Duck disease – Major diseases, Cause, Effects, Transmission, Human risk and Prevention

duck disease is globally defined as any condition that affects and/or inhibits the birds’ normal functions. This definition actually covers virtually every agent that affects waterfowl including viruses, bacteria, toxins and parasites. There are several factors that make waterfowl susceptible to diseases:

  1. Nature of waterfowl during fall and winter: This places them at greater risk of transmitting infectious pathogens.
  2.  Loss of habitat: This forces more birds to crowd into fewer suitable areas for living.
  3.  Migratory habits of waterfowl: This increases the risk of spreading diseases from the source of an outbreak to great distances.

There are numerous diseases that affect and have caused substantial die-offs to waterfowl all over the world, and this article takes you through the major diseases one by one.


This type of disease is caused by the Pasteurella multocida bacterium. This is very common in Asia and the Middle East countries. Avian Cholera is a dangerously infectious disease that can lead to death in less or equal to six hours, although the typical death period is about 24 to 48 hours.

Under chronic conditions , sudden die-offs involving more than 1,000 birds per day have come about in wild water fowls.

Transmission occurs via bird-to-bird contact, airborne ingestion (perhaps) and also through infected food or water.

History: Avian cholera was first recorded in North America during the 1943-44 winter, when an struck wintering waterfowl at the Muleshoe National Wildlife Refuge and other areas of the Texas Panhandle.

Ever since, Avian cholera has brought about the death of thousands of waterfowl throughout North America, including recurring outbreaks in the Texas Panhandle and the Rainwater Basin in Nebraska, the Central Valley and Tulare Basin in California, and the Klamath Basin in northern California and southern Oregon.

Effects and symptoms: Sick birds often appear lethargic. Other symptoms include swimming in circles, convulsions, heads thrown back between the wings, to mention but a few.

Human risk: Avian Cholera is not regarded as a high-risk disease for humans because of the differences in the strains in waterfowl and humans respectively.

Prevention: Vaccination using multi-strain deactivated vaccines can be effective in the prevention of infections, which are not often passed vertically but can remain on the farm for many cycles of production.

Rats are known to be a vector for P.multicoda and transfer among waterfowl are water-borne and can be transferred around feed troughs.
Treatment of acute cases is almost impossible with antibiotics, some chronic cases may respond to tetracycline but they only tend to last as long as the treatments.


This disease, probably the most well-known waterfowl diseases, results from the ingestion of a toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. Avian botulism attacks the nervous system and can lead to death in as little as 24 hours.

duck botulism

Major avian botulism epizootic (epidemic among animals) have been reported throughout North America for more than a century, causing deaths of millions of waterfowl across the western United States and in California and Utah.

Effects and symptoms: Avian botulism affects the peripheral nerves that control voluntary muscles, causing varying degrees of paralysis, including symptoms such as dropping head, listlessness, and sagging head (sometimes called “limberneck”).

Other field symptoms include birds moving themselves across water using their wings, and paralysis of the inner eyelid.

Human risk: Although some strains of botulism can affect humans, waterfowl are usually affected by Type C botulism, which according to research, does not affect humans.

Note: thorough cooking kills the botulinum toxin in food.


The duck plague is a serious, contagious disease caused by a herpes virus, which causes the deaths of infected birds.

Effects and transmission: Duck plague attacks the vascular system, causing hemorrhaging and death usually within 14 days of exposure. Transmission occurs through bird-to-bird contact.

History: Duck plague was reported in North America in 1967 at a commercial duck farm in NY, New york. But it was originally diagnosed in 1949 in the Netherlands, and has since spread to other duck rearing areas in the world including the US. Since then, the disease has led to a number of waterfowl deaths across the US, with increasing reports each decade.

The first known major outbreak of the Duck plague occurred in January 1973 at Lake Andes National Wildlife Refuge in South Dakota, where over 40,000 mallards and small Canada geese died from the disease.

