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    Introductory Care Topics For Emus

    Emu standing in front of fencing.

    Emus may not be the first species you think of when you think of a farmed animal sanctuary. However, if you’re reading this, you likely are caring for or considering caring for an emu resident at your sanctuary! Sadly, emus are exploited for their flesh, eggs, feathers, fat, and skin and are used for racing. If you find yourself in the role of caregiver for emu residents, you may be at a loss of where to start. Before you begin providing sanctuary to an emu, it is important to understand their species-specific needs that are likely quite different from other residents’ needs.

    If you plan on providing lifelong care for emus, either in a sanctuary or microsanctuary environment, the hands-on training you’ll need and the standard care practices you must develop for your residents are much more rigorous than what non-sanctuary emu resources may have led you to believe! Taking in emus without having the appropriate skills and policies in place could threaten their health and well-being, as well as the health of other residents at your sanctuary. This introductory resource is not intended to dissuade you from rescue but merely provide a perspective on what a sanctuary must be able to commit to in order to provide the best life for an emu.

    Outline of an emu.

    Let’s Talk About Emus

    Emus are large flightless birds, though not the largest of all bird species- that title goes to ostriches! Emus, along with ostriches, rheas, kiwis, and cassowaries, belong to a group of flightless birds called ratites. Their wings are very small compared to their bodies. They are generally very curious, and their powerful legs allow them to reach speeds up to 30 miles per hour! As you can imagine, their legs are quite strong and can deliver a swift downward kick if they feel they need to protect themselves. They have three forward-facing claws. There are maximum height and weight differences between the subspecies, with the largest reaching heights up to 6ft and weights of 130 pounds! After adult emus molt, their feathers are a dark brownish black. The sun can fade these feathers over time, lightening them to a lighter cream or brown. The skin on either side of an adult’s head is bluish in color. Sadly, two species of dwarf emus and one subspecies are now extinct due to human encroachment and hunting. There is one species of emu left with three remaining subspecies of emus, each with physical characteristics that differ from the others. This includes lighter or darker color patterns, more or less pronounced “pouches” on their chests, and narrower or wider body widths. Emus and their ancestors live(d) in Australia (and Tasmania, though the species there is now extinct), with different species and subspecies evolving in different regions. Emus seem to generally prefer savannah woodlands or forests with sclerophyll plants (plants that can handle drought and heat) but are found in a variety of areas with different vegetation and climates that have extremely hot and even freezing weather. As you might imagine, their needs are different from those of your average sanctuary bird resident! 

    Now that you know a little bit more about them, let’s consider some factors to consider if you are contemplating providing care for emu residents!

    Considerations For Taking In Emu Residents

    If you find yourself giving thought to taking in an emu resident, there are some things you will want to consider first:

    • Caring for emu residents may require special permits or not be allowed on your land, depending on local zoning ordinances.
    • Emus can make some…interesting sounds. Consider whether sounds might carry to a nearby neighbor and cause any disruption. You don’t want to deal with an unhappy neighbor!
    • Emus have been reported to live up to 40 years old when in captive settings. Keep this in mind when you are considering lifelong care costs.
    • Emus require specialized care. Do you have the appropriate facilities, experience, and knowledge to care for emu residents properly? Can you access an expert? Can you find a veterinarian that can provide care for them?
    • Emus are often solitary in the wild, though they come together at certain periods for breeding or sharing available resources. If you do rescue multiple emu residents, you must be able to ensure they have the necessary space and resources to ensure harmonious social relationships.
    • Transporting emus will require vehicles/trailers that can accommodate their height.
    • In the US, some interstate travel requires emus to have a health certificate from a veterinarian. There may be other requirements depending on your state or country.

