This resource has been updated as part of the veterinary review process. It was originally published on May 21, 2019.
DucklingsYoung ducks (baby ducksUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated duck breeds, not wild ducks, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource.) have their own set of care needs that differ from the care needs of mature ducks. Understanding these needs and ensuring you are meeting them is imperative if you are to take on the care of a ducklingA young duck (or ducklings). Below we will discuss important aspects of duckling care.
Intake Recommendations For Ducklings
When a new duckling finds their way to your sanctuary, it’s critical to follow appropriate intake and quarantine guidelines in order to protect your new resident and the existing flock. Upon intake, the duckling should be evaluated for signs of health issues, and any issues should be discussed with your veterinarian. If your duckUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated duck breeds, not wild ducks, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource. residents are vaccinated against certain diseases, be sure to coordinate the administration of these vaccinations to the duckling in consultation with your veterinarian. If the duckling is with their mother, you should not separate the two unless absolutely necessary, such as if one of them has a communicable illness or needs extra space to recover from a health issue.
Nutrition Recommendations For Ducklings
Ideally, ducklings should eat a complete diet waterfowl or duckling starter food. Many (non-sanctuary) recommendations suggest that ducklings should be fed a formulation with 21-22% protein for their first two weeks of life and should then be switched to 16-18% protein from two weeks until they are 6 months old (or until females begin laying). However, according to Nutrient Requirements Of Poultry, ducklings under 2 weeks of age may not require such high protein levels, because a few studies have indicated that ducklings did well on protein levels of 18-19%. In breeds that tend to get quite large, such as Pekins (especially “Jumbo” Pekins) and Muscovies, it may be advisable to stay toward the lower end of protein ranges to prevent rapid weight gain.
If waterfowl starter is unavailable, chick starter can be used on the following conditions: first, it must be unmedicated. Second, since ducklings have higher niacin requirements than chicks, when using chick starter, you will need to provide supplemental niacin. Niacin deficiency can lead to serious leg and joint disorders that can ultimately shorten an individual’s lifespan and negatively impact their quality of life. We always recommend consulting with an experienced veterinarian for specific recommendations for vitamin supplementation, as different individuals may have different needs based on their breed, health, and diet. To give you an idea of how much niacin ducklings need, according to Nutrient Requirements Of Poultry, a Pekin duckling needs 55 milligrams of niacin per kilogram of food. Niacin supplements come in liquid and tablet form, which can be purchased at many drugstores. If your veterinarian recommends using brewer’s yeast, this can often be found at animal food stores.
Be aware that ducklings tend to make quite a mess and will often get their food wet. In certain temperatures, this wet food will be prone to souring, so be sure to replace it at least twice per day (and more often if needed). Also be sure to thoroughly clean food dishes at the end of each day. Never remove a duckling’s water source in an attempt to keep their food dry – not only do they need water to stay hydrated, they can choke if they have access to food but not water. The way waterfowl eat is known as “shoveling” which requires them to use their beak as a strainer through water. Without access to water while eating, dry food can form a paste in the mouth that is difficult to swallow.
Scratch can be provided, but only as a treat as it is not nutritionally whole. Finely-chopped green foods like fresh herbs, dandelion greens, or finely chopped romaine (not spinach) can be put into the ducklings’ waterer, offering both a tasty treat and a fun activity. Be sure the water source is easily accessible and cannot be readily knocked over (more on water sources below).
As ducklings have no teeth, they will need duckling-appropriate insoluble gritSmall stones or sand swallowed by birds to help them digest food. to help them break down any food other than their starter food, though if they have regular time outside, they should be able to get enough grit on their own. DO NOT offer grit that contains oyster shell or additional forms of calcium as too much calcium can result in health issues for ducklings.
