The runner duck was obviously not right. He couldn’t even walk, let alone run. It was even a struggle for the young duck to hold his head upright. The presence of Mo (named after the world famous long-distance runner) on the appointment list might have caused a degree of panic from some vets, sending them running to search the internet.
Lame ducks, a bit like damp squibs, could be managed. Limp ones were a completely different kettle of fish. As it happened, and according to the owners, Professor Google suggested the requirement for worming treatment, but I have a healthy suspicion of any computer-generated diagnosis either via generic websites or ill-constructed algorithms.
Like his namesake, Mo was slender but that’s where the similarity stopped. His legs were floppy and weak, as was his neck. Standing up was difficult. When I held him and gently lowered his body so that his webbed feet rested on the table I met with no resistance. Everything stayed floppy. Mo had no go. He’d lost his mojo.
I asked some questions about his siblings, all of which were fine. Then, I attempted a neurological examination. This is not something I’m very good at. Neurology should be simple, but it isn’t. At least, it isn’t to me. Whilst I know about nerves, where they go, what they do, how they might go wrong and what to do about it, the subject has never been my forte.
Cardiology, ophthalmology, internal medicine, dermatology, obstetrics – all got me top marks. But not neurology. However, my limited neurology knowledge was sufficient to diagnosis Mo’s problem. The little duck was suffering from botulism.
Botulism is a nasty disease, caused by the toxin produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum. The toxin causes neuromuscular paralysis of pretty much any or all of the muscles in the body, depending on the dose ingested. When injected into a wrinkled, saggy face or a furrowed brow at a beautician’s parlour, botulinum toxin leaves the muscles paralysed, rendering the overlying skin completely smooth, a bit like the effects of a good plasterer. If it gets into a duck or a cow , the result is usually death. Ducks seem particularly prone, as they ingest the ubiquitous bacteria in muddy ponds or puddles. Luckily, it’s only a very sporadic condition.
If cattle get it, the results can be devastating. Accidental ingestion – usually via contaminated silage or inadvertently eating dead rodents – leads to the toxin being absorbed and problems ranging from acute death to a slow, lingering one.
It’s hard to diagnose and usually requires an experienced vet who has seen it before, rather than expensive tests, all of which come back with negative results.
I once saw a case of heifers which had been exposed to botulism when the half-eaten bones of dead poultry, dropped in the field by a fox, contaminated their pasture. Finding this final clue in the jigsaw took several weeks.
But back to Mo. In severe cases, treatment is futile. The toxin has wreaked its damage by the time the clinical picture appears. But mild cases can improve, with supportive treatment and doses of penicillin to kill any of the bacteria. I talked through the options and we decided to give it a go.
The next day, Mo was back. Miraculously, he was improving. His neck was more sturdy and his legs more robust. I drew up a second dose. Maybe Mo’s running days were not over just yet?