Water Belly (Ascites) in Chickens: Causes & Treatment

Draining chicken with water belly ascites

Water belly in chickens, also known as ascites, is essentially a buildup of fluid within a chicken’s abdominal cavity. It’s mainly seen in broiler chickens due to their fast growth rates and high metabolic oxygen requirements.

This condition is not a disease itself but rather a symptom of underlying health issues, often related to the heart and lungs. It usually starts when the heart struggles to pump blood through the lungs.

This puts a lot of pressure on the heart, especially the right side, and eventually causes heart failure. The added strain also affects the liver, leading it to leak fluid into the chicken’s belly.

Symptoms of Water Belly in Chickens

Water belly in chickens can manifest through various symptoms. Here are the common signs to look out for:

  • Swollen abdomen: The most noticeable sign of water belly in chickens is a swollen abdomen that feels soft and squishy. This swelling is due to fluid accumulation in the chicken’s abdominal cavity.
  • Red skin on abdomen: If a chicken has water belly, you might notice that the skin on its belly looks red and might even be missing some feathers. This redness and feather loss happens because the belly is stretched and irritated.
  • Labored breathing: Labored breathing is a significant symptom in chickens with water belly. The pressure from the fluid in the abdomen affects their lungs and other organs, making breathing a struggle.
  • Waddling walk: A waddling gait is common in chickens with water belly. The discomfort and extra weight from the fluid buildup in their abdomen make it difficult for them to walk normally.
  • Blue or purple comb and wattles: If a chicken’s comb and wattles turn blue or purple, it might have water belly. This color change indicates a lack of oxygen, which is a big concern with water belly.
  • Lethargy: Sick chickens tend to be less active. Hence, chickens with water belly might not move around as much and could even keep away from the other chickens.
  • Lack of appetite: Chickens with water belly usually don’t feel like eating much. Some of them might not eat at all.

It’s important to remember that sometimes, chickens with water belly may experience sudden death without showing any of these signs.

This shows just how serious water belly can be and why it’s important to keep a close eye on your chickens’ health.

Causes of Water Belly in Chickens

Since water belly in chickens is closely linked to underlying issues within the heart and lungs, there are many different factors that can contribute to its development. Below are some of these factors.

Heart and Lung Stress

Water belly in chickens often starts with issues in their heart and lungs. The main culprit is a condition called pulmonary hypertension.

This happens when the chicken’s heart has to work extra hard to pump blood through the lungs. This extra effort leads to high blood pressure in the lungs and strains the heart, setting the stage for water belly.

Genetic Factors

Some chickens are more likely to get water belly because of their genes, especially in breeds that are raised for meat. These chickens are bred to put on weight quickly, which can be tough on their hearts.

Moreover, male chickens are more prone to developing water belly. The genetic makeup of these chickens, combined with their gender, makes them more vulnerable to heart and lung problems that lead to water belly.

Diet and Obesity

What chickens eat can affect their chances of getting water belly. A diet that’s too high in protein or lacks proper nutrition can be a problem.

I recall a colleague who sought my advice on a diet for obese chickens. Upon inspecting the flock, we discovered several birds already suffering from water belly.

It was a clear sign of how important the right diet is when it comes to dealing with this condition. Overweight chickens are more likely to have heart issues, which can cause water belly.

Thus, it’s important to keep an eye on your chickens’ weight and adjust their food as needed to keep them healthy and reduce the risk of this condition.

Extreme Temperatures

Extreme weather can also cause water belly in chickens. When it’s too hot or too cold, their bodies have to work harder to stay at a normal temperature. This extra effort can strain their hearts and lungs, leading to water belly.

Pro Tip: To help your chickens handle extreme hot or cold weather, try incorporating garlic into their diet.

Garlic has been shown to improve heart health and reduce blood pressure, which is crucial under stress from extreme temperatures. A recommended starting point is adding about 5 grams of garlic per kilogram of feed.

Environmental Stress

The environment where chickens live can also play a big role in causing water belly.

When chickens are exposed to poor air quality, such as low oxygen levels at high altitudes or harmful ammonia fumes from unclean living conditions, their respiratory system is put under strain.

This strain forces their hearts to work harder to circulate oxygen, which increases the risk of water belly.

Additionally, dusty environments or poorly ventilated coops can lead to respiratory issues, further stressing their cardiovascular system.

Hence, ensuring chickens have a clean, well-ventilated living space with fresh air is essential in reducing the risk of water belly.

How to Treat Water Belly in Chickens

Treating water belly in chickens can be challenging, as there’s no cure for the underlying causes.

