preen gland looks like- it looks different than that of a duck or goose! Aside from the gland itself, which has small lobes on each side, it should not have any additional lumps, and the lobes should be small, fairly symmetrical, and soft. Orange-tinged oily discharge from the tip of the gland is normal, but there should be no other areas with discharge. 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.
The turkey’s vent (a fancy way to say their butt), should be clean and moist (but not wet) and should be the same color as the rest of their skin. It shouldn’t have any discharge, excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty, bloody, or dry. Ensure that it doesn’t have any mites, lice, tapeworms, maggots, or other parasites. 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. Make sure that it isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding). If it’s prolapsed, you must consult with a veterinarian immediately, and it is imperative that you do not pick up the turkey, as this could cause them to strain and prolapse further. Read more about how to handle a prolapsed vent here. If the turkey is laying and subsequently breaking eggs by sitting on them, you must regularly clean the yolk off of them, as it can be a breeding ground for parasites. Older turkeys develop looser vents over time, but there should never be a dramatic change in it from one exam to the next.
Take a look at the turkey’s wings. You will likely have to check the wing held close to you in a later part of the examination when you set them down 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. The turkey’s wings should be checked for cuts, swelling, and other injuries, and they should be able to move in a natural range of motion. Check their elbows for injuries that could indicate that they’re walking using their wings as support (indicative of some kind of mobility or stability issue). Make sure to check the area underneath their wings for lice and mites.
The turkey’s crop (in the upper middle of their chest) is where food is stored before entering a turkey’s stomach. If holding the turkey close to your chest up until this point, you will likely have to set the turkey onto the ground (while keeping them secure) in order to check their crop. It should feel empty (or impossible to feel at all) before they eat for the day or after digestion, and full after eating. If the crop is hard or filled with fluid, this indicates a problem. If a turkey 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 in a bird and they haven’t eaten in a while (or overnight), the crop could be impacted (or blocked). If you are concerned about a turkey’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. Turkeys are also especially prone to a disease known as Pendulous Crop, where an impacted crop begins to stretch and sway down low like a “pendulum” on their body. This requires quick intervention to protect the turkey’s health.
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 be a sign of illness or injury. The caruncle (skin on the head and neck), snood (flap of skin above their beak) and wattle (below their chin) should generally not be pale, ashen, extremely dry, or discolored from its normal hue (but keep in mind that a turkey’s head changes color depending on temperature and mood, so there’s a wide range of normal here). If it has scabs or lesions, this could indicate a pecking injury from another turkey, or an illness like fowl pox or favus, or frostbite (which is serious and must be treated). Their ears should not have any discharge coming from them, which could indicate an infection.
The turkey should have wide open, clean, alert eyes. They should be free of discharge and clear. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, constantly blinking, 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). Turkeys have a third eyelid (also known as the nictitating membrane). It should be cloudy white and retract when stimulated, rather than red, swollen, or non-retractable. Their sinuses under their eyes shouldn’t be swollen.
Is the turkey’s beak open or closed? If mostly open, they may be stressed, overheated, or have a respiratory illness. A typical beak is crack-free and smooth. In turkeys who have not been de-beaked, check if the top beak is significantly longer than the lower beak. If a beak is chipped, broken, or overgrown, it can be trimmed or filed or may require medical attention. Most turkeys who need their beaks trimmed will only need the top beak trimmed; however, turkeys who have been de-beaked can be more prone to overgrowth of their lower beak and may need it trimmed. Check the alignment of their upper mandible (top part of their beak). It should be directly above the bottom part and slightly longer, coming to a point. If this alignment is suddenly different, there’s likely an issue. Their nares (turkey nostrils) should be free of scratches, bubbles, discharge, and general crustiness.
The turkey’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. A breathing-impaired turkey might have Gapeworm, a serious and potentially deadly infection in their trachea. Now look inside their mouth (especially at their tongue). It should not have any ulcers, lesions, lumps, or discoloration. If there are lesions that look “cheesy”, this could be due to mold toxicity or Wet Fowl pox. Their mouth shouldn’t have a strange odor. If it does, they may have sour crop. It’s completely normal for their mouth’s roof and upper mandible to have a split in it. This is called the choanal slit, and it should be free of obstruction and discharge. 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 turkey should maintain weight consistently. If a bird has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or parasites like coccidiosis (which is less obvious in turkeys than chickens). 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 regularly lead to death in turkeys, especially large breed turkeys. 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 and little muscle mass, 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.
It’s important to monitor a turkey’s poop to recognize what healthy turkey droppings look like, which like many birds, can be quite diverse. For a similar reference point, here’s what different healthy and unhealthy chicken poop looks like. If it’s poorly formed, pasty, watery, strong smelling, black, bloody, yellow, or foamy, it could be a sign of parasites, illness, or improper nutrition. Yellow stool or yellow-streaked stool can be a sign of Blackhead, a serious disease in turkeys. 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 turkey 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 turkey in order to protect the rest of the flock from a potentially infectious disease. However, with some illness, such as pneumonia, often once a turkey 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 turkey who is isolated from their flock may become more stressed, which could delay recovery. Also keep in mind that in flocks with more than one tom, it can sometimes be difficult to re-introduce a tom back into the flock, so you may only want to separate a tom in this situation when absolutely necessary. However, if the turkey 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 will likely need to separate them at least temporarily. You may find that keeping them in a quiet space with a calm turkey companion is a good compromise until they are well enough to rejoin the flock.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a turkey and what good turkey health looks like, you’ll be an excellent turkey 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 turkey health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable turkey health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!
Turkey Health | Animals In School (Non-Compassionate Source)
Pendulous Crop | Poultry Keeper (Non-Compassionate Source)
Common Diseases And Ailments Of Turkeys And Their Management | Livestock Conservancy (Non-Compassionate Source)