My Duck (or Goose) Has Wet Feathers!
Excerpt from: "The Ultimate Pet Duck Guidebook" ©
By Kimberly Link
All rights reserved. No part of this article may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without explicit written permission.
When a duck’s feather quality declines to the point that they can no longer properly repel water, their condition is referred to as wet feather. Sometimes wet feather can be fully remedied; other times, it’s chronic and only a full molt with new feather growth will restore your duck back to normal.
If your duck’s feathers appear tattered and aren’t properly “zip-locked” together, they’re not going to be as effective as they should be at repelling water and keeping your duck insulated. If the root cause is addressed early enough and remedied properly, damage can be minimal; otherwise, it can seriously impact feather function. The first step to treating wet feather is to determine its cause:
Parasites: If you notice that your duck’s wing or tail feathers are beginning to fray apart, you may be witnessing the first sign of lice or mites. These feather-eating parasites can cause serious damage if their numbers are left unchecked. Treatment is often as simple as a quick application of delousing powder repeated again in eight days.
Over-mating: Female ducks who receive too much attention from drakes often display signs of feather damage on their wings and backs. You can improve their situation by immediately addressing your hen-to-drake ratio (adding more females) or by initiating separations to safely reduce their exposure to overzealous males.
Malnutrition: An unhealthy diet can be a major factor when it comes to feather malfunction. Ducks kept on substandard diets (consisting mostly of table scraps, generic brand/cheap feed, cracked corn and bread) are far more likely to have growth, maintenance and breakage issues than ducks who are served quality waterfowl feed. They simply can’t get enough of the vitamins and minerals they need to grow and maintain vigorous feathers when they’re fed junk food. While healthy veggie snacks are always a welcome addition to a wholesome diet, it’s vital that their main staple be nutritionally designed for health and longevity.
Unsanitary grounds: Ducks kept in unsanitary pens are going to end up with dirty feathers. No matter how hard they work to preen and keep tidy, the continual exposure to filth (mud and poop) makes it impossible for them to keep up. You can remedy this situation by routinely cleaning their pen, house and barn. You may also need to address drainage issues in your pen, making necessary landscaping changes and utilizing sand to cover any occasional unruly spots.
Polluted swimming water: Ducks who swim and bathe in stagnant or filthy water are at risk of feather complications. As with filthy pens, dirty water can be impossible for them to keep up with. Clean all pools and ponds thoroughly (scrubbing them down) and initiate more frequent water changes.
Illness: A sick duck can suffer energy loss and nausea that prevent them from preening their feathers properly. They simply fall behind on their tidying and oiling and their feather quality goes downhill from there. During bouts of illness, you can often help your duck keep clean by placing them in the bathtub for a brief float every 1-2 days. Afterwards, set them down on a soft bed of towels and safely blow dry them. As soon as they’re feeling better, they’ll take over the responsibility again and your efforts will have saved them any permanent feather damage.
Oil gland issues: Trouble with your duck’s oil gland can quickly lead to poor feather quality. There are a variety of causes which you and your vet will need to examine in order to ensure quick and proper treatment.
Physical challenges: Ducks with limb injuries, misshapen bills or balance issues often have greater difficulty reaching their oil glands and then stretching to other hard-to-reach places than other ducks. Sometimes you can help a friendly duck (who’s used to being handled) keep clean by comfortably supporting their body weight with your hands while they preen. Another trick is to give them access to shallow water, which supports the bulk of their body weight while also allowing them to set their feet down on the ground while they preen. Some bathtub/blow drying time may also be in order.
Unnatural oil: If your duck’s feathers become coated with any kind of unnatural oil or substance that they can’t remove on their own (or that’s unsafe for them to remove on their own and subsequently ingest), their feathers will rapidly decline. I once heard from someone who heard ducks cleaned themselves with oil and subsequently washed their duck in olive oil in an attempt to help tidy them up. Big mistake. Never use any kind of products on your duck’s feathers without consulting with a vet first. If your duck’s feathers become laden with any kind of foreign substance consult with a vet. They’ll probably have you wash their feathers which may or may not need to be repeated multiple times.
Minor Wet Feather Resolution
When wet feather is caused by structural damage to your duck’s (or goose's) feathers (as with parasites, over-mating and malnutrition), there’s often not much you can do after-the-fact to improve their plumage situation aside from waiting for their next molt.
On the other hand, if their feathers are laden with dirt or grime, you can often resolve minor issues (and even improve a chronic situation) by giving your duck a clean space to recover. Before beginning, make sure you address the source of your duck’s feather problem, or their issues will simply reoccur again.
- Move your duck to a safe and sanitary location bedded with clean pine shavings.
- Provide them with full access to a clean bucket of water (changed frequently) to allow for splash-preening.
- Give your duck access to fresh and clean swimming water at least once a day (blow dry after, if necessary).
- Protect your duck from rain, heat and cold.
- Continue for 1-2 weeks until maximum benefits are witnessed.
