This resource has been A member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff has given this resource a full review and provided updates where necessary. by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of July 12, 2022.
Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of Unless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated duck breeds, not wild ducks, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource. with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a bird is showing signs of distress or illness. Conducting health examinations will help you get to know what all aspects of 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. look and feel like and will also help you to establish a baseline for what is “normal” for each individual in your care. Not only this, but regular handling may help residents become more comfortable with restraint and human handling. Be prepared to check duck residents over at least every six to eight weeks*! For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.
Before conducting a health examination, it’s helpful to gather any supplies you may need and have them arranged nearby for easy access. Having everything you will likely need nearby can make the examination go more smoothly and can reduce the amount of time the individual needs to be restrained. If you are performing an exam on someone with a known health issue, you may need to have additional supplies handy, such as those necessary to manage bumblefoot. Otherwise, general supplies to have on hand during a duck health exam include:
- Recordkeeping supplies
- Nail trimmers and/or dremel tool
- Styptic powder or other blood stop product
- Gauze squares (non-sterile is typically fine, but there may be times when sterile gauze is necessary)
- Exam gloves
- Bandage scissors
- Duck-safe topical disinfectant (such as dilute chlorhexidine or dilute betadine)
- Saline flush
- Duck-safe ointments or creams such as a triple antibiotic ointment or silver sulfadiazine cream 1% (SSD)
- Cotton-tipped applicators
- Headlamp, penlight, or flashlight
- Antiparasitic treatment for external parasites, per your veterinarian’s recommendations
Conducting The Exam
Whenever possible, we recommend performing duck health exams in the morning before duck residents have had access to pools or ponds. This way, you’ll be able to catch things that may otherwise be cleaned off during the process of swimming or bathing such as fecal build-up under the vent.
Before beginning the actual exam, it’s a good idea to observe the individual without restraining them. Take note of their behavior, activity level, general appearance, how they are standing, and how they are moving. You can read more about “normal” versus potentially concerning duck resident observations here.
During regularly scheduled health examinations, your goal is to check every inch of the duck. It’s helpful to have a general order and routine that you follow each time because this can help ensure you do not miss a step. We recommend finding a system and order that works for you. However, because some areas naturally flow into others, it might not be helpful to think of the exam as a linear list of areas to check. Instead, we think of it more as a choreographed routine, where checking one area flows into checking another area. By checking individual areas or body parts in isolation, you may miss important findings in the gray areas in between.
Throughout the course of the exam, it’s imperative that you monitor how the duck is doing by watching their breathing and that you take a break if someone appears overly stressed.
Up next, we’ll go over important components of a health examination:
In cold climates, red and swollen toe tips; stiffened digits that do not bend readily; blackened skin; or hard, black, scabby toe tips/webbing could be a sign of frostbite. If you suspect frostbite, be sure to move the duck into a warmer area and consult with your veterinarian. At the very least, the duck will require pain medications and topical treatment but may need antibiotics or even surgical intervention depending on the extent of the damage. If a duck shows signs of frostbite, be sure to make changes to their living spaces to protect the rest of your residents.
Check their nails and trim or file them if needed.
Carefully check their range of motion, especially in their hocks, and check for crepitus (creaking, cracking, crunching, popping, or grating), pain, resistance, heat, or swelling. Because of the conformation of their legs, assessing range of motion issues in their knees and hips is more difficult. Hot, swollen, or scabby joints could be a sign of infection. Consult with your veterinarian immediately. Never attempt to drain infected joints!
Check for wounds, signs of parasites (including fly eggs, which look like grains of rice), and prolapsed tissue. Be aware that males have a protrusible phallus that projects from the vent when erect. While it is normal for this tissue to extend from the vent on occasion, phallic the falling down or slipping of a body part from its usual position or relations is also possible. In addition to the phallus, cloacal, intestinal, and oviductal prolapses are possible. If you see tissue protruding from the vent, it’s good to keep handling to a minimum to avoid causing them to strain and potentially prolapse more tissue. If an individual prolapses a very small amount of tissue while being handled, setting them down may be all that is needed for the prolapse to resolve. If this is not the case, or if there is more than just a very small amount of tissue prolapsed or the prolapsed tissue appears unhealthy, contact your veterinarian for guidance. Not only can they help with addressing the prolapsed tissue, they can also perform diagnostics to determine the cause of the prolapse. Depending on the type of prolapse and cause, the stress of handling may make things worse. Because of this, it’s safest to use a carrier to move a duck with a prolapse so as to avoid further handling.
Anyone with feces-covered feathers should be cleaned and monitored. It’s good practice to always evaluate a duck’s belly if you find that they have fecal matting under their vent, as this can be the result of a distended abdomen. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if anyone has excessive fecal matting, diarrhea, or is showing other signs of concern.
If one of your residents has a distended, fluidy, or firm abdomen, or if you can feel hard structures in the abdomen, the individual should be seen by a veterinarian for evaluation. A distended abdomen could be a sign of reproductive tract issues. While any duck, regardless of their sex, can develop reproductive issues, females of breeds bred for egg production are especially prone to reproductive issues.