    Living Spaces For Emus

    Emus are happiest with ample safe space to roam, run, and explore. Like other residents, emus require shade, fresh water access, and appropriate indoor and outdoor living spaces to keep them out of the elements and safe from potential predators. Their living space might vary greatly depending on your climate, resources, and topography! Due to the size of emus, housing will look a bit different than that of your other bird residents! Regardless of what you’re working with, it can be great to consider designing living spaces with each species in mind. Check out our resource on animal-centered design to learn more!

    Indoor Living Spaces For Emus

    While emus are generally capable of handling fairly extreme hot and cold weather, providing them with protective living spaces that promote health and well-being is still necessary. You want residents to be comfortable, not struggling. In areas with mild weather year-round, a four-sided indoor living space may not be necessary (Unless predation is an issue in your area). However, a four-sided structure can provide added protection and the ability to separate residents more easily when necessary. In extremely cold climates, supplementary heat may be necessary, but great care must be taken to reduce any fire hazards by making safe choices in the source of heat. 

    A four-sided structure can also be handy in terms of developing relationships with residents and developing a routine where they comfortably come in for the night, allowing for less stressful health exams. Catching an emu resident who doesn’t want to be caught can be an unhappy experience for everyone involved.

    Remember, if you are bringing new emu residents into your sanctuary, you also need to ensure that you have an appropriate quarantine space to keep you and your existing residents safe! 

    Height is a key consideration when providing appropriate indoor living spaces and outdoor covered spaces for emu residents, as emus can measure over 6 feet tall! This definitely needs to be considered when designing or providing indoor living spaces to emu residents. Door height and width, as well as overall ceiling height and room for residents to move around, must be carefully considered.

     The important elements for any structure for emus include:

    • Appropriate height and width
    • Ventilation (well-ventilated but not a drafty space)
    • Dry
    • Safe access for caregivers
    • Secure gates and latches
    • Ample space for comfortably moving around, laying down, and preventing social conflict
    • Non-slip cushioned flooring
    • Appropriate bedding
    • Protection from predation
    Flooring For Emus

    Dirt or sand-covered flooring or another slip-resistant material is important for emu living spaces because slips and falls could lead to torn ligaments and joint damage. If your floor is concrete, consider layering half a foot of dirt onto the concrete floor or use rubber mats if necessary. But be sure to consider cleaning ability when putting in flooring. Bare concrete and hardwood floors are unacceptable for areas where residents must stand or lay down for long periods. In short, you must make sure this area is a slip-free zone!

    Bedding For Emus

    Because emus are naturally inquisitive, it is important to provide bedding that is not appealing to peck at and ingest. Sand or bird-safe wood shavings can be used. Emus may try and build nests using natural materials around them. Pay close attention to residents to ensure they aren’t ingesting any bedding materials.

    Water For Emus

    As with other residents, fresh, clean water should be provided at all times. Automatic waters can work but should be checked daily. Be aware that if you decide to use an electric water heater, it needs to be properly grounded, and the water tank and heater must be inaccessible to emu residents. If exposed, they might peck at these elements and extension cords, risking injury.

    Outdoor Living Spaces For Emus

    The most important outdoor living space elements for emu residents are high fencing and ample room. They should be able to stretch their legs and have a good run! Some sources recommend at least 2100 square feet for one individual, and others state a minimum of 6500 square feet. Larger is better, and creating a length that provides space for a good run is vital. In the wild, emus will roam miles daily to forage for food. Outdoor living spaces should be made up of sand, dirt, and/or grassy areas. They should drain well and provide an engaging environment for residents to interact with. Some sources recommend putting small gravel along fencelines as repeated walking here can wear the ground down. Emus will also need access to small rocks and pebbles so they can ingest them and help them break down food. However, keep an eye out and make sure they aren’t constantly ingesting rocks, as this could cause health issues. Emus lack the preen gland that typically protects the feathers of many other bird species from wet weather. Therefore, they must have access to dry shelter during rainy weather.

