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    How to Conduct a Duck Health Examination

    Three domestic ducks walk outside as one quacks.

    This resource has been fully reviewed and updated 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 ducks 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 duck 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.

    *An Exam Every Six to Eight Weeks Means Daily Observations!            
    Our recommendation to conduct routine health examinations every six to eight weeks must be done in conjunction with daily observations. Caregivers should be trained to observe animals both for behaviors that are abnormal for the species and also for behaviors that are abnormal for each individual, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species or breed and their warning signs. Thoughtful observation plays a crucial role in catching health issues before they progress into more serious situations. You can read more about daily observation for duck health and well-being here.

    Residents With Challenging Backgrounds
    Close daily observation can be difficult with certain individuals or groups who come from challenging backgrounds. They may be more likely to hide signs of illness or injury, or may not allow you to come close enough to them to thoroughly assess their well-being on a regular basis. Challenging backgrounds may include individuals who are not socialized, have lived feral, or were abused or malnourished. If you care for individuals who came from a challenging background, it is imperative to make time to foster a bond of trust so careful observation is possible. A monthly health exam is recommended for these individuals until they exhibit signs that they feel safe and you are confident that close daily observation is possible.

    green duck graphic

    New Resident? Conduct An Intake Examination!
    If you are conducting an initial health examination on a new resident, check out our intake examination resource to learn about what you should check for and document!

    Supplies

    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
    • Tweezers
    • Scale 
    • Headlamp, penlight, or flashlight
    • Towels
    • Antiparasitic treatment for external parasites, per your veterinarian’s recommendations

    Conducting The Exam

    blue duck graphic

    Ask an Expert
    Prior to regularly conducting duck health examinations, you should have a veterinarian or compassionate care expert give you hands-on training in order to be the best duck health advocate possible. Being trained to rapidly distinguish healthy conditions from abnormalities can be crucial in early health problem detection and effective treatment!

    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.

    Safe Restraint
    Before attempting to conduct a health examination, make sure you know how to safely hold a duck. You can read more about safe restraint here. If possible, it can be much easier to conduct the exam with an extra person who can restrain the individual while you perform the exam. This is especially helpful for folks who are just starting out. You must be very cognizant of a duck’s stress levels and breathing when handling them – by having an additional person who can focus on just restraint while you perform the exam, you can ensure that someone is paying close attention to how the individual is doing. If a duck ever seems to be very distressed, breathing heavily (especially open-mouth breathing), or cannot breathe comfortably, you must put them down and let them calm down. Whenever setting a duck down, do so very carefully! Their feet should be solidly on the ground before you let them go.

    When In Doubt…
    Unless you are a qualified veterinarian or have been trained to handle specific conditions, The Open Sanctuary Project strongly advocates that you promptly report any health concerns you find during the course of an exam to your veterinarian or care expert. You should be the resident’s advocate, not their doctor.

    Up next, we’ll go over important components of a health examination:

    Check Their Feet
    A duck should have soft, fairly smooth skin on their feet, and the webbing between their toes should be soft and supple. Toes should be elongated and straight. Check for any bumps, lumps, swelling, heat, scabs, cuts, or pressure sores on both the top and bottom of the duck’s feet and toes. Check the bottom of the foot for signs of bumblefoot which can cause debilitating mobility issues if left untreated. Early signs of bumblefoot include the skin on the foot pad becoming smooth, shiny, and/or red, so look closely for any of these signs. Individuals with heat, swelling, scabbing, or discharge should be evaluated by a veterinarian. 

    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.
    Check Their Legs
    Check their legs for heat, swelling, irritation, injury, or other abnormalities. Pay extra attention to the hock, checking for any signs of irritation, which could be the beginning of a pressure sore. Hock sores can start out as reddened skin or superficial scabs and develop into deep wounds that can become infected. Be sure to seek veterinary care if a resident is developing hock sores. While this part of the exam is important for all duck residents, it is especially important for bigger ducks such as Pekins or individuals with mobility issues who may spend more time lying down. These individuals may benefit from more frequent checking of their hocks. Early detection, when skin is irritated but not yet wounded, is imperative because once pressure sores develop, they are difficult to address and can lead to infection. In addition to working with a veterinarian to determine the cause and best course of action to address sores, environmental changes should be made to prevent them from worsening. This includes providing softer, cushioned surfaces and/or adding more bedding to the areas where they spend time lying down.

    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 Their Vent
    A duck’s vent is the external opening of the cloaca and is where both digestive and urinary waste, as well as eggs are released from a duck’s body. Due to their thick feathering, locating the vent can sometimes be challenging – it is located just below the base of the tail. The vent should be clean and should be the same color as the rest of their skin. It shouldn’t have any discharge or excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty, bloody, or irritated. 

    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 prolapse 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.
    Check Their Abdomen
    For this part of the exam, it’s important to take the duck’s sex and egg-laying status into account, as this can affect both the size and feel of a duck’s abdomen. A duck’s abdomen should be soft and small, though, in females, the size of their abdomen will change during the year, becoming more distended in the early spring, when egg production increases, and becoming smaller when egg production slows down. These nuances can take time to become familiar with, so be sure to take good notes during each health examination, and review significant findings with your veterinarian or another care expert. When checking their abdomen, be gentle. There is a chance a female could have a fully shelled egg in their oviduct, and you do not want to break it! 

