Updated August 24, 2022
Ostriches may not be the first species you think of when you think of a farmed animal sanctuary. However, if you are reading this, you likely are caring for or considering caring for an ostrich resident at your sanctuary! Sadly, ostriches 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 ostrich residents, you may be at a loss of where to start. Before you begin providing sanctuary to an ostrich friend, it is important to understand their species-specific needs that are likely quite different from other residents’ needs. This resource will cover some of the basics of providing care for ostriches so you can ensure they are happy and healthy. If you plan on providing lifelong care for ostriches, either in a sanctuary or a 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 ostrich resources may have led you to believe! Taking in ostriches without having the appropriate skills and policies in place could threaten their health and well-being and 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 ostrich.
Let’s Talk About Ostriches
Ostriches are very large birds- the largest of all species of birds, in fact! Although they have lived in other areas of the world, wild ostriches are now only found in certain regions (Sub-saharan) in Africa, where their habitat consists largely of semi-desert or arid grasslands. Ostriches belong to a group of birds called ratites. Rheas, Emus, Kiwis, and Cassowaries also belong to this group of flightless birds. While female ostriches are light brown, the males of the species are black and white. They can grow to be as tall as 9 feet (a good deal of that length is neck) and weigh over 300 pounds! Although they don’t use their wings for flying, they may use them to cool themselves and to communicate. They are very fast, reaching speeds of up to 40 miles per hour! As you can imagine, their legs are quite strong and can deliver a swift downward kick. They also have a talon that can reach lengths up to 4 inches long on each foot, so caregivers must be vigilant. Eggs are laid in a communal nest where care is generally provided by the head female and male in the flock. Suffice it to say, their needs are a little 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 ostrich residents.
Considerations For Taking In Ostrich Residents
If you find yourself giving thought to taking in an ostrich resident, there are some things you will want to consider first:
- Caring for ostrich residents may require special permits or not be allowed on your land, depending on local zoning ordinances.
- Ostriches, particularly males, 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!
- Ostriches have been reported to live well over 50 years old when in captive settings. Keep this in mind when you are considering lifelong care costs.
- Ostriches require specialized care. Do you have the appropriate facilities, experience, and knowledge to care for ostrich residents properly? Can you access an expert? Can you find a veterinarian that can provide care for them?
- Ostriches are social species and should ideally have other ostriches as companions. This isn’t always possible. Will you be able to provide them with the companionship they need? (See social needs below)
- Transporting ostriches will require vehicles/trailers that can accommodate their height.
- In the US, some interstate travel requires ostriches to have a health certificate from a veterinarian. There may be other requirements depending on your state or country.
Living Spaces For Ostriches
Ostriches are happiest with ample safe space to roam and explore. Like other residents, ostriches 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 ostriches, housing will look a bit different than with your other bird residents! Regardless of what you work 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 Ostriches
While ostriches 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. We 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 more easily separate residents 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 ostrich resident who doesn’t want to be caught can be an unhappy experience for everyone involved.
Remember, if you are bringing new ostrich 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 ostrich residents. Ostriches can measure over 8 feet tall and have an impressive wing span that can measure over 6 feet. This definitely needs to be considered when designing or providing indoor living spaces to ostrich residents. Door height and width, as well as overall ceiling height and room for wings to be spread and residents to move around, must be carefully considered.
The important elements for any structure for ostriches include:
- Appropriate height and width
- Ventilation (well-ventilated but not a drafty space)
- 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 Ostriches
Dirt or sand-covered flooring or another slip-resistant material is important for ostrich living spaces since 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 Ostriches
Because ostriches 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. Pay close attention to residents to ensure they aren’t ingesting any bedding materials.
Water For Ostriches
As with other residents, fresh, clean water should be provided at all times. Automatic waters are fine but still 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 ostrich residents. If exposed, they might peck at these elements and extension cords, risking injury.
