Avoiding Foot and Leg Injuries in Waterfowl

Avoiding Foot and Leg Injuries in Waterfowl
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Waterfowl can be very susceptible to foot and leg injuries. While all poultry species are vulnerable to foot and leg maladies, ducks, geese, and swans can be very prone to injury, inflammation, and infection in the feet, shanks, and legs. Being aware of this inherent weakness in waterfowl can help owners stay alert and attentive to any problems before they become severe.  

Because domestic waterfowl have often been bred to be much heavier than their wild cousins and ancestors, it is not uncommon for the legs, feet, and shanks to be somewhat weak for the weight and support of their heavier, elongated bodies. Waterfowl can be prone to sprains, joint damage, and slipped tendons. Young waterfowl can also, on occasion, develop lameness or problems due to nutritional deficiencies. Bumblefoot, a malady occasionally seen in all poultry species, can develop unique complications in waterfowl.  

Waterfowl can be notoriously clumsy on land, especially on rough terrain, including broken, uneven ground or navigating over and around brush piles. These types of terrain are problematic for ducks and geese and increase the likelihood of joint sprains or other injuries to the feet and legs. Many breeds of domestic waterfowl were bred for increased body mass and are notoriously poor flyers. While some may fly well, many do not. Having elevated areas that require ducks and geese to jump or fly up to, for access, or to jump down from, to reach the ground, can cause leg injuries in waterfowl.  

Building and maintaining pens and yards designed for the heavier body mass of many domestic waterfowl is one of the best ways to protect your birds from sustaining foot and leg injuries. Flat surface areas with some grass or similar vegetation are ideal. Avoid extremely uneven, broken areas if possible. If a place to be used for a waterfowl pen or yard is very rough, such as an abandoned demolition or building site, has been roughly plowed, or is otherwise very uneven and broken, additional clean-up, smoothing, and finishing is well worth the effort. Because of a high likelihood for cuts and invasive injuries to webbed feet (which can become seriously infected), rake up and remove sharp items on abandoned building sites — such as nails, sharp metal, broken glass, or sharp rocks and concrete — before placing ducks or geese in such areas. Highly curious, these birds may also ingest pieces of sharp metal or glass and develop serious or fatal internal injuries. 

Because of the large, fleshy, webbed surface on the bottom of their feet, waterfowl are prone to cuts and puncture damage. 

When planning or designing pens and housing for ducks and geese, remember they do not need elevated sleeping or feeding areas. Any abrupt change in height or elevation, which they must navigate, is one more chance for them to develop leg injuries. Ducks and geese are ground layers and will seek out piles of clean straw or even just bare dirt on which to nest and lay. If you are raising them for egg production, ensure plenty of clean straw covers the floor. Ducks are often very happy to lay in a depression in the dirt or mud, severely soiling and ruining marketable eggs. 

Bumblefoot, also known as pododermatitis or ulcerative pododermatitis, is an infection and inflammation of the feet and shanks of poultry that commonly results from cuts, puncture wounds, or other injuries. Waterfowl are particularly susceptible. Common bacterial agents causing the infection may include multiple strains of Staphylococcus, E. coli, and Pseudomonas. Strains of mycoplasma, typically associated with respiratory infections, have also been isolated as the cause in certain cases. In gallinaceous birds such as chickens and turkeys, the infection often stays localized in the foot of the bird, and home treatment is usually enough to treat the condition. However, waterfowl can quickly get a more severe and extended infection in the feet and legs. Because of the large, fleshy, webbed surface on the bottom of their feet, waterfowl are prone to cuts and puncture damage.  

Unfortunately, you may not notice the infection itself until the day you see the bird hobbling painfully, having general difficulty in standing or walking, or being unable to stand at all. Waterfowl are very adept at hiding leg and foot injuries as a matter of innate survival and protection from predators. Upon examination, you may observe noticeable swelling of the hock joint. The foot and leg will often be noticeably warm and feverish. In waterfowl, infections in the foot can rapidly move up the leg, invading the tendon sheath. Once the infection reaches this stage, superficial home lancing, soaking, and other treatments may not be enough. As the infection is now systemic, antibiotic treatment from a veterinarian may be necessary, including antibiotic injections directly into the breast muscle. For these reasons, keep waterfowl pens, runs, and pastures as free, as possible, from anything which might injure their feet. 

In waterfowl, pododermatitis and inflammation in the feet and legs do not always result from external injuries to the foot. It can just as easily result from internal injuries to the joints of the feet and legs. As mentioned previously, having high and low areas which require heavier birds to navigate is often a cause of these injuries. As an added note, the heavier species are also prone to foot and leg injuries from the extended weight bearing on legs and joints that are not adequate for their body mass. 

In waterfowl, pododermatitis and inflammation in the feet and legs do not always result from external injuries to the foot. It can just as easily result from internal injuries to the joints of the feet and legs.

Waterfowl are built to swim. While swimming is not necessary, they thoroughly enjoy having a swimming area available and will use it. The use of feet and legs during swimming naturally strengthens the legs and can help them avoid injuries. However, simply having a stock tank or tub without a ramp or other suitable way to get in and out is one common cause of leg injuries to waterfowl. A heavy goose or duck plopping clumsily on the ground as it tries to get out of a tub or tank may ruin any benefit the bird just got from swimming. If you have a pond, make sure it has a shallow area and an easy access point, allowing easy entry and exit for the birds. Stock tanks and tubs may also be set or buried in the ground to allow easier access. 

Lastly, nutritional deficiencies can play a part in waterfowl leg issues. With nutritionally balanced feeds readily available, this is something we rarely see today. However, one prime modern example would be a pet baby duck purchased at Easter and fed only cornmeal or oatmeal during the first few weeks of life. It is not uncommon for such babies to develop rickets from lack of phosphorous and calcium or lack of adequate vitamin D. Slipped tendon, or perosis, another painful nutritional disorder, can also result from nutritional imbalance. Both are generally treated with supplemented, corrective diets.  

We can avoid many leg and foot injuries in waterfowl with a little forethought and planning. While even the best of planning may not eradicate every chance of injury, attention to small details in their environment, as well as monitoring them for potential health issues, will help you have many years of happy enjoyment from these personable and intelligent birds.

Originally published in the April/May 2022 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.

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