Euthanasia guidelines for handicapped ducks and quality of life issues

Note: This post deals with rescued ducks, and mostly with domesticated handicapped ducks.

rescued duck
In the past week, we took in a rescued wild mallard duck from another local rescue group as a “last chance” for this duck. We don’t know his whole story, but we think the public turned him over to the group about 8-weeks-ago after they suspected a car hit him. The rescue group was preparing to euthanize him this week when a caring volunteer felt he deserved another chance and contacted us.

This little duck already had the public, the rescue group and a volunteer caring about him. They all had their hearts in the right place and did their best to do right by this duck. They were planning to euthanize him but gave him one last chance with me. In my opinion, as soon as I laid hands on the duck, I sadly thought he should be euthanized too. I made him a “quality of life” vet appointment as soon as I could, and kept him comfortable until then. The vet would help make the final determination, which as you may know, was to euthanize him.

So how do we make life and death decisions and what are the guidelines? How would someone know when to decide to let a duck live and when to help him die? How do we keep objectivity and perspective when we work so closely to help rescue and rehabilitate animals? This Little Man duck really made me want to find out the answers to those questions.

Strangely there is not a lot of good information online about when to euthanize and why it might be the right time to make that decision. For licensed wildlife rehabilitators, there are good clear guidelines about how to euthanize and how long to give wildlife a chance to recover and be returned to the wild. These guidelines can be helpful but they don’t directly address the question of when to euthanize. These are called “minimum standards” and you can read more about them here:

Let’s talk briefly about Little Man, the rescued handicapped wild mallard. Why was it important to euthanize him rather than keep him alive? He was injured in a possible car hit that left him unable to use his legs. We also think he suffered a foot injury at that time. As a wild mallard, Little Man was wild. He was skittish and very afraid of people. He did not like to be handled or even approached. In fact, when I’d approach him, he’d flail and fling himself against the sides of his pack-and-play to try and get away. That’s one key sign that it was time to say goodbye. A duck that flails in terror of being handled is not living a quality life. If a duck has a handicap that requires handling and a duck is so fearful of handling that they fling and flail around to avoid care, it’s time to say goodbye.

little man

That guideline alone was a key one for Little Man. Unfortunately, he also had several problems that were probably caused by his skittishness that made his life quality even worse. Little Man had a keel sore that was nearly the entire length of his keel, about 5” long. The keel is the extension of the breastbone in between the middle of the chest muscles that runs down the center of the chest in ducks. Handicapped ducks that spend all their time sitting down are prone to keel sores. Keel sores are very painful.


So for Little Man, there were many reasons to euthanize him and set him free from his broken body. He was a wild duck. He was permanently paralyzed. He could not walk. He couldn’t fly. He had a chronic keel sore. He was terrified of being handled. He used his wings to “wing-walk” but could not get around well enough to feed himself or get in and out of water or shelter. Wing-walking hurt his wing edges. He was emaciated. He had an infected foot wound that ate away the bone. All of that unfortunately adds up to a poor quality of life. While it is never easy to say goodbye, and it is very sad, it is paramount that we prevent suffering at all costs. NOTE: With wild animals, sometimes fear or terror is misinterpreted as a strong will to live, or a fight to survive. The fight or flight response is not the same as a quality life or a joy for living. Joy for living is what you need to look for, not “fight.”

Life is terminal. It may seem obvious but it isn’t talked about enough. We’re all going to die. But we don’t all have to suffer. Suffering in animal rescue must be prevented at all costs. This is the key guideline to follow. The guideline is not “preserve life at all costs” but “prevent suffering at all costs.” Obviously that doesn’t mean euthanize everyone with an injury or handicap, so let’s talk more about quality of life.

The best guidelines I’ve found for euthanizing a cat or dog are to write a list of their 5-10 favorite things to do and then note if they can still do any of them. For a dog that might be eat, go for walks, ride in the car, run off-leash, play fetch and get up on the couch. When a pet can no longer walk or play, we may be able to help them for the short term. When they can no longer eat, that’s a poor quality of life. Pay close attention to the emotion of joy in your pets. Do they take joy in their day? Do they have moments of joy that you can see? Are they engaged with the world around them?

Each handicapped duck has different needs, but here are a few “must haves” for their quality of life.

FEAR. A special-needs duck must not live in fear or terror of being handled. Because they may need help getting around or eating or swimming, they must tolerate or enjoy human interaction. You need to be able to feed, clean, move and interact with your special-needs duck without causing them undue stress or fear. Growling, panting and flailing are all signs of stress and fear. This is one of the key reasons why wildlife rescue almost always means an animal that cannot be released must be euthanized. That’s a difficult reality for some people to accept, but when you see fear and terror in a wild animal, you understand why this is the ethical standard.

