Before you provide sanctuary to an emu friend, it’s important to understand their species-specific needs that are likely quite different from other residents’ needs at your organization! This article will cover some of the basics of providing care for emus so you can ensure they are happy and healthy.
Emus are large, flightless birds (also known as ratites), originating from mainland Australia. Compared to their body size, their wings are too small and they lack the pectoral muscles required to take flight. However, you may be surprised to learn that they are good swimmers! They have powerful legs that excel at swimming and running long distances quickly. Those legs can also serve a powerful kick, both backwards and forwards. This is usually used only as a defense mechanism.
Housing For Emus
Like other residents, it’s important that emus have indoor and outdoor living spaces that are protected from predators, create shelter and shade, and, ideally, provide an enriching environment. Due to the size of emus, housing is going to look quite different than with your other bird residents!
The biggest differences are high fencing and lots of outdoor living space. At the very least, emus should be provided with an outdoor living space that is 20 feet by 100 feet. However, even larger is better. Ideally they should be able to stretch their legs and have a good run! A 6 to 8 foot fence is recommended. The fence should be buried about 6 inches below the ground, and any posts should be placed outside of any fence material. Fencing with 2 by 4 inch or smaller openings is recommended so emus cannot stick their heads out of the openings.
Emus also require shade. The source of the shade doesn’t matter so long as there is plenty for everyone. Trees, shade cloths, or shelters are all acceptable forms of shade. It is important that every resident has shade access. For this reason, it is important to observe group behavior to be sure no one is being bullied and chased away from resources like shade. If you have neighboring flocks of emus, it can be useful to use a shade cloth as a barrier between living spaces if you observe confrontational behaviors between groups.
Due to their inquisitive nature, emus are at particular risk of hardware disease. They enjoy exploring things in their vicinity, and great care should be taken to clear living spaces of any potential hazards. While the skin on their legs is quite thick, the skin on their necks is delicate and can be easily torn on sharp edges and protruding bits of metal. Droppings and debris should be cleared out daily.
Ideally, their outdoor living space should have closely cropped grass underneath as substrate. Packed sand or dirt flooring is recommended for indoor living spaces. Nesting materials such as hay should be made available as bedding. Concrete floors are only acceptable if you have a rubber matting over them, and these mats must be kept clean. While ventilation is an absolute must, you must make sure the living space is not drafty either.
As with other residents, fresh, clean water should be provided at all times. Automatic waters are fine, but should be checked daily for proper function. Be aware that if you decide to use an electric water heater, it needs to be properly ground and the water tank and heater must be inaccessible to emu residents. If exposed, they may peck at these parts in addition to extension cords, risking injury.
Nutritional Needs For Emus
Luckily, there are commercial diets for ratites. Emu chicks can be fed a commercial diet so long as the protein range is between 17-22%. They can be free fed until they are 4 months old. Then they can be fed an adult commercial ratite diet. Thinly chopped greens can be offered as well. Water should be offered when they are a couple days old with care that they cannot fall in and drown. Emus may not eat or drink until 3-5 days of age as they subsist on the nutrients from the egg in which they developed up until that point.
Adult emus can be fed a commercial ratite diet and have fresh water available at all times. This should make up about 80% of their diet. Adults require about 1 pound of food daily. Fruits and greens can make up the rest! Some foods to try include grapes and cherry tomatoes. They will also forage on grasses and insects. Grit is not required for birds on pellets, as these birds normally obtain sand from eating items off the ground. But be aware that emus eating too much gravel or sand can lead to impaction problems.
Medical Care For Emus
As with any species, emus have some illnesses they are particularly affected by. Luckily, some of these diseases and illnesses are preventable.
Equine Encephalitis: In areas where equine encephalitis is prevalent, there is a bivalent vaccine for EEE and WEE, eastern and western equine encephalitis, using a killed vaccine. This vaccine can and should be administered to emu residents every six months. However, it is important to know that any vaccines intended for horses should not contain tetanus toxoid or any other additives available for horses.
Parasitic, Protozoal and Fungal Infections: Fecals should be checked every six months for both parasitic worm eggs and protozoa. You should work with an experienced veterinarian to determine de-worming needs and scheduling based on each individual emu. Testing for Chlamydophila, Salmonella, and other organisms should be performed periodically. Other parasitic problems are the raccoon roundworm. Coccidiosis is common in chicks and may also be observed occasionally in adults. Large numbers of coccidia may cause some intestinal problems, including diarrhea, but the birds seem to develop a resistance and tolerance to these parasites as they age, similar to what we see in some companion animal species. Emus are also susceptible to ascarids, other types of intestinal worms, tracheal and lung worms, and protozoa. Like other bird residents, emus are susceptible to fungal infections such as aspergillosis. They need a clean, dry environment and fresh, uncontaminated food.
Fractures: Fractures may occur if resident emus are restrained using their vestigial wings during procedures. This is why it is so important to never grab or handle emus by their wings. Leg fractures are always serious and may result in such a significant quality of life decline to the extent that euthanasia may be recommended.
Reproductive Issues: Peritoneal hernias, egg peritonitis, and egg-binding are all conditions to look out for.
Before approaching a resident emu for a health exam, observe their gait from a distance. Check their body condition, behaviors, and general mood. Look around their living space for fresh droppings and urine, as hard feces can indicate dehydration or intestinal impaction. Green urine can indicate hepatitis. You can also examine any droppings for tapeworm segments and collect a sample for a fecal check.
Exam their body visually from top to bottom, looking for any signs of lesions, discharge, swelling, or parasites. Palpate the throat, chest and abdomen and check their heart rate. You can check out our resource for turkey health exams to get a general idea of where to start.
Enrichment For Emus
Emus love water! Sprinkler systems can be set up to mist residents during the heat of the day. They may enjoy a nice spray down with your garden hose too! Just be sure to let this be their choice; no one like a surprise splash of cold water! Adding buckets with colorful balls (you must be sure they are big enough that they cannot be swallowed) for them to explore, hanging treat balls, and adding forage to their outdoor living spaces are great places to start for enrichment. Remember, it is only enrichment if the individual finds it enriching. If they are frightened by something or uninterested in it, then it isn’t enriching.
Social Needs For Emus
Adult emus are generally housed in pairs or more. Juveniles may be housed in a group, but often must be separated when they reach seven to eight months of age, as they will often begin fighting at that age.
When it comes to handling emus, gentler is better. Before you need to handle your resident emus for medical care, start by simply spending time with them so they are more comfortable with you. As they become comfortable with you, they may sit down and let you “pet” them.
If you do this, then you have an easier time performing a full health exam without any restraint. A “less is more” approach can be taken when you need to move them from one place to another. Calmly and slowly walk behind them (keeping a safe distance) with your arms outstretched, encouraging them in the direction they need to go.
Of course, emus are individuals with their own preferences and history that can affect their comfort with human interactions. Go slow and try and make interactions non-threatening and positive.
DO NOT crowd and corner them! This can cause unnecessary stress and injury as they may attempt to flee. If you are concerned about a nervous emu, you can also place something over their eyes, like a specially made hood, or even a black sock or glove. It will help calm them down.
While emus are generally not confrontational towards people, they can still injure themselves or a human if they are struggling against restraint or feel cornered or chased. If a resident emu requires restraint, the person restraining them should approach calmly from behind and wrap their arms around the emu, slowly and gently pushing down until they are in a sitting position.
While this resource doesn’t provide all the answers, hopefully it helps give you an idea about the needs of emus in a sanctuary environment.
Management of Ratites | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)
Medical Care For Emus | Exotic Vet Pet (Non-Compassionate Source)