Ataxia, imbalance and neural disorders in waterfowl

By Doug Ottinger

Waterfowl are incredibly tough and hardy. Often long-lived compared to many other poultry species, you can keep them for years without ever having any problems. However, there are several illnesses and physical problems that sometimes set in, first manifesting as ataxia (a general clumsiness when trying to walk or fly), disequilibrium (noted balance problems), or even of total paralysis. All of these symptoms are symptoms of deeper underlying issues of disease onset, neural damage, or some type of poisoning. These situations must be dealt with
immediately when the first symptoms appear.

Ataxia and imbalance in birds, including waterfowl, are often the first signs that something is seriously wrong. There are many causes, including physical damage 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 complete list of neural problems or waterfowl diseases, but rather to provide a brief overview of some things waterfowl owners should be aware of. Knowing about potential health problems and their causes can help herd owners avoid
life-threatening situations, as well as giving them a starting point should any problems arise.

Botulism or “Limberneck”

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

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

The potent neurotoxin enters the victim’s bloodstream through the lining of the gastrointestinal tract. It reaches the peripheral nervous system via contracted botulism, including weakness, lethargy, inability to walk or fly, and loss of neck muscle control, resulting in the inability to hold the head up. In waterfowl, the inability to hold the head up is extremely problematic, as it can lead to drowning if the birds are on the water. If the dose of botulinum toxin ingested is large enough, death can occur by paralysis of the respiratory system.

How botulinum affects the neuromuscular junction.

An older remedy that has been used in the treatment of botulism poisoning is to flush the gastrointestinal tract of affected poultry with a solution of clean water and Epsom salts (magnesium sulfate). Rinsing the gastrointestinal tract with a solution of potassium permanganate has also been reported to be effective. Even with potential cures available, the lethality of C. botulinum the toxins are so great that the best practice is to avoid situations that could lead to poisoning in the first place. Remove decaying vegetation from shorelines and streams, eliminate animal carcasses and developing maggots that may become accessible to waterfowl, and do not feed questionable feeds
are among the best preventive measures to avoid botulism poisoning.

Algal poisoning in waterfowl

Waterfowl owners with any type of pond, whether large or small, should be extremely aware and vigilant of algal blooms and similar organisms living in the pond water. Although not all algae are of concern, some species produce highly deadly toxins. One of the deadliest organisms of this type is commonly referred to as “blue-green algae”. This organism is not a true algae, but rather a type of cyanobacterium that thrives in warm, shallow, nutrient-rich water. The organisms produce a highly lethal blue-green algae or cyanobacteria. cyanotoxin, which is toxic not only to waterfowl, but also to dogs, humans and many others
animal species. The “blooms” of this organism usually occur during the summer months, but in warm regions it can be found all year round. These “flowers” ​​could be described as looking like pea soup or spilled green paint. Highly deadly, a duck or other waterfowl only needs to ingest 1.2 ounces, or 40 milliliters, of this flower to prove fatal.

Symptoms of poisoning include muscle weakness in the wings and legs (paresis), lethargy, tremors, ataxia, intermittent convulsions, and sudden death. Commercially prepared charcoal slurry solutions are sometimes effective as an antidote, but the reality is that cyanotoxins are highly lethal and only small doses can prove fatal. One of the best ways to avoid these problems is to design or plan for freshwater flow or exchange in a pond system or to have a way to drain and clean a pond if such bacterial blooms or algae grow. It is also imperative to ensure that ducks are not allowed access to ponds or streams with such blooms.

Blue-green algae or cyanobacteria.

Anti-pest infections

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

Any ducklings or other baby waterfowl showing symptoms of this disease should be isolated from the flock immediately and it should be assumed that the disease may be present in the flock until laboratory tests determine otherwise. Proactive dry cleaning of the premises (removal and safe disposal of litter), disinfection and isolation of a herd should be carried out if these symptoms are present. Veterinary help should also be sought.

Young mallard duck with fresh head.

Look for behaviors

Knowing the behaviors and movements of your poultry can give you a lot of information about their general health and the possible appearance of diseases. Discoordination, the onset of muscle weakness, increasing ataxia or clumsiness, paralysis, and other signs of neural impairment in waterfowl are often signs of more serious underlying problems that should be evaluated immediately. and treated. Maintaining clean premises, housing, and water sources will do wonders to help a waterfowl owner avoid the buildup of bacteria and other disease-causing pathogens. Although you may never encounter serious problems when raising waterfowl, being aware of the diseases and deficiencies that can affect a herd will help you to be prepared and proactive, and ready to do face such a situation should it arise.

DOUG OTTINGER lives, works and writes from his small hobby farm in northwest Minnesota. Doug’s background is in agriculture
with a focus on poultry and avian science.

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