Water Recommendations For Ducklings
Ducklings love water and should have access to fresh, clean drinking water at all times. They use water to help digest their food and clean their nareseither of the pair of openings of the nose or nasal cavity (nostrils), so they should have access to a water source into which they can dip their bills. Their water will become dirty quickly (and even faster if they are able to get into the water), and should be replaced regularly. Ducklings love to bathe and swim; however, it is important to know that until their feathers come in (typically around 6 weeks of age), they are not yet waterproof and can become waterlogged and get sick or drown if left in a water source unattended or one where they can not easily get out. Any water sources for bathing should be lukewarm and remain shallow but deep enough for a duckling to fit their entire bill. It should be easy for them to get in and out safely. If a duckling soaks their feathers, they may need to be dried off to prevent becoming chilled.
Living Space Recommendations For Ducklings
It is important that ducklings live in a draft-free shelter with proper ventilation. Drafts and poor ventilation can cause unwanted health problems. Do NOT place them in cages with wire bottoms as this can cause serious foot and even beak injuries. Additionally, be sure surfaces are not slippery as ducklings can slip and injure their legs. You can use rubber drawer liners or rubber mats on the floor (under their bedding) to ensure a non-slip surface. Some breeds of ducklings are natural jumpers, requiring tall siding to the living spaces they are in.
Ducklings can and will splash their water, and their waste is quite wet. This being said, you will have to keep up with the mess as best you can to ensure they have a dry, clean living spaceThe indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests.. They should have clean, dry bedding. Options such as non-woven blankets, pee pads, towels, and astro turf are ideal, with other options such as kiln-dried pine or aspen wood shavings, or straw are less ideal, but still an option. Straw bedding can increase the risk of aspergillosis (discussed below), so some bird caregivers choose to avoid it entirely. If using straw, be aware that long strands of straw can be difficult to walk through, so shorter fibered varieties may be best. Cedar should never be used in avian living spaces as it can cause severe respiratory issues. Ducklings will nibble at anything in their living space, including bedding, so any of the straw or wood shaving bedding options pose a slight risk for inappropriate ingestion. For this reason it can be important to get bedding that is either big enough that they can’t eat it or is something they do not appear interested in eating. Additionally, ducklings are quite messy and need constant access to water, so changing their bedding two to three times daily is ideal.
Heat Sources For Ducklings
Young ducklings without their mother will need a heat source. As a general rule, you should start off at 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius) for newly hatched ducklings and decrease temperature 5 degrees over each week until their feathers come in or until you reach the ambient temperature of the space they are housed in. When providing supplemental heat, be sure to do so thoughtfully, avoiding heat sources that carry a high risk of causing a fire or injury, always be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding safe and proper use, and keep heat sources away from flammable materials (such as their bedding).
Many online sources will recommend the use of a heat lamp, but you must be aware that these come with serious risk. Not only are heat lamps a fire risk, some glass bulb heat lamps are coated with substances containing polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). At high temperatures, these bulbs can put out highly toxic fumes, resulting in Polytetrafluoroethylene Toxicosis (also known as Teflon Flu and Polymer Fume Fever). PTFE coated bulbs (and any other items containing PTFE or Teflon) should never be used around birds. Ceramic bulb heat lamps are a safer option, but be sure they are secured so that residents cannot come into direct contact with them, and keep them at least 18 inches away from any flammable materials to prevent burns and fires. Place them at one end of their living space so ducklings can adjust where they’d like to be in proximity to the heat. An even safer alternative heat source is a radiant heater like the EcoGlo from Brinsea. You adjust the height each week until the ducklings’ feathers have come in.
For an option that does not need to be plugged in, you can use Snuggle Safe microwavable heat discs (or a similar product), but you must ensure this is enough to keep ducklings appropriately warm. Be sure to keep discs in a Snuggle Safe cover or wrapped in a blanket or towel to prevent ducklings from coming into direct contact with the disc, and pay attention to when they need to be reheated. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions regarding use and reheating. If caring for a group of ducklings, make sure to offer enough heat discs so that everyone can get to a warm area if desired, but make sure they still have plenty of non-heated space, too, so that they can choose how near or far they need to be from the heat.
