This summer I had two Indian Runner ducklings die (Blue and Dark). Blue... well, on the first day he didn't want to walk too much but he was fine otherwise. I gave him extra Niacin. On the second day he didn't want to get up but ate hungrily so it didn't seem that bad; I gave him water with a bit of molasses to help flush out any toxins in case he had eaten something bad (and a bit of extra niacin as well). He didn't have any snot or upper respiratory issues. The third day he looked sicker. I cared for him, tube fed him a bit of water and helped him eat a few peas by placing them in the back of his mouth. He was alert, though he didn't look so good. I ran an errand and when I came back he was dead and stiff. I was shocked. I had never lost an older duckling, and had not thought he was that sick.
The fourth day Dark also got sick. I panicked - what if it was contagious (whatever it was) and I lost my whole flock? I took Dark to the vet - she got a blood sample - but by the time I got the results of the blood sample Dark was already dead. I took the body to the State Vet (I had to drive almost two hours to get there) for an autopsy. Turns out that Dark had lesions in most organs, including the spleen, liver, heart and brain. A week later they figured out why - West Nile virus!
I did some research and discovered that West Nile virus is a disease which is carried mostly by wild birds but which is passed to a duck by mosquitoes. The time between the mosquito bite and having the disease is usually about 2 to 12 days. The symptoms vary widely. Because it is a virus, there is no cure. There can be only supportive care to help the duck survive if they are strong enough.
For two years I had occasional ducks that got sick and each time I thought it was botulism. I knew their symptoms didn't really fit botulism (the books say that ducks usually get sick and die or recover within 24 hours), because my ducks got sick over three or four days and then took weeks and weeks to get better. But the symptoms didn't fit anything else... no upper respiratory symptoms. My first duck to get sick was Cinnamon. I took her to the vet and she considered botulism and hardware disease as the two likely options. Eventually Cinnamon recovered. I became good at nursing ducks and tube feeding them as necessary.
Now, with the diagnosis of West Nile virus for that one duckling, I am coming to realize that many or all of my sick ducks with this set of symptoms probably had West Nile virus. This is not proven by a vet, except for the one duckling, but the symptoms do not fit any other disease, and do fit West Nile virus. Because I was not able to find much online about how to treat West Nile (many wild birds die), I want to share my experiences with how to help pet ducks that get West Nile virus.
The disease strikes hard in younger ducklings. My friend down the block just lost three ducklings at 3-4 weeks old. She noticed they were slightly off... not quite right but still eating and running around... and within 24 hours they were dead. (By then we knew we had West Nile in the area and we were spraying for mosquitoes. But, as we later learned, mosquitoes will fly within a two mile area. So although we had sprayed regularly around our properties, there were obviously still some sick mosquitoes out there that didn't get sprayed.)
Blue and Dark were 8 and 9 weeks old in early August. They each died within three days of getting sick. They were not quite right the first day but still eating well, feeling worse the second but still eating peas and treats, and refusing to eat the third day. Their bills/mouths became noticeably quite cold (in normal temperatures). I did tube-feed Blue when he stopped eating and later discovered the food had not been digested in spite of being in the duckling about 8 hours at time of death. (I did a home autopsy on Blue.) Later, when the State Vet did his autopsy on Dark, I asked him about that, and he said that the cold bill and undigested food were because Blue's whole body was shutting down at that point so digestion had stopped. My vet agreed with this idea. Therefore, feeding the ducks when they are really sick is not a good idea.
Two years ago, Cinnamon was 7 weeks 1 day old in late summer. She probably also had West Nile, but at the time I had no idea. She had similar symptoms... she came to my attention when she didn't want to walk, and I brought her in the house. I though she had botulism so treated her with Molasses and water mix to clear her system. However, she got worse and worse, and on day three (approximate) she had a crisis. I took her to the vet who was able to fit her in right away. She did an x-ray to rule out hardware disease (she was fine). She prescribed antibiotics. While I waited for the antibiotics, Cinnamon took a sudden turn for the worse and began to have a seizure. I called a vet tech, and Cinnamon was taken away and put on oxygen for a bit. Then the vet gave her Valium for her seizure to help relax her. At that point she was totally limp (due to the medicine) but at least not seizing any more. I am convinced that if she had not been in the vet's office when she began seizing she would have died.
I took her home and put her in a quiet, dark corner. For the next week she hung between life and death. I watched over her and tube-fed her. and told her she needed to fight and survive. Finally, after an entire week she seemed to gain a bit of strength and to turn the corner. I began to think she would live, but it was more than a month till she was able to stand (not well) and to finally begin to eat a little on her own again. It was two months from when she had her crisis before she was walking well enough (not great, but well enough) and eating well enough to able to return to the flock. It was probably another two months after that till she showed no symptoms at all. This was a hard time for her, but after that she has been healthy and happy, and she has raised several ducklings (with hopefully more to come)!
Older ducklings and fully-grown ducks
Celery was 12 weeks old when he got sick in the spring, after the weather had warmed up and bugs were beginning to be out. Day 1 he couldn't walk, day 2 he was worse, by day 3 he was quite limp (I thought he was a gonner). But then he rallied and on day 4 began holding up his neck just a little. It took several weeks, but he fully recovered.
