If you’ve spent much time looking through our offerings, you likely know the important role routine health checks play in keeping residents healthy and catching signs of concern early. Performing health checks 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 health checkThe Open Sanctuary Project uses the term "health check" to describe health evaluations performed by caregivers who are not licensed veterinarians. While regular health checks are an important part of animal care, they are not meant to be a replacement for a physical exam performed by a licensed veterinarian., there are other potential signs of concern that could be missed during a health check particularly those that manifest as slight changes in behavior or activity. By incorporating both daily observation and routine health checks into your care protocols, you are more likely to catch issues that develop in the period between health checks, as well as issues that are unlikely to be detected without a hands-on evaluation.
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 turkeyUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated turkey breeds, not wild turkeys, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource. typically looks and acts. While all turkeysUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated turkey breeds, not wild turkeys, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource. are unique individuals, there are some general characteristics that most healthy turkeys will present. However, in addition to familiarizing yourself with how a healthy turkey should look and act, getting to know the individuals in your care is equally, if not more, important so that you can learn what is normal for each individual in your care. It’s also important to keep in mind that turkeys, particularly males, can change certain aspects of their appearance (such as the color of the skin on their head and neck and the length of their snood). Males (and sometimes even females) can also puff themselves up, changing the appearance of the shape and size of their body. Therefore, there may be a few different versions of “normal” for each turkey resident in your care.
Recognizing that every turkey is an individual, in general, a healthy turkey should:
- Be bright and alert
- Have clear, bright eyes
- Have smooth, flat feathers (unless they are molting or strutting)
- Walk with an even gaitA 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".
- Have clean feathers on their bum
- Have a healthy appetite. Please note that large breedDomesticated animal breeds that have been selectively bred by humans to grow as large as possible, as quickly as possible, to the detriment of their health. turkeys should be very excited to eat.
In addition to knowing what a healthy turkey looks like, it’s also important to know what healthy turkey droppings look like. Many people are surprised to learn that there is an incredibly wide range of normal when it comes to turkey poop. Therefore, it’s important to familiarize yourself with what is normal for the turkeys in your care so you can notice if something seems unusual.
The color and consistency of turkey poop can be a great indication of the overall health of the turkey. The most common colors of turkey poop are some shade of brown, gray, or green, but the color of fecal matter can be affected by diet. For example, turkeys eating red fruits may have some red-tinged poop, which may be confused with blood. Turkey droppings are typically soft but formed. However, turkeys who are eating lots of water-dense foods or are drinking more than usual, which is common when temperatures are hot, may have loose stool.
Turkeys do not urinate like mammals do. They produce urates, which mix with the waste produced by the digestive tract in the cloaca. Therefore, most turkey droppings will be a combination of digestive and urinary waste. The white portions of a turkey 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 turkey droppings. Cecal poop is often a dark shade of brown and has a pudding-like consistency. It also has a distinct odor.
Broody Hen Poop
A broodyTerm 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. turkey 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 “backup” of waste materials, it is not uncommon for a broody turkey 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, turkeys 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 sleeping 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, it’s a good idea to perform a health check and keep a close eye on them.
While not an exhaustive list, during your daily observation of your residents, be on the lookout for the following:
Changes in their posture, gait, mobility, or activity level, such as…
- Consistently holding their head in an unusual position, including tilted to the side or looking straight up
- Drooping wing(s) – However, it is normal for males to drop (and even drag) their wings when strutting, and females will extend both wings towards the ground in anticipation of being mounted (this mostly occurs in the spring, and you may find that females assume this position when humans approach them)
- Limping, consistently standing on one leg, walking with a “drunk” appearance, or any other abnormal gait
- Sitting more than usual, weakness, or reluctance or inability to stand
Changes to their physical appearance, such as…
- Ruffled or puffy feathers (aside from when a male is strutting) – this plus closed eyes is the classic “sick turkey” stance, though a turkey who is cold will present in the same way.
- Nasal and/or ocular discharge
- Swelling around the eyes
- Swelling, scabbing, or discharge of the toes, feet, or hocks
- Abnormal coloring of the wattlea fleshy pendulous process usually about the head or neck (as of a bird), snood, caruncles, or skin on the face (such as a yellowing of the skin or an overly pale or dark color). Be aware that the skin on their head and neck changes colors and that blue and white skin can be completely normal.
- An abnormally large cropA crop is a pouched enlargement of the esophagus of many birds that serves as a receptacle for food and for its preliminary maceration. or a full crop before having access to food
- Fecal matting or pasting under the vent
- Distension of the abdomen
- Unexplained scabbing or growths on the face or head (do not confuse their caruncles with abnormal growths!)
- Broken or damaged feathers – damaged feathers on wing tips could indicate that the individual is using their wings for support while walking or standing, and damaged feathers on a female’s back/hips could be a sign they are being overmounted.
Changes in behavior such as…
- Hiding more than usual
- Isolating themselves from the flock
- Changes to egg laying in actively laying hens, including an unexpected stop in laying or laying abnormal eggs
- Changes to their routines, including changing when or where they sleep
- Behaving differently than they normally do
Changes to their eating and drinking such as…
- Refusal to eat or a decrease in appetite – be aware that turkeys may peck at food without actually eating.
- Drinking excessively or drinking less than usual
Other things to watch for include…
- Sneezing, coughing, wheezing, wet-sounding breathing (gurgling), or other abnormal breathing sounds
- Labored breathing, open-mouth breathing (open-mouth breathing can also be a sign a turkey is too hot), or severe tail bobbing
- Gasping with an extended neck
- Unusual odors, such as a strong, foul, sour, or cheesy odor
- Signs of being bullying
- Changes in vision or appearance of the eye, including a sudden loss of vision or an abnormal pupil
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 check on the individual can help you gather more information to share with your veterinarian to help determine the best course of action. However, further handling is not advised in some instances, 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 turkey poop. Not every unusual dropping is cause for immediate concern, but if you see any of the issues described below, consult your veterinarian to determine the underlying cause and best course of action. Some gastrointestinal disease processes that affect turkeys are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from the turkey to humans. Therefore, it is important to always wear gloves when coming into contact with abnormal turkey poop.
When observing your residents’ stool, keep an eye out for the following:
- Bloody droppings
- Mustard-yellow droppings (this could be a sign of blackhead, a very serious disease)
- Worms (please note that the absence of worms does not mean the individual does not have parasitic worms or other internal parasitic infection)
- Consistently foamy, loose, or abnormally colored stool that cannot be explained by diet
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. Turkeys poop a lot, so you’ll get lots of opportunities to familiarize yourself with the wide range of normal poop! If you have concerns about a certain individual and their poop, you should 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.