    Ideally, emus should have ample open space and areas with tall grasses, trees, or other elements that make the space more dynamic. These elements can also act as a visual break, which can be helpful for residents who would like a break from human eyes or from other residents. While we couldn’t find any information on whether emus prefer taking dust baths as ostriches do, you might experiment with this as it can help keep their feathers clean. Emus often enjoy water elements, as well as we will cover below.

    Fencing For Emus

    A 5 to 6-foot fence is generally recommended for emus. It should be buried about 6 inches below the ground to prevent any predators from trying to dig under it. Protective coverings should be placed on top of any sharp or protruding points on the fence top. However, all fencing elements must be secure so that emu residents cannot pull off and swallow any parts. When placing posts, it is best to put them outside any fencing material. Because emus can and will stick their heads through small spaces, fencing with 2×4 inch or smaller openings is recommended so emus cannot stick their heads out or get their feet caught. Rounded corners are also recommended in living spaces, as they can help prevent residents from being cornered and feeling trapped. It is important that the fence is highly visible to prevent an emu resident from running into the fence if they are feeling panicked.

    Water For Emus

    Emus love water. They will lay down in it, play in it, and even go for swims. Their outdoor living space should ideally include a body of water of some sort to meet their species-specific needs. However, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has made providing dynamic outdoor living space for bird residents challenging for caretakers, to say the least. HPAI poses a serious risk to individuals and bird residents as a whole. If possible, provide a kiddie pool or low plastic troughs (take into account the age, health, and mobility of the resident and decide whether this is appropriate for them) in a covered, protected area, where wild birds are unlikely to access and pull in pools and clean them overnight.

    Shade For Emus

    Emus also require shade. The shade source doesn’t matter as long as there is plenty for everyone. Trees, shade cloths, or shelters are all acceptable forms of shade. Every resident must have 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. 

    Hardware Disease

    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. Any sort of living space debris must be cleared out daily.

    Predator Proofing

    If your sanctuary is in an area with large predators, you must ensure that emu residents are safe and secure in their living spaces. Check out our resource on compassionate wildlife practices for sanctuaries to learn how to discourage different wildlife species from approaching resident living spaces.  

    Nutritional Needs For Emus

    Plant matter is the primary source of an adult emu’s diet in the wild. They will forage for flowers, green grasses, fruits, seeds, and young shoots. They don’t generally eat much dry matter. However, emus are technically omnivorous and may eat insects and small reptiles they come across to supplement their diet. They will also pick up small pebbles and bits of sand to aid in grinding their food in their gizzard. Depending on the availability of resources, wild emus will roam miles a day in their search for food, spending a significant portion of their day engaging in feeding behaviors.

    Providing continuous foraging opportunities and multiple forage areas around an emu’s outdoor living space can encourage natural behavior and provide necessary stimulation. They will graze on young grass and browse for flowers, fruits, seeds, young leaves, and the like. In human-managed domestic environments, their diet should consist of a mix of fresh greens, commercial ratite pelleted food, and various fruits and vegetables. Fresh forage is a great addition. Outside living spaces, including pasturelands where emus can safely graze or browse, would be ideal. You should provide finely chopped fresh greens (and in larger amounts in the winter) if they don’t have access to emu-friendly plants in their outdoor living space. You can also give emu-safe fruits and veggies such as apples, pears, grapes, squash, carrots, and bok choy. Be careful not to give them large pieces of fruit or vegetables as these can get lodged in their throats. Onion and avocado are known to be toxic to birds and should be strictly avoided.

    Ideally, emu residents should have continuous access to forage. However, be aware that an overgrazed pasture can quickly become no pasture. Therefore rotating emu living spaces so that pastures have a chance to regenerate can be helpful. Additionally, the type of grass and plants available in the pasture matters, as each has a different nutrition profile, and some will be more beneficial for emu residents than others. According to the husbandry guidelines of emus from the Western Sydney Institute, emus can be fed chopped legumes, greens, a commercial ratite diet, and a mix of fruits and vegetables. Some organizations report using a mix of grains such as wheat, barley, sorghum, and pellets for other species- but you should not offer food for other species to emu residents unless directly advised by an experienced veterinarian. Some commercial diets could contain medications or inappropriate amounts of certain minerals and lack the necessary elements needed for an emu resident. Always check with a veterinarian to ensure you offer the best diet for your resident emus.