Harley (Welsh Harlequin) was 14 weeks old when he got sick in mid-summer. On the third day, Harley was unable to stand because he had no balance, but he swam well and ate - and looked quite unhappy. He obviously felt poorly. But on the fourth day Harley looked relaxed and happy. Objectively he was much worse... he swam on his side (really, completely on his side - swimming in little circles with both feet on the same side of his body) and he refused to eat. But he was happy - he was unconcerned that he was swimming on his side and he even preened! So I knew he was not in danger and would recover. He was back with his friends (the gentler girl-flock) in about three weeks and symptom free and able to join the boy-flock within about six weeks. The video shows Harley when he couldn't swim right!
Apple, my two-year-old drake, got sick in the fall, two weeks ago. He came to my attention when I got home from work and noticed he had a hard time getting up; his phallus was prostrated (dangling down - looking very red and dry). On the third day or so, Apple looked very unhappy. His phallus was still coming out each time he passed waste (I would wash it, coat it in zinc ointment, and stick it back in.) He had one weak leg that didn't work as well as the other. By the end of the day he turned the corner, seeming happier and calmer. Yet within the next day or so, he quit eating, and his leg became fully paralyzed. Still, I knew he had turned the corner and was on the road to recovery. Within a few days he began to eat peas, and not long after he fed himself. However, for two full months his bad leg didn't move even one tiny bit. Then it started twitching. Now, four months after he has fallen sick, he moves his leg when given suffient incentive (to reach peas). He is still unable to walk, but I am still working on physical therapy and he is making regular but tiny progress each week. His phallus scabbed over and regularly came out. However, it was healing... very slowly. After two months the bottom part was better and only the top half came out. Now, after four months it is mostly healed and only the tip regularly comes out. I continue to care for Apple and hope that he will continue to improve.
This is Apple. The picture shows the typical holding-his-head-slightly-back posture of my ducks with West Nile.
West Nile virus in people
I have researched the following online. People can also get West Nile virus. In some cases people show flu-like symptoms or no symptoms. Pregnant women can also get West Nile virus, in most cases it does not seem to affect the fetus. In rare cases (1%?) people can develop a more serious form of the disease (including meningitis) and a few do die.
In my case, as I did not know this was West Nile virus, I hugged my sick ducklings and kissed their heads, necks and bills repeatedly (and never washed my mouth afterwards). I washed my hands after handling the ducklings only if I was about to go out to the other ducks or about to eat. I did not get sick from that contact. I don't know if I have ever had West Nile virus. Maybe I have not, and maybe I am one of the many people who simply don't show any symptoms.
West Nile virus in my flock
Each time one of my ducks had "botulism" (most likely West Nile) it was a single isolated case. Because I thought it was botulism, I never worried about transmission from one duck to another. So healthy ducks were in contact with sick ducks (I placed them in nearby bins where they could touch faces but not get into the waste of the sick duck which I thought might contain botulism toxins). The healthy ducks never got sick. (This is consistent with West Nile. West Nile is transmitted by mosquitoes, and contact with a sick duck doesn't make a healthy duck sick.)
My friend's three young ducklings were lost within a one week period to probable West Nile. Although the sick ducklings stayed in the pen with their parents and siblings until they died, four other ducklings of the same age, in the same pen, did not get sick. These four ducklings have become full grown ducks and continue to do well.
Blue and Dark were raised in a different pen from the rest of my flock - a pen which later proved to have the most mosquitoes. At the time Blue became sick, they had just started (five days before) to integrate with adult flock, spending part of each day in the adult pen and part in the more mosquito-prone pen. When Blue got sick, I brought Blue and Dark in the house. When Blue died, I thought Dark was just feeling depressed, not sick, and so I added an adult duck to Dark's bin. By the time I realized Dark was also sick, the duck had spend two days in the bin with sick Dark. When Dark died, the duck I had added did become depressed (which scared the heck out of me - I thought she was sick also). However, the duck did not have West Nile and soon perked up.
In this article I have shared what I have learned about West Nile virus and about several cases of probable West Nile virus in my duck flock and that of my nearby neighbor. It is just my experience and other people may have very different experiences.
This disease is passed by mosquitoes and ducks don't seem to get it from each other, so sick ducks can have a friend with them as they fight the disease. The symptoms are very variable. It seems to affect younger ducklings (3-4 weeks) the hardest and they seem to be most likely to die and to do so quickly. Of three younger ducklings who became sick, all died within 24 hours.
Half-grown ducklings are at a critical point and may live - or not - but are likely to become quite sick. Of four ducklings 7 - 12 weeks old, two survived and needed six to eight weeks to recover, and two died.
Older ducklings and adults - in my experience - don't seem to get quite as sick in terms of survival. Of three that got sick, all seemed to have passed the crisis point without too much trouble and within the first four days or so. However, full recovery can be easy or problematic. Harley recovered fairly quickly (about six weeks) with a minimum of fuss, as did Celery. Apple, however, is having a very hard time recovering the use of his leg. Surprisingly, the two that recovered better needed more tube-feeding, while Apple ate within a very few days yet hasn't fully recovered use of his leg four months later.
Caring for ducks sick with West Nile is well worth while. When they survive the point of crisis (often about three days in, but it can be more or less days) and seem happier, they invariably seem to live, and most eventually fully recover. Cinnamon, who was extremely sick and went through the worse when she was young, has lived a very happy and healthy life for the two years since her recovery. She is the leader of the flock and the mother of several babies. I am hoping for more Cinnamon babies next spring!!!
The picture shows Cinnamon as she is now, happy and healthy, after having recovered from West Nile virus when she was young.