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Why is access to water important for the welfare of farmed ducks?

Ducks are waterfowl and therefore adapted to spend a large extent of their life in the water. When ducks are provided access to water they use it to perform a variety of highly motivated water-related bathing behaviours such as sieving, dabbling, preening and head dipping.

A water-related behaviour like preening is important to maintain feather condition for cleanliness, water-proofing and thermoregulation (maintaining normal body temperature), and for footpad health and removing parasites. Preening is preceded by immersive bathing behaviours and then followed by the shaking of water all over the body and distribution of oil from a special gland, through the feathers.

Ducks who are provided open water, particularly sources that provide full body coverage, have improved eye and nostril cleanliness, foot condition and plumage condition. Open water also plays an important role in thermoregulation for ducks, meaning where ducks do not have access to open water they are at an increased risk of heat stress, especially in hotter climates. Therefore, the ability for ducks to perform these water-related behaviours is critical in ensuring their health and welfare.

What type of water access do ducks need?

There are several ways currently in which water can be provided to ducks on farm, including nipple drinkers, bell drinkers, narrow or wide troughs, showers, pools and/or baths. Ducks show a preference for water sources that allow full body immersion. Water sources that only provide partial head-only immersion or no immersion, such as drinkers or shallow troughs, compromise ducks’ ability to perform the full range of bathing behaviours. With head-only immersion, birds are limited by the amount of water they are able to toss over their body for preening, and they are unable to perform full body behaviours such as swimming.

Water sources that provide the opportunity for full body immersion such as deep troughs, showers, pools or baths, promote bird activity and effective preening behaviours. Ducks appear to use different water sources and water depths to perform different water-related behaviours. They have been shown to prefer showers for drinking and dabbling, and use baths for bathing. When observing bathing and swimming behaviours, ducks appear to spend the majority of their time in the water performing bathing behaviours rather than swimming. Ducks seem to prefer using shallower water (10-30cm deep) for these bathing behaviours, the most important factor being that birds can adequately immerse their heads for preening.

In addition to these open water sources, ducks should be provided drinkers separately. Ducks prefer drinking clean water from showers, troughs or baths where they can scoop and shovel water into their bills, in comparison to bell or nipple drinkers.

What are the animal welfare issues when farmed ducks are not given water access?

When not provided water access (other than drinking water) they are unable to perform essential water-related activities which can lead to frustration. Birds experiencing frustration are at an increased risk of developing abnormal behaviours such as head shaking, stereotypic (repetitive) feather preening and/or self-mutilation through feather pecking indicating compromised welfare.

Are there any challenges associated with providing ducks water access?

The provision of open water sources for farmed ducks can pose challenges for litter (bedding) management and a risk of water contamination. Poor litter management from spoiled or moist litter, especially when relative humidity is increased, can increase the risk of ducks developing footpad problems and disease. Water contamination from litter, feed or faecal matter may also increase the risk of infectious diseases in duck flocks. These risks can be minimised with good management practices and facility design such as having open water sources separate from litter areas, appropriate drainage, as well as regular cleaning and changing of water sources.

Ducks have an innate need to perform these highly motivated bathing activities and should have open water access to ensure their health and welfare. Different water sources should be provided such as a mixture of showers, troughs and baths, so they may have the opportunity to perform all their motivated behaviours in their preferred sources.


[1] Farghly M, Abd El-Hack M, Alagawany M et al (2018) Wet feed and cold water as heat stress modulators in growing Muscovy ducklings. Poultry Science 97(5):1588-1594.

[2] Farghly M, Mahmoud U (2018) Access to outdoor swimming pond during summer season improved Muscovy ducks performance and health status. Livestock Science 211:98-103.

[3] Nicol C, Bouwsema J, Caplen G et al (2017) Farmed bird welfare science review.

[4] Poultry Standards and Guidelines Drafting Group (2016) Poultry welfare standards and guidelines – access to water for ducks.

[5] RSPCA UK (2013) Watertight: the case for providing farmed ducks with full body access to water.

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Updated on August 27, 2020
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