Symptoms: Infected birds often seek cover because they become sensitive to sunlight. Extreme thirst, bloody discharge or droopiness from the bill or vent may also occur. Other symptoms include: inability to fly, loss of wariness and convulsions.

Human risk: Fortunately, duck plague affects only ducks, swans and geese.


Lead poisoning is the ingestion of used or spent lead shot by ducks. This is a peculiar disease because it is caused totally by we, humans. ingestion of a single pellet may prove lethal and in some cases, a few pellets can cause death.

History: Sometime ago, an estimated 3,000 tons of lead shot were being lodged by hunters in North American wetlands each year, and the number of pellets in some wetlands averaged close to 70,000 per hectare. Within the United States alone, there was a historic annual estimated loss in the range of 1.6 million to 2.4 million birds in general.

Symptoms: Infected ducks – birds in general – often take several weeks to die and show symptoms like unwillingness to fly, severe emaciation, “roof-shaped” wings, and some bright green staining around the vent.

While a number of lead hot spots remain and periodic die-offs occur, the innovation of the nontoxic shot has cut short lead shot deposition in North American wetlands and has become a viable long-term solution to lead poisoning.

Human risk: None recorded. However, lead poisoning in general can have some effects on humans.


The disease was first described in the US and has since been diagnosed around the world. DVH affects ducklings between 2 and 21 days of age. It usually starts out as an acute disease, with the affected birds dying within a few hours of showing clinical signs.

Symptoms: Birds often die in good condition with their heads stretching upwards in opisthotonus. Post mortem symptoms include an enlarged liver with petechial and ecchymotic haemorrhages. Clinical findings are diagnostic. Control is usually effective using a live vaccine in the foot of one-day-old ducks.

Human risk: None recorded.


Avian influenza is a virus whose default hosts include many species of waterfowl. Waterfowl such as ducks, swans, geese, do not often show signs of avian influenza infection, but the same can’t be said for poultry flocks, as they can experience a range of illness, from decreased egg production to high death rates.

Although, recent outbreaks in Asia have shown that ducks appear to be particularly susceptible to infection with the H5N1. The evidence suggests an increased risk of transmission of the H5N1 virus from waterfowl, wild fowls, to other commercially reared ducks in extensive systems in Asia.

Similar experiences in parts of the world have proved that Newcastle disease can become endemic in bird populations, causing control and eradication to be difficult. The recent global spread of the majorly pathogenic avian influenza H5N1 virus has formed the association between wild birds and domestic poultry.

Symptoms: Symptoms can range from fever, conjunctivitis, and muscle aches to severe respiratory distress, organ failure, pneumonia, and ultimately death.

Human risk: Strains of avian influenza that sicken and/or kills poultry does not necessarily make people sick, and strains of avan inflenza that makes people sick does not necessarily sicken and/or kill poultry. However, avain influenza has infected people in Europe, Asia, and Africa.

Human infection with avian influenza virus can happen when enough virus finds its way into the human eyes, nose, mouth, or is inhaled. This can be caused when virus suspended in the air (in droplets or dust) is breathed in by a person. It can also be contracted when a person touches a virus infected substance, and then touches their eyes, nose or mouth.


The best prevention is to simply avoid sources of exposure whenever possible. Infected birds cast off avian influenza through their mucous, saliva and faeces.
Also, CDC recommends that people responding to outbreaks should get a seasonal influenza vaccination, probably at least two weeks before engaging in an outbreak response.

Antiviral drugs can also be used: CDC recommends treatment with a neuraminidase inhibitor for strains of human infection with avian influenza A viruses.

However, some evidence of antiviral resistance has been reported in Asian lineage avian influenza A (H7N9) viruses and HPAI Asian lineage avian influenza A (HSN1) viruses. Monitoring of antiviral resistance among avian influenza A viruses, is critical and ongoing.