Additionally, you will need to take care not to overheat ducklings in warmer weather. If you live in a warmer climate and have a draft-free living space for the ducklings, they may not require a heat source. A regular light bulb may provide enough warmth for ducklings in this situation. Observe the ducklings’ behavior. If they are too cold, they will crowd and huddle near the heat source. If they are too hot, they will attempt to spread out along the edges, away from the heat, or the ducklings may stand with their wings hanging out.
If the weather is warm and calm, you can begin taking healthy ducklings out for mini supervised “outings” but they should not be left unattended or remain out for long periods of time until they are at least 6 weeks old. Additionally, even after they are old enough to spend time outside without constant supervision, be aware that they may need to be encouraged back into their indoor living space during inclement weather.
Social Considerations For Ducklings
Ducklings are social and should be brought up with other ducklings when possible. If you rescue a group of ducklings, you can typically quarantine them as a group, separating them only if individuals aren’t getting along or if someone has a health issue that requires separation. Ducklings learn important skills from their mother and, as mentioned above, should not be separated from their mother unless absolutely necessary.
Despite their social nature, if you are caring for a single duckling who is without their mother, it’s still important to follow proper intake and quarantine procedures. Failing to do so and immediately introducing them to your duck residents could potentially spread disease. In the case of a single duckling in quarantine, additional attention should be paid to addressing their social needs during this time. You might place a stuffed animal duck in with them as “company” (some stuffed animals are even designed to hold a microwavable heat disc, providing both heat and comfort). You might also include a mirror, and you can consider other safe social enrichment strategies as well.
In some cases, sanctuaries that have rescued a single duckling have decided to welcome another duckling in need of rescue so that the two can grow up together after they have completed their quarantine and/or gotten the all clear from a veterinarian. Be cautious if introducing two ducklings as an older/larger duckling may injure a younger/smaller duckling or not allow them to eat.
Once new ducklings have completed their quarantine and are deemed healthy, you can consider introducing them to your duck residents. The age at which you slowly start introducing ducklings to the flock will be dependent on personalities, nutritional needs, flock arrangements, and your set-up. In most cases, you should wait until they are at least 6 weeks old, though some caregivers prefer to wait quite a bit longer. Ideally, introductions are done in short, supervised meetings, spread over several days (or longer). If conducting a springtime introduction, keep in mind that drakes (male ducks) may behave more territorially and should be closely monitored – they may be too rough at this point for young ducklings.
During introductions, you should watch for any signs of older ducks “picking on” or biting the ducklings and intervene immediately. If it seems to be too much to introduce them to the entire group, but there is a duck who has taken to the ducklings, you might opt to set up a space for them to spend time with the ducklings away from the rest of the flock. You can read more about the introduction process here.
Duckling Health Considerations
Ducklings can be particularly susceptible to certain illnesses and diseases. When caring for ducklings, it’s important to be familiar with some of the more common health challenges they face, so you can watch closely for signs of these issues in your residents. Ducklings should be monitored closely for any signs of illness including lethargy, decreased appetite, diarrhea, labored breathing, panting, and sinus flaring. If a duckling appears to be separating themselves from the flock, this could be a sign of illness or a sign that they are getting picked on. Pay close attention to their mobility – healthy ducklings should walk and run without any sign of lameness, and when they stand both legs should be evenly under them. If you have any concerns about a duckling in your care, contact an experienced veterinarian for guidance.
While not an exhaustive list, duckling caregivers should be familiar with the following health issues.