BODY CONDITION. A handicapped duck must keep good body condition. Handicapped ducks can have difficulty preening, so they don’t often look as neat and tidy as healthy ducks. But they need to maintain a reasonable weight and not get too thin. They need to have clear eyes and clean nares (nose holes), even if that means you help them. If their nares are chronically clogged or their eyes are constantly draining or runny, they need more help or you need to say goodbye.

body condition

KEEL SORES. Handicapped ducks cannot have keel sores. This is critical. Keel sores are very painful. This requires weekly monitoring. A very soft substrate is required to keep duck keels healthy on special-needs ducks. Here we use wood shavings for Danny girl’s nest, about 4-6” of them, packed tightly. When a new rescue is in quarantine, we use pack-and-plays with fleece blankets and towels. If your duck develops a keel sore, treat it and fix it within days, and fix their environment to prevent it from happening again. If the keel sore cannot be resolved in days, it is time to euthanize.


WASTE. Handicapped ducks cannot sit in their own waste. A handicapped duck needs to be able to move well-enough to get themselves out of their own waste. Alternatively, they need enough help from caregivers to prevent urine burns and loss of butt feathers from urine/feces burns. A duck that has missing feathers and raw, red skin from urine or feces burns that cannot be fixed within days needs to be euthanized.

ANKLE/FOOT HEALTH. Special-needs ducks that sit a lot may get ankle/leg/foot sores. This can happen, just like a sore keel. But it needs to be fixed and their environment changed to prevent it from happening again within days.

PAIN. Pain is a tough one. A new rescue in pain should receive vet-prescribed metacam and/or pain medication until they are comfortable. Watch for fluffed feathers, sick-looking eyes and/or shaking. Those are all bad signs of pain. Chronic pain from arthritis is pretty common in older ducks. I have some gimpy rescued ducks with bad joints who limp. My advice is to consider how much joy they have in their lives. If they limp but quack, play, swim, eat, have good body condition and have joy, they’re probably fine. If they can walk but choose not to, they may be in too much pain to have a good quality of life. Soft substrate and easy access to a pool deep enough to hang their legs and float can really help. Warm housing in the winter cold can also help.

YOU. How much time do you have to devote to a handicapped duck? It is a daily commitment, day in and day out. Be realistic with yourself and your limits. Be careful not to take on too much that might result in suffering for animals. A good rule is the 80/20 capacity rule. Take on 80% of what you can handle. Leave 20% room for the unexpected. If you take on 80%, the other 20% often just shows up in emergencies, an illness, unexpected travel, money issues, etc. If you’re maxed out at 100% all the time, you’re headed for burnout. Self-care is critical to animal rescue work. So take care of yourself and know your limits.

There will come a time when you will need to euthanize your handicapped duck. With dogs and cats, I’ve heard people say “you’ll know when it’s time.” I disagree. You may not know when it’s time. It’s difficult to stay objective when you’re so close to the day-to-day life of an animal. When I find myself unsure of a duck’s quality of life, I take them to the vet for a “quality of life evaluation.” A few months ago we euthanized Lester Leroy our rescued handicapped crested Cayuga duck. In his case, I think I waited a little too long. I learned some great tips to prevent this from happening again. Even with a quality of life evaluation, many veterinarians will be hesitant to recommend euthanasia. They want to be agreeable and supportive of their clients. The trick is to call a few days after your appointment is done and ask for your written records. A vet will often put down in writing what they were reluctant to tell you in person. One of the chief complaints of veterinarians is that their clients don’t understand suffering and don’t take action to stop it. Yet they’re often bad at being clear and straightforward about discussing death themselves. Ask questions. Make them be honest. Get your records after the fact. They know suffering when they see it. Find out if they see suffering in your pet or rescue.

Do your best. I have had to euthanize quite a few rescues in my 11+ years of rescue work. Most of the time, thankfully, it has felt right and it has been as easy as a difficult situation can be. Once in a while I feel like I’ve waited too long. Once in a while I feel like I did it a few days too soon. I have been yelled at by strangers who’ve never met my rescues and I’ve been called “the Angel of Death” for my decision to euthanize a rescue. But I wholeheartedly believe that every rescue I have cared for knows that I did my very best.

These guidelines were researched by asking fellow rehabilitators and rescuers how they make these kinds of tough decisions. This blog post will probably evolve over the next week or two as other rescuers or veterinarians weigh in with their experience and expertise. I invite those with direct experience rescuing and making euthanasia decisions to contact me with additions or corrections. We’ll try to keep this post up to date because we haven’t seen anything similar to it online, and we think it’s an important topic to consider. If you’re interested in knowing what the euthanasia process is like, write me a Facebook comment or an email and we’ll cover that in a future blog post.

As rescuers, we do our best. We’ll never be perfect. Accidents happen. Sores develop. Ducks decline or get ill or injured. But we can learn and prevent the same issues from happening again. Our little feathered friends are counting on us to do our best.

Thanks and quacks,

Tiff and the flock

26. July 2015 by Silly Human
Categories: Health, Information, New Rescues, Sad Endings | Leave a comment