Other infections include:


Genuine salmonellosis is relatively rare in ducks but is frequently due to the stereotype Salmonella typhimurium. Clinical infections in commercial ducks usually follow a breakdown in hygiene measures on the breeder as identified for E.coli. Affected birds are usually of ages 3 to 12 days.

Symptoms: Depression, scour, acute enteritidis , acute dehydration, septicaemia, and the classical caeca cores of white caseous (of damaged or neurotic tissue; cheeselike) material. Death rate in flocks can be quite alarming, sometimes reaching 15%.

Preventive measures: Improved rodent control, water sanitation, use of competitive exclusion products, and improved house hygiene.
Human risk: None recorded.


Poor levels of hygiene gives rise and/or is a contributing factor to the disease Streptococcus zooepidemicus.

Symptoms: Congested carcasses, enlarged and mottled spleens, increased death rate at around 10 to 14 days of age, and often air sacculus.

Human risk: None recorded.


The heavier breeds of ducks such as but not restricted to Pekins, and Appleyards can be subject to bumblefoot. This is basically a Staphylococcus infection caused by a cut, splinter, or by hard landing. It manifests itself as a black scab at the bottom of the foot.

PreventionVetericyn can be used for treatments. An herbal balm can also be used to draw out the infection. In more advanced cases, surgery is required to cut off the kernel of infection with a scalpel; after which, the foot should be kept clean and dry until a new scab forms.


Quite similar to the lead poisoning is the impacted crop. Since ducks will eat virtually everything that comes their way, they sometimes suffer impacted crop if they ingest long pieces of string, plastic, rubber bands, or even twines.

The crop of a duck should be empty in the morning, since ducks digest every intake at night, so if you suspect that your duck might have impacted crop, gently massage the area, then offer olive oil, grit and plenty of water.

Prevention: Always keep your duck environment clean and free from potentially harmful materials, and if feed your ducks cut grass or weeds, be sure to cut them in short equal lengths.

Prolapsed Penis/Vent

A prolapse is a condition that occurs when the drake’s penis doesn’t retract after mating, or when a portion of the oviduct protrudes outside the duck’s body while she’s laying an egg.

The condition, in both cases, can correct itself on its own, but it’s a good idea to keep the area clean, and apply some sugar and some coconut oil  for a few days to keep them skin-tight, and the tissue soft.

In a situation whereby both the duck and the drake are suffering from prolapsed penis/vent, it’s a good idea to separate them to prevent mating while the prolapse is healing. You can try to carefully push the prolapse back inside if you don’t notice any improvement in a few days.

Prevention: Allocating plenty of room to your flock for exercise and also a healthy diet, can help prevent prolapse in your flock. In extreme situations, a visit to the vet might be on cards.

Note: A drake’s penis will fall off in the fall, and will grown anew in the spring, so that should correct the problem on it’s own.

In a duck’s case, it’s common for the prolapse of her vent to recur and not be able to be successfully treated.

Wry Neck

Wry neck is a condition that normally only affects ducklings. It can be fatal when left untreated, because the ducklings will be unable to hold their head up and will often not be able to walk correctly.

Wry neck can be caused by a blow to the head, vitamin deficiency or ingestion of toxins. Adding B1 and E vitamins, as well as selenium to the duckling’s diet can cure the condition. You can also supplement with vitamin capsules, or add some brewers yeast, sunflower seeds, wheat germ, or bran to their diet.

Herbs and spices such as sage, parsley, cinnamon, thyme, dandelion greens, alfalfa, spinach, turmeric, or even marjoram which contain both Vitamin E and selenium can be added too.

Sticky Eye/Eye Infection

Sticky eye can be caused by a number of factors such as but not restricted to a scratch, debris or rough mating. Eye issues and respiratory issues often go hand in hand in ducks because, their sinuses run down the back of their head.

Eye Infection

Symptoms: Bubbling eye, closed eye, redness or tearing.

Prevention and correction: Cleansing the eye well with saline and then making sure the duck has access to a deep, pleasant water bowl to submerse her entire head often clears up the problem; but if it doesn’t seem to get better in a few days, squeezing and extracting of goldenseal, or chamomile can help clear up the irritation.