Angel wing is a condition that causes a duckling’s wing feathers to turn outwards. A diet high in protein and excess calories is thought to be a common cause of angel wing, though genetics, incubation and hatching issues, as well as restricted exercise may also be contributing factors. Angel wing is the result of new feathers developing faster than the musculoskeletal structures necessary to support them. The weight of these new feathers cause the joint to twist. As a result, the affected wing tip(s) is not able to be tucked into a normal position against the body. When caught very early, angel wing can be corrected, but you should consult with a veterinarian to make sure you are taking appropriate corrective measures (while also addressing the underlying cause, if applicable). While bandages and splints are often used to correct angel wing, it is imperative you are shown how to do this correctly as improper technique can have unintended consequences. If not caught early, before the bones have mineralized, the condition will be permanent. While permanent disfiguration of the wing(s) is detrimental in free-living wild ducks since it prevents them from being able to fly, sanctuary residents can live a happy, healthy life with the condition.
Aspergillosis is a non-contagious fungal disease that typically manifests as respiratory illness in birds. While there are numerous species of Aspergillusany of a genus (Aspergillus) of ascomycetous fungi with branched radiate sporophores including many common molds, Aspergillus fumigatus, a ubiquitous soil fungus, is the most common cause in chickens, turkeysUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated turkey breeds, not wild turkeys, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource., ducks, and geeseUnless explicitly mentioned, we are referring to domesticated goose breeds, not wild geese, who may have unique needs not covered by this resource.. Aspergillosis is an opportunistic infection – while birds are constantly exposed to fungal spores, often without developing disease, immunosuppression (such as from stress, corticosteroid use, disease, or malnutrition) and being exposed to large numbers of aerosolized spores may result in disease. Poor ventilation, unsanitary conditions, wet bedding, moldy food, and warm, humid conditions increase the risk of aspergillosis. Therefore, you can help protect your residents by properly storing food, keeping living spaces clean and well ventilated, and ensuring spaces do not become warm and humid. Straw bedding can harbor mold and fungus, so wood shavings or other non-straw (and non-hay) bedding is a better option if aspergillosis is a concern. Signs of aspergillosis include open-mouth breathing, labored breathing, tail bobbing, gasping, and an elevated respiratory rate. Other signs include inappetence and lethargy. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if you suspect aspergillosis. Diagnosis can be challenging, so be sure to work with your veterinarian to see what diagnostics they recommend. Treatment is also challenging and often requires aggressive and prolonged antifungal treatment (such as itraconazole) as well as supportive care. In addition to treatment, be sure to take steps to reduce your residents’ exposure to spores by keeping living spaces dry, ensuring food and bedding are not wet or moldy, switching from straw to a safer bedding option, and improving ventilation.
Duck Viral Hepatitis
Duck viral hepatitis specifically affects ducklings between the ages of 1-28 days. It is rarely seen in ducklings older than this. The disease has a rapid onset and is both highly contagious and fatal. Ducklings with this disease may develop spasms in their legs and die within the hour. Their neck is usually arched backwards upon death. Sadly, the mortality rate for this disease can reach 95%. You can help protect younger ducklings (under a month old) from this disease by keeping them separate from adult ducks (including wild waterfowl).
Ducklings are susceptible to internal parasites just like their grown-up counterparts. Sometimes cases are mild, but parasitic infections have the potential to be quite serious and, if left untreated, can even be fatal in ducklings. Be sure to speak to your vet about the best screening protocols for ducklings, and if you suspect an individual has an internal parasitic infection, be sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding diagnosis and treatment. Consider discussing an anti-parasite treatment plan for all your duck residents with your veterinarian.
Ducklings may be born with obvious leg deformities or develop leg issues as they grow (the terms “splay leg” or “spraddle leg” are often used to refer to deformities that result in one or both legs turning outward). There are many potential causes of leg issues in ducklings, including incubation issues, nutritional deficiencies, or injury. Depending on the specific issue, correction may be possible, but this requires veterinary assessment to determine the cause. Do not attempt to splint or bandage legs without guidance from a veterinarian as this could cause more harmThe infliction of mental, emotional, and/or physical pain, suffering, or loss. Harm can occur intentionally or unintentionally and directly or indirectly. Someone can intentionally cause direct harm (e.g., punitively cutting a sheep's skin while shearing them) or unintentionally cause direct harm (e.g., your hand slips while shearing a sheep, causing an accidental wound on their skin). Likewise, someone can intentionally cause indirect harm (e.g., selling socks made from a sanctuary resident's wool and encouraging folks who purchase them to buy more products made from the wool of farmed sheep) or unintentionally cause indirect harm (e.g., selling socks made from a sanctuary resident's wool, which inadvertently perpetuates the idea that it is ok to commodify sheep for their wool). than benefit in the rapidly growing duckling.
