If you’ve spent much time looking through our offerings, you likely know the important role routine health examinations play in keeping residents healthy and catching signs of concern early. Performing health examinations regularly is imperative, but this should not be the only tool you use to monitor your residents’ health and well-being. The importance of thoughtful daily observation cannot be overstated. While some issues may be difficult to detect without a hands-on physical examination, there are other potential signs of concern that could be missed during an exam, particularly those that manifest as slight changes in behavior or activity. By incorporating both daily observation and routine health examinations into your care protocols, you are more likely to catch issues that develop in the period between health examinations as well as issues that are unlikely to be detected without a hands-on exam.
When it comes to daily observation, the keyword is “thoughtful”. Daily observation of residents must be more than just looking at them. Anyone caring for an animal, regardless of their species or breed, should be trained to observe the individuals in their care for behaviors and physical signs that are abnormal for the species, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species or breed and their warning signs. Of equal importance is getting to know the individuals being cared for and watching for things that are out of the ordinary for that particular individual. To read more about refining your observation skills, check out our resource here.
Familiarize Yourself With “Normal”
In order to identify signs of concern, it’s helpful to first consider how a healthy Unless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated duck breeds, not wild ducks, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource. typically looks and acts. While all Unless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated duck breeds, not wild ducks, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource. are unique individuals, there are some general characteristics that most healthy ducks will present. However, as you’ll see below, there is going to be some variation depending on the individual. Therefore, getting to know the individuals in your care is equally, if not more, important than simply familiarizing yourself with how a healthy duck should look and act.
With that in mind, in general, a healthy duck should:
- Be bright and alert (they do take naps during the day, but should be easily roused)
- Have clear, bright eyes
- Have either of the pair of openings of the nose or nasal cavity that are free from debris or discharge
- Have smooth, clean, flat* feathers that repel water (feathers may appear a bit messy during a molt)
- Bear weight evenly when walking
- Have mostly clean feathers on their bum (it is not uncommon for these feathers to be slightly dirty, but overly dirty feathers under the vent could be a sign of concern)
- Have a healthy appetite
*While, for the most part, a healthy duck’s feathers should lay flat unless they are molting, be aware that some ducks have a crest of fluffy feathers on top of their head that resembles the pom-pom on a hat, and Muscovy ducks have a crest of feathers that resembles a stylized hairdo (the photo above on the right shows a Muscovy duck, but their crest is not apparent). Crests should not be mistaken as concerning.
In addition to knowing what a healthy duck looks like, it’s also important to know what healthy duck droppings look like. Many people are surprised to learn that there is a wide range of normal when it comes to duck poop. Therefore, it’s important to familiarize yourself with what is normal for the ducks in your care so you can notice if something seems unusual.
The color and consistency of duck poop can be a great indication of the overall health of the duck but color and consistency can also be affected by diet and water consumption. The most common colors of duck poop are some shade of brown, gray, or green, but depending on their diet, you may find their poop is a different color (for example a bluish-green after eating blueberries). When ducks are eating lots of water-dense foods or drinking a lot of water (such as when temperatures are hot) their droppings will be much wetter and looser than when they are drinking less or eating foods with lower moisture content.
Ducks do not urinate like mammals do. They produce urates, which mix with the waste produced by the digestive tract in the cloaca. Therefore, most duck droppings will be a combination of digestive and urinary waste. The white portions of a duck poop are the urates, with the rest being the feces.
As part of the digestive process, food matter is fermented by bacteria in the ceca. The ceca empty their contents a few times per day, and cecal poop looks (and smells) different than other duck droppings. Cecal poop is often a dark shade of brown and does not contain urates. It also has a distinct odor.
Broody Duck Poop
A Term used to describe a hen demonstrating behavioral tendencies associated with sitting on, incubating, and protecting a clutch of eggs, but a hen can be broody even if her eggs are removed. duck may spend the majority of the day nesting. Because of her dedication to nesting and her desire to keep her nest clean, she will often “hold it” rather than pooping frequently throughout the day, and may only leave her nest a couple of times to relieve herself. Because of this “back-up” of waste materials, it is not uncommon for a broody duck to produce surprisingly large, pungent droppings.
Potential Signs Of Concern
Now that we’ve got an idea of what is “normal”, let’s look at potential signs of concern. As prey animals, ducks will often hide any signs of illness or injury until they are no longer able to do so. This means that once you notice something is obviously wrong, the issue may have been festering for quite some time. Therefore, in order to catch and respond to health issues as soon as possible, it will be important to recognize the more subtle signs that something may be amiss.
As such, it’s important to get to know the individuals in your care so you can recognize when they are not acting like themselves. Caregivers who really spend time getting to know their residents in terms of their personality, typical behaviors, physical characteristics, and routines can sometimes catch when something is wrong before there are clear signs of illness or distress. Sometimes it’s something as simple as an individual spending time away from their friends or not running up to greet you as they normally would. Any time you notice a change in an individual’s normal routine or typical behavior, it’s a good idea to examine the individual and keep a close eye on them.
