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Water Belly or Ascites in Backyard Chickens

Water belly, waterbelly, or ascites, manifests itself in backyard chickens as a swollen abdomen. While not the most common cause of a "water balloon" belly, it's a possibility to consider.

Ascites, or "water belly" (waterbelly) as it's more commonly called, isn't a terribly frequent occurrence in backyard flocks of laying hens or ducks.

It tends to be more prevalent in fast-growing broilers or meat birds rather than laying hens, but if you notice your chicken or duck's abdomen is swollen and distended, it's something to consider as a possible problem.

There are actually several things that can cause bloated abdomens in poultry.

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, water belly or ascites could be the reason.

What is Water Belly (or Ascites) in Backyard Chickens?

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.

Ascites isn't a disease or an illness. It's not contagious - although certain environmental conditions could have contributed to the condition and it could affect more than one flock member.

Like many poultry illnesses, maintaining a clean, healthy environment for your flock, offering a balanced, nutritious diet and being aware 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, exercise 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 of Water Belly (Ascites)

  • 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 of Water Belly (Ascites)

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

Prevention of Water Belly (Ascites)

  • 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

Over time the afflicted bird will continue to deteriorate as the heart and liver continue to fail. 

While some people claim that there is no "cure" for ascites, several studies have been done using herbal or natural remedies to treat the condition.

...And you knew it was coming, didn't you? Something about herbs, maybe?

Natural and Herbal Treatment of Water Belly (Ascites) in Chickens

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.

So here are some other things to try:

  • Adding oil of oregano to feed resulted in a higher survival rate than chickens not fed the oregano. (Poultry Science Journal, October 2014) Shop Oil of Oregano.

  • Adding 1/2 teaspoon of Brewers Yeast 

    to the feed can help treat water belly.
  • Using the herb eyebright to treat ascites  (1993 US patent application) Eyebright is an antioxidant, anti-septic, and anti-inflammatory that contains tannins that can help dry up secretions. Anecdotal evidence from Australia has indicated that adding a few drops ( or one capsule) eyebright to the water can "cure" the water belly.  Shop Eyebright. 

Water Belly (Ascites) in Ducks

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 after that first time he drained her belly, but by that point, she was barely eating, showed no interested in any of her favorite treats, and was having trouble walking. And so I made the hard decision to bring her back to the vet for the last time.

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 then 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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