However, paracentesis can be done to provide temporary relief by draining excess fluid from the affected chicken’s belly. Here’s how you can do this:

  1. Prepare the equipment: You’ll need a sterile medium gauge needle and a syringe. An 18 or 20-gauge needle paired with a 30 ml syringe is typically suitable.
  2. Clean the area: Before starting, clean the area of the chicken’s abdomen where you’ll insert the needle. This helps prevent infection.
  3. Gently insert the needle: Insert the needle carefully into the abdomen at the site of fluid buildup. It’s important to be gentle to avoid causing any additional discomfort or injury to the chicken.
  4. Drain the fluid: Slowly pull back on the syringe to start draining the fluid. It’s best not to remove more than 30 ml of fluid at a time. Taking out too much too fast can shock the chicken. The fluid is usually yellow, which indicates it’s coming from the liver.
  5. Clean the area again: Once you’ve finished, clean the belly area again to prevent any infections.
  6. Monitor the chicken: After the procedure, keep an eye on the chicken for any signs of distress or infection.
  7. Supplement with oregano oil: Adding oregano essential oil to their diet might help. A study showed that when broiler birds with ascites were fed oregano oil, there was a significant decrease in death rates, dropping by 59%. This suggests that oregano oil could be a helpful supplement for chickens with this condition.
  8. Vitamin C Supplementation: Vitamin C can also help in managing water belly cases. Research has shown that vitamin C supplementation significantly lowers the mortality rate from ascites. It appears that vitamin C helps the digestive system function more efficiently, reducing the overall stress on the chicken’s body.

Remember, while these steps can help manage the symptoms of water belly, they are not a temporary fix. Paracentesis may need to be repeated as the fluid can accumulate again.

Meanwhile, for a visual guide on how to perform this procedure, check out this video:

Ascites (water belly) fluid removal from Maizie the hen.

How to Prevent Water Belly in Your Flock

While some risk factors of water belly in chickens are beyond control, there are effective ways to reduce the likelihood of this condition. Here are some strategies you can implement to prevent water belly in your flock:

  • Cut down on protein: Reducing the protein content in your chickens’ diet can help. Too much protein can speed up their growth, putting a strain on their hearts and increasing the risk of water belly.
  • Avoid too much sodium: Watch the sodium levels in their food. Just like in people, too much salt isn’t good for chickens and can contribute to health issues like water belly.
  • Choose mash feed over pellets: Feeding your chickens mash instead of pellets can slow their growth rate. This is especially helpful for fast-growing breeds, as slower growth can reduce the risk of water belly.
  • Keep stress low: Chickens need a calm and safe place to live. Too much stress can lead to health problems, including water belly. So, keep their living space comfortable and don’t let it get too crowded.
  • Encourage exercise: Regular exercise is important to prevent obesity in chickens. An active chicken is less likely to get overweight, which is a big factor in preventing water belly.
  • Consider elevation: If you’re raising broiler breeds, it’s best to do so below 3,000 to 4,000 feet of elevation. Higher elevations have less oxygen, which can make chickens more prone to water belly.
  • Supplement their diet: Adding supplements like Vitamin C and E, selenium, L-carnitine, oregano oil, turmeric, and fish oil to their diet can be beneficial. These supplements have shown promise in helping treat water belly in its early stages.

By following these tips, you can significantly reduce the chances of water belly in your chicken flock. It’s all about providing a balanced diet, a stress-free environment, and proper care to keep them healthy and happy.

When to Seek Veterinary Help

If your chickens are showing severe symptoms like a highly swollen abdomen, labored breathing, or drastic changes in behavior, it’s time to get professional advice.

Home remedies, such as dietary adjustments or fluid drainage, might not always be enough. If these methods aren’t helping, or if the affected chicken’s belly keeps filling up with fluid, a vet needs to check things out.

Also, if you notice a general decline in your chickens’ health, such as weight loss or signs of distress, these could be signs that something more serious is going on.

And if you’re dealing with water belly for the first time and aren’t sure what to do, definitely talk to a vet. They can conduct a thorough examination to determine the root cause and suggest appropriate treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

How Long Can A Chicken Live With Water Belly

With early diagnosis and consistent treatment, chickens with water belly can live for several months and, in some cases, even beyond two years.

However, in more severe cases, the recovery rates are not as high, and the condition can significantly shorten their lifespan.

Can A Chicken Recover From Water Belly?

Chickens with water belly usually can’t fully recover, as there’s no cure for it. The main goal is to keep them comfortable.

Some chickens might live for several months with good care, but sadly, this condition keeps getting worse over time and affects their overall health and lifespan.

Is Water Belly In Chickens Contagious?

Water belly in chickens is not contagious. It’s a health condition caused by factors like genetics, diet, and environmental stress, not by a transmissible disease.

Scientific References

Ahmadpanah, J., et al. Genetic parameters of body weight and ascites in broilers: effect of different incidence rates of ascites syndrome British poultry science 58.1 (2017)

Betancourt L, et al. Effect of Origanum chemotypes on broiler intestinal bacteria. Poult Sci. (2014)

Daneshyar M, et al. The effects of turmeric supplementation on antioxidant status, blood gas indices and mortality in broiler chickens with T(3)-induced ascites. Br Poult Sci. (2012)

Ladmakhi MH, et al. The prophylactic effect of vitamin C supplementation on broiler ascites incidence and plasma thyroid hormone concentration. Avian Pathol. (1997)

Nemati, M., et al. Cold-Induced Ascites in Broilers: Effects of Vitamin C and Coenzyme Q10. Brazilian Journal of Poultry Science (2017)

Tekeli, Ahmet. Effects of L-carnitine supplementation on ascites syndrome in the broilers grown at high altitude Revista MVZ Córdoba 24.1 (2019)

Varmaghany S, et al. The effects of increasing levels of dietary garlic bulb on growth performance, systolic blood pressure, hematology, and ascites syndrome in broiler chickens. Poult Sci. (2015)

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