To help prevent leg issues caused by slipping injury, be sure to provide adequate traction for ducklings, as described above. Hard substrates and improper flooring can lead to bumblefoot (pododermatitis or infected feet) which can become so severe that it can cause joint or bone infections if not addressed. Ducklings should not be kept on cement flooring, and all housing should have appropriate padding to prevent this sort of injury. Be sure to regularly inspect the feet for signs of lesions and contact a veterinarian immediately if they develop.
Omphalitis is an infection of the navel and/or yolk sac. This may be caused by contamination of the egg or incubator, or due to ducklings being exposed to contaminated environments before their navel has closed. Ducklings with omphalitis may have an inflamed navel, there may be discharge or a scab, and it may fail to close. The abdomen of infected ducklings becomes enlarged, the duckling may feel “flabby”, and there is typically a putrid odor from the duckling. Other signs include refusal to eat, lethargy, huddling near heat sources, and droopiness. Death can occur within the first 24 hours of hatching, and ducklings may appear healthy until just a few hours before death. If you rescue newly hatched ducklings, keep an eye out for this disease and contact your veterinarian immediately any time a duckling is showing signs of illness.
Very young ducklings can develop a condition which is commonly called “pasty butt” where feces stick to their vent, clogging it and making it impossible for them to defecate. Left untreated, this is fatal. While certain diseases can cause diarrhea, leading to vent pasting, other times stress or even temperature changes can lead to vent pasting as well. “Pasty butt” is a symptom, not a diagnosis, and in cases where this is a concern, a veterinarian should be consulted to diagnose and treat the underlying cause. During the first two weeks of life, you should check a duckling’s vent at least once daily, gently cleaning as needed. Be aware that ducklings can chill easily, and they do not have their waterproof feathers until they are older, so clean their vent without getting them overly wet. A dampened cotton swab can usually do the trick.
Wry neck, an unnatural twisting of the neck, can be a result of trauma, toxins, a vitamin deficiency, or an issue during incubation. This twisting can range from minor to severe. If one of your duckling residents is showing signs of wry neck, be sure to consult with your veterinarian immediately in order to determine the cause and best treatment options. In some cases vitamin supplementation may be necessary. In severe cases, individuals may have difficulty walking, eating, and drinking. Be sure to provide supportive care as necessary to ensure they are able to get the nutrients they need and make sure their current living arrangement is safe for them.
When Ducklings Grow Up
As we have covered, ducklings have different nutritional, environmental, and health needs than adult ducks. The younger the duckling, the more protection, heat, and protein (amino acids) they need. As they grow, their downy fuzz will be replaced with sleek waterproof feathers. This transition will allow them to regulate their body temperature and become more buoyant in water. They will be able to swim more safely at this point and can be on a waterfowl food that has a lower protein content. Females may need to be fed a “layer” diet or receive additional calcium once they start actively laying eggs.
Taking time to consider the specific needs of ducklings as a species and as individuals will help ensure your residents are happy and healthy!
Caring For Ducklings And GoslingsYoung geese | The Majestic Waterfowl Sanctuary
Feeding Your Waterfowl | The Majestic Monthly Issue 22
What Should I Feed My Pet Ducks | RSPCA Knowledge Base
Avian Respiratory Emergencies | MSPCA Angell
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Treating Angel Wing Deformity: A Sling For The Wing | Today’s Veterinary Practice
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Overview Of Omphalitis In Poultry | Merck Veterinary Manual
Wry Neck | The Majestic Monthly Issue 165
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