    As referenced above, emus eat small pebbles for use as grit to help in digestion. Ensuring pebbles are available in their living space is a good idea, though care should be taken to observe an individual isn’t consuming too many.

    Social Needs Of Emus

    In the wild, emus usually live a fairly solitary life, except during breeding season and when sharing resources in the area. You will generally find them on their own or in pairs. In wild environments, after females have laid eggs, a single male will then incubate the eggs, becoming fiercely protective of them, and they will not leave to eat, simply subsisting on their stored body fat. Once the chicks hatch, he will care for them until they can care for themselves.

    If you have multiple emu residents, a large, enriching environment with plenty of resources will help ensure a harmonious flock. It is important to observe flocks for any signs of confrontational or bullying behavior and that all residents can access shade, water, food, enrichment items, and activities.

    Don’t Forget To Collect Eggs!
    Emus are different from your usual bird resident because they do not generally lay eggs year round. Eggs are laid during their breeding season, which will vary in time of the year and length depending on which area of the world they live in. Be sure to collect any eggs as this is an important practice to prevent breeding. Be cautious if collecting eggs from a mated pair, as this may upset a male resident who takes his job as nest protector very seriously. Collection can also prevent eggs from attracting potential predators or breaking and attracting flies. Additionally, there’s a lot you can learn from your residents’ health (especially their reproductive health) by paying attention to their eggs. Be on the lookout for soft-shelled eggs or misshapen eggs and try to determine who laid any concerning eggs.

    Medical Care For Emus

    As with any species, emus are particularly affected by certain illnesses.  Luckily, some of these diseases and illnesses are preventable. 

    Parasitic, Protozoal, and Fungal Infections: Fecals should be checked routinely for both parasitic worm eggs and protozoa. Coccidiosis is common in chicks but may also be observed occasionally in adults. Emus are also susceptible to ascarids, other types of intestinal 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. 

    External Parasites: Emus can be affected by lice, ticks, and mites. Observe residents for scratching behavior as this can indicate the presence of parasites. Take a good look at their skin and feathers, especially in the areas around the legs, wings, neck, and vent.

    Bacterial And Viral Infections: Emus are at risk of contracting several bacterial and viral infections. Salmonella, e.coli,  and campylobacter can all cause bacterial infections. Viral infections to look out for include: Newcastle disease, avian pox, and avian influenza. In areas where equine encephalitis is prevalent, veterinarians generally recommend vaccinating emu residents against it.

    Fractures/Injuries: Fractures may occur if resident emus are restrained using their wings during procedures. This is why it is so important not to grab or handle emus by their wings. Leg fractures are always serious and may, unfortunately, lead to a decision of euthanasia in emu residents. They also have delicate skin that can be easily wounded. Keep a close eye out for any signs of injury and determine the source of injury as quickly as possible.

    Stomach Impaction: Emus are prone to swallowing inedible objects they come across. They are very attracted to shiny things. This can cause stomach impaction, in addition to ingesting too much sand or too many rocks. Call your veterinarian immediately if you think your resident has eaten something that might cause an impact.

    Reproductive Issues: Peritoneal hernias, egg peritonitis, and egg-binding are all reproductive conditions to look out for in emu residents.

    Safe Handling Of Emus

    Get Trained First
    If at all possible, have a veterinarian or care expert give you hands-on training for safe emu handling! Failing to use appropriate techniques can gravely injure emu residents and cause serious injury to staff members handling the resident. As mentioned above, emus can kick down quickly and with great force. The claws on their feet can cause serious injury. You may have also noticed that emus have pretty impressive beaks. Those beaks can cause painful bruises and punctures.