While not an exhaustive list, during your daily observation of your duck residents, be on the lookout for the following:
- Ruffled, tattered, dirty, damaged, or waterlogged feathers
- Refusal to eat or a decrease in appetite
- Changes in water consumption including drinking excessively or drinking less than normal
- Nasal and/or ocular discharge
- Swelling around the eye(s)
- Sneezing, coughing, wheezing, wet-sounding breathing (gurgling), or other audible breathing
- Labored breathing, open-mouth breathing (open-mouth breathing can also be a sign a duck is too hot), or severe tail bobbing
- Abnormal coloring to the skin and/or bill. The coloring of the bill may change over time or you may find that individuals develop black spots on their bill, which is not unusual. However, sudden changes could be a sign of concern. Of particular note is a bluish appearance to the bill, which could be a sign of oxygenation issues, or discoloration of a Muscovy’s caruncles during cold weather, which could be a sign of frostbite.
- Changes in activity level including sitting more than usual, weakness, or reluctance/inability to stand
- Changes in A specific way of moving and the rhythmic patterns of hooves and legs. Gaits are natural (walking, trotting, galloping) or acquired meaning humans have had a hand in changing their gaits for "sport". such as limping, walking with a “drunk” appearance, dragging the top side of their foot when they walk, or any other abnormal gait. It is not uncommon for ducks to stand on one leg with the other tucked up in their feathers while they rest. However, if they are standing with one leg hovering slightly off the ground or with only their toe tips touching, or if they refuse to put weight on one of their legs or appear to be painful, this is cause for concern. Bumblefoot is not uncommon, so we recommend checking the feet of individuals who have a change in their gait.
- Drooping or abnormally positioned wing(s)
- Unusual odors such as a strong, foul, sour, or cheesy odor
- Hiding more than usual or behaving differently than they normally do
- Signs someone is being bullied or seems to be isolating themselves
- Fecal matting or pasting under the vent
- Tissue protruding from the vent. Be aware that male ducks have a protrusible phallus that everts out of the vent when erect, so it’s not abnormal to see it on occasion. However, phallic prolapses are not uncommon, so be sure to closely observe males who have their phallus everted, and contact your veterinarian if the phallus remains out for more than just short periods of time or if the tissue appears dry, dark, scabby, or unhealthy at all.
- Changes in vision or appearance of the eye including a sudden loss of vision or a cloudy eye
- Change or loss of voice. Be aware that Muscovy ducks are much quieter than other ducks and do not quack, instead making hissing or trilling sounds. This should not be mistaken as a lost voice.
- Posture changes including standing very upright like a penguin (some breeds, such as the Indian Runner, naturally stand in an upright position) or holding their head and neck in an abnormal position
- Difficulty floating in water
- Changes to egg laying in actively laying hens including an unexpected stop in laying or laying abnormal eggs
- Changes to typical behavior or routines including changing when or where they sleep and with whom they spend their time (seasonal changes in group dynamics are not uncommon, with spring sometimes being a more challenging time depending on the make-up of the flock. You can read more about this topic here).
- Signs of over-mounting such as females developing feather damage or even feather loss on the back of the head or females hiding more than usual. If a female resident(s) is being over-mounted, it is imperative that changes be made to protect them. This may include creating all-male and all-female flocks or increasing the female-to-male ratio.
If you see any of the signs above or anything else out of the ordinary, be sure to investigate further and consult with your veterinarian as needed. Depending on the severity and whether or not there are multiple signs of concern, the individual may need to be seen by a veterinarian immediately. In some cases, conducting a health examination on the individual can help you to gather more information to share with your veterinarian so they can help determine the best course of action. However, in some instances, further handling is not advised, such as if the individual is showing signs of respiratory distress or shock.
As we discussed earlier, there is a wide range of normal when it comes to duck poop. Not every unusual dropping is cause for immediate concern, but if you see any of the issues described below, be sure to consult with your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and best course of action. Some gastrointestinal disease processes that affect ducks are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from the ducks to humans. Therefore, it is important to always wear gloves when coming into contact with abnormal duck poop.
When observing your residents’ stool, keep an eye out for:
- Bloody droppings
- Worms (please note that the absence of worms does not mean the individual does not have parasitic worms or another parasitic infection)
- Consistently foamy, loose, or abnormally colored stool that cannot be explained by diet
- Watery droppings from a duck who looks unwell
- A decrease or stop in fecal production – if you notice that a resident is not pooping or is only passing clear liquid without any fecal matter, this could indicate an obstruction. Contact your veterinarian immediately. An ultrasound may be necessary in order to make a diagnosis.
In the beginning, it can be overwhelming figuring out what is normal and what is cause for concern. When in doubt, grab a fecal sample and connect with your veterinarian. Ducks poop a lot, so you’ll get plenty of opportunities to familiarize yourself with the wide range of normal poop! If you have concerns about a certain individual and their poop, it’s a good idea to contact your veterinarian and submit a sample for diagnostic testing.
Now that you have an idea of what to look for, be sure to build thoughtful daily observation into your caregiving routine, if you haven’t already! The more you observe your residents, the better you’ll become at differentiating between “normal” and potentially concerning. When in doubt, contact your veterinarian for guidance.
While there is a lot more than what can be covered in a few points, this handy infographic covers six things to look for when trying to ascertain whether a duck resident is in good health or not!
Signs Of a by Amber D Barnes
The Ultimate Pet Duck Guidebook | Kimberly Link (Non-Compassionate Source)