Water Belly or Ascites in Backyard Chicken Flocks

June 27, 2017

Ascites, or "water belly" as it's more commonly called, isn't a terribly frequent occurrence in backyard flocks, since it tends to be more prevalent in fast-growing broilers or meat birds, but if you notice your chicken's abdomen is swollen and distended, it's something to consider.
More common causes of a bloated abdomen in chickens include tumors such as those caused by Marek's disease, obesity/fatty liver syndrome or egg binding/peritonitis, but if you notice a bloated belly, ascites could be the reason.
Ascites isn't a disease or an illness. It's not contagious, although certain environmental conditions could prevail and affect more than one flock member. Instead, ascites is a condition caused by yellowish-colored fluid from the liver accumulating in the chicken's abdominal (or peritoneal) cavity, and is commonly the result of pulmonary hypertension syndrome.  When the body isn't circulating oxygen fast enough, the heart works overtime to push oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. This puts added stress on the liver, which then begins to leak fluid into the abdomen. There doesn't seem to be one main cause of water belly, but rather it appears to occur when a combination of genetics, environment and flock management are combined.
Like many poultry illnesses, maintaining a clean, healthy environment for your flock, offering a balanced, nutritious diet and being away of what's "normal" as far as behavior, appearance, eating habits and waste elimination, etc. and reacting to anything out of the ordinary, is the key to preventing ascites in many cases.
Since it can be caused by exposure to pathogens or toxins, reducing the chance of ingestion of harmful substances or infection contracted through an open wound from bacteria in contaminated soil is critical. 

Eliminating the existence of wet or moldy feed and stagnant water, removing feces from the living area and nesting boxes, and providing lots of fresh air and exposure to sunlight are also beneficial to reduce the chance of your flock contracting the condition which can ultimately lead to heart and/or liver failure and death.


Risk Factors/Causes 

Can be genetic
Result of being chilled as a chick
Most common in broilers (usually diagnosed around 4-5 weeks old)
Occurs more frequently in older laying hens than young chickens
Living in high altitudes with less oxygen in the air
Ingesting plant toxins
Breathing ammonia fumes or excessive dust in the coop
Inadequate ventilation in the coop
Obesity
Stress
High protein feed which can lead to a build up of proteins in the vital organs
Too much salt/sodium intake
Exposure to E.coli or Salmonella pathogens
Exposure to Aflatoxin fungus/Aspergillosis from moldy feed
Exposure to Clostridium perfringens bacteria (similar to botulism) 


Symptoms

Bloated, distended abdomen that is soft and squishy
Red abdominal skin
Bluish comb and wattles
Ruffled feathers
Excess panting or labored breathing with a gurgling sound
Limited movement
Lethargy
Reduced food intake
Death

Prevention

Limit feed intake
Reduce protein in diet
Avoid sodium in diet
Ensure lots of exercise to  prevent obesity
Provide lots of fresh air
Remove wet or old feed
Block access to stagnant water
Increase coop ventilation
...And you knew it was coming, didn't you? Something about herbs, maybe?

Using a hypodermic needle or syringe to withdraw fluid from the abdomen will help to relieve the pressure and swelling, but it isn't a permanent solution and will need to be done repeatedly either by you or by your vet. Over time the afflicted bird will continue to deteriorate as the heart and liver continue to fail. While some claim that there is no "cure" for ascites, several studies have been done using herbal or natural remedies to treat the condition.

Treatment

-Adding oregano oil to feed resulted in a higher survival rate than chickens not fed the oregano. (Poultry Science Journal, October 2014)
-Adding Vitamin C/ascorbic acid to the diet can reduce the incidence of ascites (College of Veterinary Medicine, University of Baghdad, Iraq, 1990)
-Feeding Brewers Yeast and the herb eyebright to treat ascites  (1993 US patent application)
-Less light in the coop, selenium yeast, flax oil and Vitamins C and E have all shown promise in helping to reduce the incidence of ascites  (Punjab University, Lahore, Pakistan, 2005

Ducks can also get water belly, and sadly, we lost a duck to the condition several years ago. Since ducks tend to grow really fast not unlike broiler hens, have sort of saggy bellies, waddle when they walk,  and don't have combs to monitor the health of their blood flow, it can be more difficult to spot, especially if you don't have any experience with the condition.
 
Our vet at that time, who raised ducks of his own, concluded that it was likely either genetic or she got into something she shouldn't have, or a combination of both. Our duck wasn't overweight, didn't seem to have ingested any toxins, and since she was the only one in our flock affected - and the only duck from that particular breeder - our vet didn't believe it was necessarily the result of anything in the environment. 


After collecting a fluid sample from her and confirming the bright yellow color which confirmed it was coming from the liver, he diagnosed the condition and recommended putting her down. He said I could continue to bring her back to him to have the fluid aspirated periodically (or learn to do it myself), but that her quality of life would just continue to deteriorate. I did wait a few weeks, but by that point, she was barely eating, showed no interested in any of her favorite treats, and was having trouble walking.

Since that time, I have done a lot of research into natural treatments. As a matter of fact, much of my reading about ascites has been a result of that loss. I wish I had known what I know now, because I would have liked the chance to try some of the things listed above to see if it would help to treat her. I do hope that if you find yourself in the same situation, this article will help you at least.

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