The duck’s wings should be checked for swelling, heat, abrasions, and other injuries. If their wing tips are scabby or their wing feathers are tattered, this could indicate they have a mobility issue and are using their wings for balance and support. Pekins, other bigger breeds, and individuals with mobility issues may benefit from more regular checking of this area to ensure any issues are caught early.
Abrasions on the wings could also be a sign that residents are being injured by elements in their The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests.. Be sure to investigate the cause and make changes to the living space as needed.
Check along the keel for any sores. Keel sores should be treated early on, before they risk infection, and you should investigate the cause (for example, spending more time lying down due to a mobility issue).
Eyes– The duck should have wide open, clean, alert eyes and their pupils should be round and symmetrical. The eyes should be clear and free of any discharge or crusts. Be aware that ducks have a third eyelid (also known as the a thin membrane found in many vertebrates at the inner angle or beneath the lower lid of the eye and capable of extending across the eyeball) that lubricates and protects the eye. You will likely see this membrane moving quickly across the eye but it should not be constantly visible. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, or crusty eyes are not normal. You should have your veterinarian evaluate any eye abnormalities as soon as possible.
Sinuses– Check the area around the eyes and in front of the eyes for any swelling.
Bill- Check the bill for any injuries or abrasions. If you have more experience with other species of birds, such as chickens, be aware that a duck’s bill is much softer than a chicken’s beak, and can be easily damaged, so use care when evaluating the bill and do not peel or pick at the bill as this can cause injury.
either of the pair of openings of the nose or nasal cavity– Their breathing should not be labored, loud, wheezy, rattly, whistling, or squeaky. Check their nares for discharge or buildup. In general, if you look into one nare, you should be able to see all the way out the opposite nare. However, the nares can become packed with food, mud, or other matter. If this is an ongoing issue, check that their water sources are deep enough for them to submerge their head so they can keep their nares clean. If using tweezers to remove something from their nares, use caution not to poke or scratch the bill or the nares. If you notice buildup on the bill around the nares, this could be dried nasal discharge. Do not peel this off as it may result in damage to the sensitive tissue of the bill. If this area needs to be cleaned, opt for a moistened cotton-tipped applicator or soft cloth.
Ears– The ear canal will be hidden by feathers and is located a bit lower and further back on the head than the eyes. The feathers around the ear should be clean and the canal should be free of discharge or debris and should not be inflamed or irritated.
When you look inside their mouth, it should be moist but should not have excessive mucus. Their mouth should not have any ulcers, lesions, lumps, or areas of discoloration. Their breath shouldn’t have an overly strong odor – a sour smell could be a sign of sour crop. At the center of the back of their throat, is the glottis (the opening to the trachea). If the tongue blocks your view of this area, you can gently push down on the tongue. The glottis should open and close and the duck’s breathing should be quiet.
Feathers can hide skin illnesses and injuries, but because of their thick feathering, it can be difficult to examine a duck’s skin. It may be easiest to check their skin on their legs, along their keel, and on the underside of the wings. Skin should be translucent and soft. Make note of any scabbing, swelling, discoloration, or signs of external parasites. Since thoroughly checking their skin can be challenging, it’s often helpful to take time to feel along their entire body, making note of any lumps or changes in texture and then further examining those areas. This is the time to ensure you are checking and feeling every area of the individual’s body, not just those highlighted above. This thorough portion of the exam is critical to ensure that nothing that can be addressed early is missed.
To weigh duck residents, it can be helpful to use a scale intended for “dynamic weighing” or “weighing in motion”, as these scales will calculate the average weight for an animal moving around on the scale rather than oscillating indefinitely. Baby scales also work well, and most have a “hold” feature that will lock in the weight reading rather than having the displayed weight change as the individual moves. Some caregivers prefer placing residents in a deep basket lined with a towel and using this to weigh them. This works best when using a scale with a large, flat platform so that the basket sits flat. Just be sure to zero out the scale so that it only displays the weight of the duck and not the duck plus the basket. If your scale does not have this capability, you will need to subtract the weight of the basket from the displayed weight to determine how much the resident weighs.
If weighing the duck in a standing or sitting position, make sure they have adequate traction on the scale (a bath mat or rubber bowl can be used to provide traction) and keep your hands near them to prevent them from slipping or jumping off and injuring themselves. We recommend weighing bigger ducks and anyone with heart or respiratory issues in a standing or sitting position. Smaller ducks may be able to be placed on their side or back – just be sure to watch them closely to ensure they do not have an adverse reaction to being in this position and keep your hands near them in case they struggle.
In addition to weighing each individual, you should also pay close attention to their body condition to determine if they are at a healthy weight, as described above in the “Checking Their Breast And Keel” section. You might also ask that your veterinarian train you in body condition scoring. Unfortunately, monitoring their weight alone is not a perfect indicator of being at a healthy weight. Some health conditions, such as reproductive issues, could result in an individual having a seemingly healthy weight based on the number on the scale, but a check of their body condition may reveal emaciation. Therefore, it’s important to pay attention to both weight and body condition to get a fuller picture.
When in doubt, grab a fecal sample and connect with your veterinarian.
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.
To read more about considering alternative living arrangements in response to a health condition, check out our resource here.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know your duck residents 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!
BSAVA Manual Of Backyard Poultry Medicine And Surgery (Non-Compassionate Source)