Outdoor Living Spaces For Ostriches
The most important outdoor living space elements for ostrich 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 4,300 square feet for two individuals, and others state a minimum of 6500 square feet. Suffice it to say, larger is better. In the wild, ostriches will roam miles daily to forage for food. Outdoor living spaces should be made up of sand, dirt, and or grassy areas, drain well, and provide an engaging environment for residents to interact with. Ostriches lack a 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, ostriches should have ample open space and a few areas with tall grass, 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 humans. You should also provide dust baths for ostriches, as it helps them clean their feathers. Dust bath access is an especially important part of their self-grooming ritual due to their lack of preen glands. Ostriches can enjoy water elements in outdoor living spaces. This might look like shallow pools of water, sprinklers, or misters. However, Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) has made providing dynamic outdoor The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests. 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.
Fencing For Ostriches
A 6-foot fence is generally recommended for ostriches. 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 ostrich residents cannot pull off and swallow any parts. When placing posts, it is best to put them outside any fencing material. Because ostriches can and will stick their heads through small spaces, fencing with 2×4 inch or smaller openings is recommended so ostriches cannot stick their heads out. 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 ostrich resident from running into the fence if they are feeling panicked.
Shade For Ostriches
Ostriches 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 ostriches, it can be useful to use a shade cloth as a barrier between living spaces if you observe confrontational behaviors between groups.
Due to their inquisitive nature, ostriches 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. Droppings and debris must be cleared out daily.
If your sanctuary is in an area with large predators, you must ensure that ostrich 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 Ostriches
Plant matter is the primary source of an adult ostrich’s diet in the wild. They will forage for grasses, leaves, bushes, shrubs, berries, seeds, and sprouts. However, ostriches are technically omnivorous and may eat insects, small reptiles, rodents, and frogs to supplement their diet. They pick up small pebbles and bits of sand to aid in grinding their food in their gizzard. Wild ostriches will roam miles a day in their search for food, spending anywhere from 65% to 80% of their day engaging in feeding behaviors. Several factors affect this, such as the type and quality of forage and the number of ostriches in the flock, which can affect how much time each individual has to spend being vigilant for danger.
Providing continuous foraging opportunities and multiple forage areas around an ostrich’s outdoor living space can encourage natural behavior and provide necessary stimulation. They will graze on grass and browse for berries, seeds, bushes, 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 ostriches can safely graze or browse, would be ideal. You should also provide finely chopped greens (and in larger amounts in the winter) if they don’t have access to growing ostrich-friendly plants in their outdoor living space. You can also give ostrich-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 ostriches and should be strictly avoided.
Ideally, ostrich residents should have continuous access to forage. They will forage among the plants and grass if their outdoor living space includes a pasture. However, be aware that an overgrazed pasture can quickly become no pasture. Therefore rotating ostrich 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 ostrich residents than others. Alfalfa or other legumes, such as clover, medic, or sedalia are a good source of food for ostriches. Other suggested roughage listed in sources we found include oat and barley hay and wheat or oat bran. However, most feeding guidelines we have found are from agricultural sources and may not be appropriate in a sanctuary setting. Contacting an experienced veterinarian to assist you in developing individualized diets for ostrich residents is the best bet.
According to the husbandry guidelines of ostriches from the Western Sydney Institute, ostriches can be fed chopped legumes, greens, and a commercial ratite diet (some, but not all, commercial diets for ostriches contain animal products), and a mix of fruits and vegetables. They suggest that the average daily amount of food an adult ostrich should receive is 3.5 kilograms (over 7 pounds). Obviously, this would vary somewhat from individual to individual based on a number of factors. Again, check with a veterinarian to ensure you offer the best diet for your resident ostriches.
As referenced above, ostriches 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.
Presentation Makes A Difference!