Severe Wet Feather Resolution
If you’re not seeing any progress in your duck’s (or goose's) feathers within the first 5-7 days, it may be time to step things up. The following wet feather corrective procedure should not be attempted until you first give your duck ample opportunity to remedy their situation on their own and consult with a vet—unless their feathers are coated in some kind of substance unnatural to them, in which case this can be done immediately under vet guidance.
- Wash: Place your duck into a lukewarm bath and then place a pea-sized amount of Dawn® dishwashing liquid onto the palm of your hand. I prefer Dawn® Ultra Pure Essentials (which is clear and dye-free as well as hypoallergenic) over the fancier fragranced and colored versions (even the one with the duckling on the label!).
Rub your hands together adding a small amount of water until you have a rich lather. Gently work the lather through their feathers, always working in the direction of feather growth, from base to tip, and never against. Avoid the areas around their eyes and bill. If needed you can touch-up these regions later with a facecloth soaked in warm, clean water (no soap).
Foster Joseph bathing in the tub
- Rinse: After bathing, drain the tub and commence with a thorough rinsing. Ideally you’ll need a flexible shower head that you can bring down to your duck’s level and adjust to a gentle setting in order to accomplish this. If your bathtub isn’t equipped with one of these, then a plastic cup will have to do (just be sure to use clean water from the tap to rinse your duck rather than scooping up dirty/soapy tub water). Continue rinsing your duck with lukewarm water until you remove all of the soap from their feathers.
- Dry: Lay down a couple fluffy towels and set your duck down on top of them. If your duck is standing, use another towel to gently pat their underside and soak up some of the excess, dripping water. If they’re sitting, the towel beneath them will do the work for you. As the towels get wet, stack more dry towels on top or replace them entirely. Once the bulk of the water has been absorbed, it’s time to take out your hair dryer for the somewhat tedious step of blow drying your duck. Keep in mind this is going to take some time, so make sure you and your duck are set up comfortably for the next hour of feather fluffing (which is a vital portion of the procedure). The good news is once your duck gets used to this pampering, they’ll most likely actively help you out with some preening.
Duck blow drying safety tips:
- Never use your blow dryer in or around a bathtub of water.
- Plug your blow dryer into a GFCI outlet for added safety.
- Pay attention to your blow dryer’s setting. Medium or Low heat settings are much safer than High heat settings, which can burn your duck's skin (including their bill and feet).
- Keep your blow dryer far enough away from your duck’s skin to prevent any burning.
- Don’t hover over one feathery spot for too long to prevent any burning (keep your dryer moving).
- If your duck begins to pant, lower the heat setting and/or open a window or door to allow better airflow into the room.
You’ve now effectively removed all of the dirt and oil from your duck's feathers and successfully restored some of their fluff. Keep in mind, while your duck is now spotless, they can no longer successfully repel water. In essence, what you’ve done is given them a nice, clean palette to start with. They no longer need to struggle to get on top of filth removal; you’ve just done this for them. Instead, they can focus all of their energy on re-oiling their feathers, which is a slow but steady process.
- Wait: Keep your duck in a very clean and dry place (preferably bedded with clean pine shavings) for a total of three days. Give them a small bucket of water—just large enough for splash-preening, but not so large that they can swim or immerse themselves in it.
- Swim: On the fourth day place your duck back into a lukewarm tub of water (no soap) and let them splash and play and swim as much as they want to for about 10-15 minutes and then take them out and set them on towels to dry. If their feathers aren’t fully repelling water yet (which they probably won’t be), you’ll need to blow dry them again.
Continue bathing and blow drying your duck in this manner every 1-3 days until you see maximum improvement in the waterproof effectiveness of their feathers (usually 1-2 weeks). If full waterproofing hasn’t been restored by this time, you’ve likely improved their condition as much as you possibly can; in which case, you’ll need to wait for them to go through a complete feather molt before their situation will be remedied entirely.
Close up of Cayuga Bonnie Bonster’s sprouting feathers
- Patience: It’s important to remember that you’re not likely to see an immediate improvement in your duck’s ability to repel water. It can take a week or two before their re-oiling efforts add up enough to become significant. Progress may only be very slight at first, if noticeable at all, but it’ll usually improve slowly over the course of the next week or so.
Do not repeat this procedure (except under vet advisement, when something foreign is on your duck’s feathers). If their wet feather is going to improve, it’ll work the first time. This procedure requires time, cleanliness, patience and attention to detail in order to have any chance of effectiveness. Repeating the procedure only sets your duck back to square one again in their re-oiling efforts.
Remember, this procedure doesn’t actually restore structural damage to your duck’s feathers; it merely helps remove dirt and oil, affording them a clean start. Additionally, it doesn’t work in every case. If your duck’s feathers are messed-up beyond repair, no amount of re-oiling will help make them waterproof or insulate them properly again. Only a complete molt can accomplish this.
Waterfowl Sanctuary 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009