Ataxia, Disequilibrium, and Neural Disorders in Waterfowl

Ataxia, Disequilibrium, and Neural Disorders in Waterfowl

By Doug Ottinger

WATERFOWL ARE AMAZINGLY RESILIENT and hardy. Often long-lived when compared to many other species of poultry, you may keep them for years and never have any problems. However, there are several diseases and physical problems that will sometimes take hold, first exhibiting in the forms of ataxia (a general clumsiness when trying to walk or fly), disequilibrium (noted balancing problems), or even total paralysis. All of these are symptoms of deeper, underlying issues of disease onset, neural damage, or some type of poisoning. These situations should be addressed
immediately when symptoms are first noticed.

Ataxia and disequilibrium in birds, including waterfowl, are often the first signs that something is seriously amiss. There are numerous causes, including physical injury to the brain or spinal cord, viral or bacterial infections, nutritional imbalances, poisons or toxins, and tumors.

The purpose of this article is not to give a comprehensive listing of neural problems or diseases in waterfowl, but rather to give a brief overview of some things for waterfowl owners to be aware of. Being cognizant of potential health issues and their causes can help flock owners avoid
deadly situations, as well as giving them a starting point of reference if problems should occur.

Botulism or “Limberneck”

Botulism poisoning is a potential danger to waterfowl, both wild and domestic. It is caused by the neurotoxins produced by the anaerobic bacteria, Clostridium botulinum. This bacteria can reproduce rapidly in decaying vegetation along shorelines, decaying animal matter, or tightly packed feedstuffs. Poisoning occurs after the botulism toxin has been produced by the bacteria and is then ingested by the bird. Birds may also acquire the bacteria through consuming contaminated water.

Botulism toxin is one of the deadliest biological agents known. The bacteria actually produce eight separate, distinguishable poisons during the metabolic process. As a neurotoxin, it adversely affects the nerve impulses which control both voluntary and involuntary muscle control. The presence of the bacteria alone is not enough to cause sickness or poisoning. It is after the bacteria have grown, multiplied, and gone through the metabolic processes of producing toxins that poisoning can occur.

The potent neurotoxin enters the blood system of the victim through the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. It reaches the peripheral nervous system via the have contracted botulism include weakness, lethargy, inability to walk or fly, and loss of control of the neck muscles, leading to an inability to hold the head up. In waterfowl, the inability to hold up the head is extremely problematic, as this can lead to drowning if birds are on the water. If the dosage of ingested botulism toxin is large enough, death can occur from paralysis of the respiratory system.

How botulinum affects the neuromuscular junction.

One older remedy that has been used in the treatment of botulism poisoning is flushing the gastrointestinal tracts of affected fowl with a solution of drinking water and Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). Flushing the gastrointestinal tracts with a potassium permanganate solution has also been reported as effective. Even with potential remedies available, the lethality of C. botulinum toxins are so great that the best practice is to avoid situations that could lead to poisoning in the first place. Eradicating decaying vegetation on shorelines and waterways, disposing of any animal carcasses and the resulting maggot development that could become accessible to waterfowl, and not feeding any questionable feedstuffs
are among the best preventative measures to avoid botulism poisoning.

Algal Poisoning in Waterfowl

Waterfowl owners with any type of pond, whether large or small, should be crucially aware and watchful of algae blooms, and some look-alike organisms living in pond water. While not all algae are cause for concern, there are certain types that produce highly lethal toxins. One of the most deadly of such organisms is one commonly known as “Blue-green algae.” This organism is not a true algae, but rather a type of cyanobacteria that thrives in warm, shallow, nutrient-rich water. The organisms produce a highly lethal Green-blue algae or cyanobacteria. cyanotoxin, which is poisonous to not only waterfowl, but also dogs, humans, and many other
animal species. “Blooms” of this organism generally occur during summer months, but in warm regions, it can be found year-round. These “blooms” might best be described as looking like pea-soup or spilled green paint. Highly lethal, a duck or other waterfowl need only ingest 1.2 ounces, or 40 milliliters, of this bloom to prove fatal.

Symptoms of poisoning include muscular weakness in the wings and legs (paresis), lethargy, tremors, ataxia, intermittent seizures, and sudden death. Commercially prepared charcoal suspension solutions are sometimes effective as an antidote, but the reality is that cyanotoxins are highly lethal and it takes only small dosages to prove fatal. One of the best ways to avoid these problems is to engineer or plan for a flow or exchange of fresh water within a pond system or have a way to drain and clean a pond if such bacterial or algal blooms develop. Making sure that ducks are not allowed to access ponds or waterways with such blooms is also imperative.

Green-blue algae or cyanobacteria.

Anatipestifer Infections

Anatipestifer infections, also known as duck septicemia or new duck disease, is a highly contagious, highly lethal infection caused by one or more strains of Riemerella anatipestifer bacteria. Found in all major duck-raising areas of the world, this infection can cause mortality losses of 90% or more. While a disease outbreak can affect waterfowl of any age, birds in the 2- to 7-week-old range are the most susceptible. The bacteria cause deadly internal lesions and septicemia in its victims. However, one of the first signs of the disease is varying levels of incoordination, general clumsiness in movement, and loss of balance due to infection of the meninges, or protective sheath surrounding the brain and spinal cord. In extreme cases, young ducklings may be found lying on their backs, paddling their feet and legs in the air.

Any ducklings or other baby waterfowl showing symptoms of this disease should be immediately isolated from the flock and an assumption should be made that the disease could be present in the flock until lab tests can rule otherwise. Proactive dry cleaning of premises (removal and safe disposal of litter), disinfection, and isolation of a flock should be done if these symptoms are present. Veterinary help should also be sought.

Young mallard duck with fresh head.

Look for Behaviors

Being aware of the behaviors and movement of your poultry can give you much information about their overall health and the possible onset of disease. Discoordination, onsets of muscular weakness, increased ataxia or clumsiness, paralysis, and other signs of neural impairment in waterfowl are often signs of more serious, underlying issues that need to be immediately assessed and dealt with. Maintaining clean premises, housing, and water sources will work wonders in helping an owner of waterfowl avoid build-ups of bacteria and other pathogens that cause disease. While you may be fortunate to never experience any serious problems while raising waterfowl, being cognizant of diseases and impairments that can affect a flock will help you be prepared and proactive, and ready to deal with such a situation if it should arise.

DOUG OTTINGER lives, works, and writes from his small hobby farm in Northwest Minnesota. Doug’s educational background is in agriculture
with an emphasis in poultry and avian science.

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