In a more serious case infection Vet-Rx , a natural camphor-based solution that can be added to the water or applied to the nostrils, might be required.

Wet Feather

Wet feather is a condition where the preen gland, which ducks use to keep their feathers well-oiled and waterproofed, stops working.

It is caused when ducks are not allowed regular access to water in which to swim, or when ducks are kept in generally poor health or in unsanitary conditions.

Symptoms: Wet feather leads to the duck not being able to stay dry in the rain or water, increasing the chance of ducks getting chilled or drowning when placed in the water (pool) to swim.

Correction: If your duck seems to not possess that waterproof ability anymore, give her a bath using Dawn detergent, then rinse her well and blow dry her. This will remove any dirt and old oil, giving her a chance to start over.

Once done, only give her a tub of water to drink out of and to play with for a few days, after which you can then allow her pool access again; to see if she has regained her waterproofing ability.

In some sever cases however, the duck to go through a molt and grow-in all new feathers before she is waterproof again.

General guide to preventing Duck Diseases

Selecting waterfowls with care

  •  Raise only healthy duck. Sick or infected ducks should be culled immediately, and given necessary quarantine or disposal to avoid the spread of infection.

  • Always purchase ducks from a reliable source or hatchery.

Feed and Water

  • Feed ducks with balanced rations. Ducks fed with unbalanced rations are vulnerable to diseases.

  •  Provide fresh, cool and clean drinking water at all times. Polluted water is harmful to the ducks’ health and can affect general performance.

Clean the water bowls at least once a day.

  • Make sure to keep feeding troughs clean and dry at all times. Wet feed troughs are prone to contamination from harmful bacteria, harmful molds, and yeast, which are a source of mycotoxins. Since ducks are highly vulnerable to aflatoxicosis, great care must be taken over feeding troughs.
  • Ducks of the same age should be kept in the same brooder, and provided with the same medication.



  • The farm and its surroundings should be kept clean always. Ducks should be provided with a clean, dry litter and a well-drained environment.
  • There should be well-ventilated housing with a dry floor or litter. Do not overstock.
  •  Houses where ducks spend the night must be protected from dogs, cats, cayotes, foxes and other possible predators and disease vectors.
  •  Farmers should minimize activities that can cause stress to the ducks and hence lower their production.
  •  The bodies of dead ducks should be burnt or buried as soon as possible, so that flies, vultures and other carcass feeding organisms do not breed on the decomposing bodies.
  • Delivery trucks and visitors should be prevented from entering the production area, since they may introduce disease organisms onto the farm, not to talk of causing pollution (in the case of trucks).
  •  Footbaths should be installed at strategic locations, to prevent the entry of infective agents onto the farm.

Vaccination and Other Measures

  • The ducks should be vaccinated against duck cholera, using a polyvalent bacterin if available. An antibiotic-vitamin-mineral supplement should be given to suppress a build-up of bacterial infection and improve the ducks’ health.
  • The ducks should be sprayed with insecticide at least once a year to control lice, mites, beetles and other arthropods that may infest and annoy them.
  •  The ducks should not be fed decomposed food such as dead snails, shrimps, fish or spoiled meat, any of which may contain virulent micro-organisms or their toxins.
  •  Any rice fed to the ducks must be free of insecticides, since these can have an adverse effect on the health and production of the ducks.
  •  Farmers should keep good records of production and health status.
  •  They should supervise closely the overall duck farm operations.
  •  New stock should not be added to an existing flock. Newly arrived ducks should be quarantined for at least two weeks. Outbreaks of disease may occur if sick ducks are allowed to mix with the flock

Regardless of the duck type, ducks are far more healthier in general than chickens. You shouldn’t encounter too many problems with duck diseases. It’s easy to research ducks and duck related information when ever you’re in need of help with one issue of the other.

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