Care of Ducks, Geese, and Swans (Anseriformes)

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Most species of waterfowl, including domestic ducks, geese, and swans, are within the 140 species of birds in the family Anatidae of the taxonomic order Anseriformes. There are many domestic breeds of duck and most are descended from mallards. An exception is the Mucovy duck (Cairina moschata) which is a perching duck species found in South America. The Pekin or “Long Island” duck (Anas platyrhynchos domestica) is the most common breed of domestic duck. They have been selectively bred primarily for meat and egg production. As such, they are prone to reproductive-related disorders and obesity in captivity. Pekins are typically white-feathered with orange bill and feet. There are also many (60+) domestic breeds of geese such as the African, Chinese, Embden, Toulouse, and Sebastopol to name a few. Traditionally geese were kept as a source of meat and to warn of predators or trespassers. Geese which lack forehead knobs are descendants of graylag geese (Anser anser) while those with knobs are usually derived from the swan goose (Anser cygnoides). In some cases Canada geese (Branta canadensis) are partially domesticated though they are not legal as pets in the US. Swans have not been as highly domesticated and selectively-bred. Common species of domestic swans include mute and black swans and they were bred mainly for aesthetics. It is illegal to keep or care for wild ducks without appropriate state and federal permits and licenses. Injured wild ducks should be reported to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for care.


For most adult ducks and geese we recommend feeding a commercial formulated diet such as Mazuri Waterfowl Maintenance. There are also formulations for breeding and growing stages. Your local feed store can order Mazuri products if they do not already have them in stock or you can visit for information on suppliers. Vegetables and garden greens should also be offered and access to a yard, pasture, or pond is encouraged for other foraging opportunities. Ducks are particularly fond of slugs, snails, worms, and insects in addition to grasses and water plants. Scratch grains, cracked corn, pasta, and baked goods are not recommended since these tend to provide too much energy resulting in obesity. Exceptions can be made during very cold weather (e.g., sustained sub-freezing temperatures) when energy needs are increased. Oyster shell or other calcium-containing grit should be offered and is particularly recommended during periods of egg-laying.


Ducks concentrated in earthen pens during months of rainy weather quickly create a muddy, slippery mess. For this reason, well-drained pea gravel is recommended as a pen substrate. An artificial or natural pond should be provided with non-skid ramps to help birds easily climb in and out. Some protection from sun and weather should be provided. This can be in the form of a hut or coop but good ventilation must be maintained to prevent respiratory fungal infection. Protection, particularly at night, from stray dogs and raccoons is also important. Wire pens should have their edges buried to a depth of at least 12 inches to prevent predators from digging under.

Because ducks produce very wet droppings, maintaining cleanliness is challenging. Leftover food should be removed daily from enclosures and small artificial ponds should be drained and washed out regularly. Algae blooms in bathing water may discourage use. Devices are available to circulate and aerate water to prevent this. Coops and ramps should be kept clean and dry. Pea gravel is best although straw can suffice if changed regularly. Artificial flooring such as linoleum or concrete is easier to clean but the hardness and slickness can lead to bumblefoot. Astroturf or perforated anti-fatigue mats can be placed on top of concrete to provide good footing and drainage. If high-pressure hosing is used for cleaning we recommend wearing a mask to protect you from inhaling aerosolized pathogens.

Common Medical Problems

Annual examination of your flock or individual birds is recommended. A physical exam and discussion of history can uncover impending problems and allow us to prevent serious disease. Fecal analysis and bloodwork may also be recommended. Some common problems seen in domestic waterfowl include obesity, aspergillosis, bumblefoot, reproductive disorders, arthritis, and ingestion of foreign bodies. Obesity is most often a function of too energy in the diet, a lack of exercise, and genetics (e.g., Pekin ducks). Addressing the diet and increasing
room to exercise can help. Aspergillosis is a fungal infection of the respiratory tract and may occur due to poor air quality, particularly in closed sleeping areas. Keeping quarters clean and dry is the best preventative. For birds under extra stress from transport or introduction, sometimes a prophylactic antifungal regimen is appropriate.

Bumblefoot (Pododermatitis)

This refers to a number of types of sores, swelling, and infection of the skin of the feet. Because waterfowl are mainly on the water in the wild, being forced to stand on dry, hard substrates can promote breakdown of skin and underlying tissues. Lack of dietary vitamin A, obesity, lack of exercise, and foot injury can also promote bumblefoot. Treatment can be difficult so it is best to have foot sores evaluated as soon as they are found.

Reproductive disorders

These range from egg-binding to inflammation of the abdomen to cancer of the ovary or oviduct. Sometimes multiple types of disorders are involved. Symptoms include alterations in normal laying rhythm,
changes in droppings, abdominal swelling or sudden weight gain, labored breathing, and straining to defecate or lay. Sometimes there can be clues on the eggs such as wrinkled or rough shell texture. Treatment should be aggressive and as early in the course of disease as possible. Often surgery is necessary.
Arthritis is more common in obese ducks, particularly as they reach old age (roughly 8-10 years old in Pekins) but it can happen earlier. Slippery substrates and lack of ramps in pools can promote injury to the joints of the legs. Treatment options range from use of anti-inflammatory drugs to antibiotics (in the case of joint infections) to orthopedic surgery to fuse or correct joints.

GI Foreign Bodies

Commonly swallowed foreign bodies include nails, screws, and wire. Ducks are attracted to these items because hard minerals help grind food in the gizzard. Many of these items never cause a problem but occasionally a sharp item will perforate the stomach and lead to illness. Some metal objects can also contain lead which will cause life-threatening disease (weakness, lethargy, green diarrhea, anemia) and must be treated immediately.


These are diseases that are potentially contagious to people.

  • Psittacosis (Chlamydophila psittici)
  • Mycobacteriosis (avian tuberculosis)
  • Salmonellosis, campylobacteriosis (Obtained from droppings of waterfowl and can cause several types of illnesses in people, mainly dysentery)
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