While it is true that keeping food off the ground helps prevent ingestion of too much sand and can reduce parasitic infections, ostriches, when given the choice, prefer to eat things scattered on the ground. When provided with food in a bucket and food on the ground, many will choose to forage from food on the ground. This is a much more natural behavior that they evidently find more satisfying. Ostriches use their big eyes to spot the tastiest morsels, and having all their food in a bucket or trough might inhibit this natural selective behavior. This could partly explain the general preference. Take this fact into account while providing ostrich residents with their meals. It may require some creativity! At the very least, be sure the ground where any food is placed is clean and cleared, and they aren’t in danger of ingesting too much sand or eating on soiled areas. A food mat may be useful as it would allow for more natural behaviors and allow care staff to remove and clean it, preventing health issues. Just be sure it isn’t made out of anything residents could ingest!
Social Needs Of Ostriches
In the wild, ostriches usually live in small flocks with fewer than a dozen birds. In this configuration, a single male will generally accompany a group of females, with one female being the “head female.” Other groupings are possible, though conflict can arise between males in mixed groupings and may not be advisable. Different flocks will mingle at water sources; occasionally, one flock will adopt the young of another. 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.
Medical Care For Ostriches
As with any species, ostriches are susceptible to various illnesses and diseases. The following are some to watch out for:
Parasitic, Protozoal, and Fungal Infections: Fecals should be checked every six months for both parasitic worm eggs and protozoa. Testing for Chlamydophila, Salmonella, and other organisms should be performed periodically. Coccidiosis is common in chicks and may also be observed occasionally in adult ostriches. Ostriches are also susceptible to intestinal worms, tracheal and lungworms, and protozoa. Like other bird residents, ostriches are susceptible to fungal infections such as aspergillosis. They need a clean, dry environment and fresh, uncontaminated food.
External Parasites: Ostriches can be affected by several external parasites. The most common of these are 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: Ostriches are at risk of contracting several bacterial and viral infections. Botulism, anthrax, ulcerative enteritis, and campylobacteriosis are all possible bacterial infections. Viral infections to look out for include Newcastle disease, avian pox, and avian influenza.
Fractures: Fractures may occur if resident ostriches are restrained using their wings during procedures. This is why it is so important not to grab or handle ostriches by their wings. Leg fractures are always serious and may, unfortunately, lead to a decision of euthanasia in ostrich residents.
Stomach Impaction: This can be caused by a combination of stress and access to foreign materials. Additionally, moving residents to a new or unpalatable diet might encourage them to look around for other, less appropriate things to eat. Call your veterinarian immediately if you think your resident has eaten something that might cause an impaction.
Reproductive Issues: Peritoneal hernias, egg peritonitis, and egg-binding are all reproductive conditions to look out for.
Safe Handling Of Ostriches
Before you need to handle your resident ostriches 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 you need to move them from one place to another. 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, ostriches 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 ostriches! This can cause unnecessary stress and injury as they may attempt to flee. Ostriches can injure themselves or humans if they struggle against restraint or feel cornered or chased. Restraining an ostrich resident requires great care and skill to ensure the safety and well-being for all involved. For this reason, it is vital that you have a compassionate expert show you how to best handle and restrain ostrich residents when necessary.
Health Exams For Ostriches
Ask An Expert
Prior to regularly conducting ostrich health examinations, you should have a veterinarian or care expert give you hands-on training to be the best ostrich 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 ostrich 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 rate and respiratory rate. 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 ostrich examinations.
Enrichment For Ostriches
Enrichment is important for all individuals and should ideally be considered an aspect of general care. To start, you could hang treat balls, add browse or sprinkle different scents around their outdoor living space, or add 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. You can learn more about the types of enrichment and why enrichment is important for residents here and here. You can also check out our turkey enrichment resource for some fun ideas to consider for your ostrich residents!
We hope you found this resource a useful jumping-off point for learning how to care for ostrich residents compassionately. If you have experience with ostriches at your sanctuary, we would love to hear from you and learn what works best for your ostrich residents!
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