6 Turkey Diseases, Symptoms, and Treatment
Sick Turkey Symptoms Can Help You Determine the Right Treatment.
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What turkey diseases, symptoms, and treatment should you be aware of, whether you intend to raise broad-breasted or heritage birds?
Generally, turkeys are pretty hardy creatures — to the extent, it isn’t uncommon for them to excessively roughhouse! Still, they are vulnerable to several health issues, both specific to their species and domestic poultry in general.
As flock tenders, we tend to go through painstaking lengths to keep our birds healthy. This is important as most health issues can be prevented from ever happening in the first place when things are done right. But no matter how much care we take, problems are sure to arise at one point or another.
In turkeys, diseases are usually introduced via external factors — environmental or cross-contamination with other birds. A bit of education can help prevent some of them, or at the very least avoid losses through quick response to issues.
A challenge of pastured birds is the buffet of toxic plants at their disposal. Young milkweed, for example, is fatal to turkeys. One study found consuming just 1% of a bird’s body weight in milkweed resulted in death less than five hours later.
Symptoms of milkweed (and other plant species) poisoning include spasms and seizures ranging from mild to severe depending on dosage — but death is almost always the outcome.
Before pasturing any of your birds, take a look at poisonous plants in your area (often available from your county or state extension service) and do a careful inspection. Be sure to monitor the pasture throughout the year, cut down, and remove any toxic species that you find.
The turkey-specific strain of coronavirus, or coronaviral enteritis, infects the gastrointestinal tract. It is highly contagious and non-treatable, but antibiotics have been shown to reduce death loss by reducing other infections.
Turkeys pick up coronavirus from fecal contamination of other birds — but the virus can also be carried by insects, vehicles, people, and other animals that contaminate facilities after contact with infected birds.
Symptoms include depression, severe diarrhea, weight loss, and dehydration. Because this is similar to other conditions, lab testing is necessary to confirm a diagnosis.
Another gastrointestinal disease, blackhead, affects turkeys and other birds, including chickens. However, because chickens and other species tend to harbor roundworms — who are themselves hosts for the protozoa causing the blackhead — in their gut, they usually spread the infection to other birds.
Symptoms include yellowish diarrhea, lethargy, and an off-color, sickly-looking black head. Birds may slowly become emaciated.
It’s almost always fatal for turkeys, unlike other birds, with death rates as high as 70 to 100% in infected flocks.
Because there is no available treatment for blackhead in turkeys, strict and serious flock biosecurity is necessary. If you have other poultry types on your property or come into contact with other flocks, take great care to avoid cross-contamination.
Turkeys should be housed away from other poultry on the same property, along with a boot scrub or change before caring for them after being in contact with other birds.
Similar to chickenpox in people, fowlpox is a viral infection that causes scabs and lesions. Scabbing appears on the unfeathered parts such as combs on chickens or in the case of turkeys, the head and neck.
In another form of the disease, pox can appear on the mouth, throat and other internal mucous membranes impacting the ability to eat.
Vaccinations are available; they are typically not necessary on a regular basis. Because fowl pox is slow to spread, vaccines are often utilized to prevent ongoing infection within a flock.
Synovitis is a very common upper respiratory infection caused by the nasty bacteria, Mycoplasma (M. synoviae). It can also take on a tendinitis form that affects the joints and legs.
It can be tough to detect as the infection will be subclinical for some time and only evident in advanced stages. Death rates are low, but the outbreaks can spread far and quickly. Serious infections can condemn carcasses at processing.
Signs include loss of appetite, depression, lameness, and abnormalities or swelling on the feet and legs. Synovitis can be treated with a number of different antibiotics, but because of its rapid spread and subtle nature, eradication is highly encouraged by professionals. Other than avoiding contamination from other flocks, be sure to only purchasing poults from hatcheries that report being M. synoviae-free.
Poults and adults, toms especially, are notoriously rough with one another. This can range from dominant feather pulling up to full-on cannibalism of other birds.
Some research has suggested red lighting may decrease pecking behavior, but the exact implications and results are unclear. If poults are showing aggression early on, this is certainly worth giving a try.
Not crowding pens both gives weaker birds room to flee and reduces irritable behavior. Similar to red lighting, some research has found putting peckable “enrichment objects” in the pen (cardboard, soft wood, etc.) may also help reduce feather pulling and pecking.
In cases of ongoing aggression towards weaker birds, it may be necessary to separate them from their penmates permanently.
- Coronaviral Enteritis of Turkeys (Bluecomb, By, Guy, J., & 2020, L. (n.d.). Coronaviral enteritis of Turkeys – Poultry. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2021.
- Fowlpox in Chickens and Turkeys By Deoki N. Tripathy, By, Tripathy, D., & Last full review/revision Jul 2019 | Content last modified Jul 2019. (n.d.). Fowlpox in chickens and Turkeys – Poultry. Retrieved Feb. 20, 2021.
- Medicine, C. (n.d.). Blackhead disease in poultry. Retrieved Feb. 21, 2021
- Mycoplasma synoviae Infection in Poultry (Infectious Synovitis) By Mohamed El-Gazzar, By, El-Gazzar, M., & Last full review/revision May 2020 | Content last modified May 2020. (n.d.). Retrieved Feb. 20, 2021.
- Stiles, G. (2019, December 11). Poisoning of Turkey poults From WHORLED MILKWEED (ASCLEPIAS galioides). Retrieved Feb. 23, 2021.
Originally published in the October/November 2021 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.