    Before you need to handle your resident emus for medical care, it’s important to simply spend time with them so they are more comfortable around you. This may help you have an easier time performing a full health exam when it comes time. Try a “less is more” approach when moving them from one place to another. Many have reported that they can often draw the emus they care for by simply using food. Learn with them. Positively reinforce behaviors when they come inside or to a certain area where they can be properly examined. If necessary, 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 emus! This can cause unnecessary stress and injury as they may attempt to flee. Emus can injure themselves or humans if they struggle against restraint or feel cornered or chased. Restraining an emu resident requires great care and skill to ensure the safety and well-being of all involved. For this reason, it is vital that you have a compassionate expert show you how to best handle and restrain emu residents when necessary.

    Health Exams For Emus

    Ask An Expert
    Before regularly conducting emu health examinations, you should have a veterinarian or care expert give you hands-on training to be the best emu health advocate possible. Training to quickly distinguish healthy conditions from abnormalities can be crucial in early health problem detection and effective treatment!

    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. You can also examine any droppings for tapeworm segments and collect a sample for a fecal check.

    Examine their body visually from top to bottom, looking for any signs of lesions, discharge, swelling, or parasites. Palpate their throat, chest, and abdomen and check their heart and respiratory rates. Ask your vet what the normal range is, and be sure to record your findings. You can check out our resource for turkey health exams to get a general idea of where to start with emu examinations.

    Enrichment For Emus

    Enrichment is important for all individuals and should ideally be considered an aspect of general care. So what do we know about emus? We know they generally love water, are curious and attracted to shiny objects, and spend a great deal of time snacking. In terms of enrichment, this could look like setting up sprinklers or misters, or kiddie pool in areas protected from wild bird species (to prevent HPAI during outbreaks), or even just letting them play in the water from a hose while you hold it. Visual enrichment could include emu-safe mirrors or reflective surfaces, setting up pinwheels outside their living area to look at, hanging emu-safe toys, or even a disco ball for them to stare at. Remember, they like to eat all sorts of things, so these objects should be vetted for any potential loose parts that could be ingested. Another way to add enrichment is through food. Change things up a bit, hang browse from a treat ball or hide treats around their living space. Other forms of enrichment might include sprinkling different scents (cinnamon, basil, lavender) around their outdoor living space or adding different types of substrate like sand, a pile of leaves, or straw so they can choose to engage with different textures. However, you must remember that it is only enrichment if the individual finds it enriching- it isn’t enriching if they are frightened by or uninterested in an enrichment offering. If interested, you can learn more about the types of enrichment and why enrichment is important for residents. You can also check out our turkey enrichment resource for some fun ideas to consider adapting for your emu residents!

    We hope you found this resource a useful jumping-off point for learning how to care for emu residents compassionately. If you have experience with emus at your sanctuary, we would love to hear from you and learn what works best for your emu residents!

    Acknowledgments
    We’d like to give a special thanks to Kayla Swope and Riki Higgins of Full Circle Farm Sanctuary and Karen Phillips, DVM of Hope Haven Farm Sanctuary, for answering some emu-related questions for this resource. Do you have sanctuary experience you’d like to contribute to this or another resource to benefit the global sanctuary community? Get in touch with us!

    SOURCES:

    Guidance On The Keeping Of Ostrich And Emus |  Dangerous Wild Animals (Northern Ireland Environment And Heritage Service) (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Husbandry Guidelines: Emu | Western Sydney Institute of TAFE, Richmond (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Exotic Bird Entry Requirements | State Of Indiana (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Raising Emus | Nelson Road Veterinary Clinic  (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Management of Ratites | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Infectious Diseases Of Ratites | Merck Veterinary Manual  (Non-Compassionate Source)

    Emu | Smithsonian’s National Zoo & Conservation Biology Institute (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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