    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. 
    Check Their Preen Gland
    At the base of the duck’s tail is the preen gland (also known as the uropygial gland). Orange-tinged oily discharge from the tip of the preen gland and on the feathers of the preen gland is normal. Apart from the lobes of the gland itself, there should not be any additional lumps and the gland should be symmetrical. Inflammation, absence of oily discharge, scabbing, wounds, and other abnormalities in this area should be discussed with your veterinarian.
    Check Their Wings
    Take a look at the duck’s wings. Exercise caution to avoid the resident getting a wing free and flapping, which could result in injury to themselves and, in the case of larger ducks such as male muscovies, could also injure the human holding them. The wings should be held close to their body, be generally symmetrical, and there should be movement in the wings’ joints when they flex. A droopy wing can be a sign of a fracture or weakness. 

    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 living space. Be sure to investigate the cause and make changes to the living space as needed.
    Check Their Breast And Keel
    The duck’s breast should be blister-free and firm. Different breeds of ducks have different body types, so be sure to consider the individual at all points of the health examination, but especially when checking their keel (also called the breastbone or sternum) and assessing their body condition. There should be distinct muscle on either side of the keel bone. A prominent keel is a sign a duck is underweight and a keel that is difficult to feel through muscle and fat is a sign of obesity.  

    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). 
    Check Their Head And Neck
    Neck– Observe the position of their head – any head tilting should be noted. Their neck should be vertical with no kinks or lumps. Unlike Galliformes, ducks do not have a true crop, though their esophagus can expand to accommodate food intake. Despite this, there have been reports of “crop” issues in ducks, so be sure to gently feel around the base of the neck and look for signs of distention in this area.

    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 nictitating membrane) 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.

    Nares– 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.

    Muscovy Mask
    Unlike other ducks, muscovy ducks have featherless portions of the face that are larger and lumpier in males than females. While caruncles are often red, they can also be black or a mix of black and red. Check this area for any abnormalities or injury and be aware that this area is prone to frostbite, especially the large knob over the bill that some males get, so watch for discoloration during colder weather.

    Check Inside Their Mouth
    Checking inside their mouth tends to be the duck’s least favorite part of the exam, and proper technique can be a tricky thing to learn at first. When first learning this skill, it can be easiest if you have a second person restrain the duck so you can use both hands to open their mouth.

    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.
    Check Their Feathers And Skin
    A healthy duck should have smooth feathers that repel water. Feathers that are saturated with water are cause for concern, and unless they are molting, feathers shouldn’t be missing or disheveled. In general, feathers should be clean, though you may have residents who have dirty feathers from exploring in the mud or eating a messy treat. Unkempt or tattered feathers could be a sign of stress, external parasites, or unhealthy flock dynamics. Feather damage on the back of the head of female residents is typically the result of being mounted. Be sure to keep an eye on mounting behavior as females can be injured during the mounting process and repeated mounting can result in feather loss and damage to the skin in this area. If females are being over-mounted you will have to make changes to their flock arrangements to ensure their safety (this may include the creation of all-male and all-female flocks). If a resident’s feathers don’t seem to be developing or won’t fold into their normal position, this is also indicative of a problem. 

    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.
    Check Their Weight And Body Condition
    It’s important to have an accurate weight for each of the individuals in your care, and a healthy adult duck should maintain weight consistently. If the duck has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate an illness, malnutrition, or internal parasites. If the duck has gained weight, it’s critical to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding them (especially with treats) and that you aren’t feeding them an inappropriate diet as obesity can lead to other health issues such as arthritis or bumblefoot.

    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.
    Check Their Poop
    If the individual poops during the exam, be sure to make note of whether or not their stool appears “normal” or potentially concerning. Not every unusual dropping is cause for immediate concern, but be sure to contact your veterinarian right away if anyone has bloody poop; worms in their poop (be aware that the absence of visible worms does not mean the individual does not have parasitic worms or other parasitic infection); consistently foamy, loose or abnormally colored stool that cannot be explained by diet; or if you notice watery poop from an individual who also looks unwell.

    When in doubt, grab a fecal sample and connect with your veterinarian.
    Isolate If Necessary
    If you notice that a duck 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 duck in order to protect the rest of the flock from a potentially infectious disease. However, with some illnesses, once a duck is showing symptoms, the other residents in the flock may 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 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!

    Article Acknowledgements
    Our deepest gratitude to Farm Bird Sanctuary, Little Bluestem Sanctuary, and Sophia DiPietro of All Species Kinship (A.S.K.) for sharing their duck caregiving knowledge and experience with us.

    green duck graphic

    SOURCES:

    BSAVA Manual Of Backyard Poultry Medicine And Surgery (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Management Of Waterfowl | Gwen B. Flinchum, BS, MS, DVM (Non-Compassionate Source) 

    Non-Compassionate Source?

    If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

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