Ascites in Chickens and Ducks (Water Belly)

Ascites in chickens and ducks

Ascites in chickens and ducks is a life threatening condition exhibiting fluid build up in the abdomen. Both chickens and ducks can suffer from this health issue, although it is not common in backyard flocks. The condition is most prevalent in broiler chickens and meat ducks. There are signs and symptoms all poultry owners should be aware of so that treatment can be started early. Although the treatment will keep the chicken or duck more comfortable, ascites in chickens and ducks is not curable, but it can be controlled in many cases.

ascites in chickens and ducks
photo credit Angela Ferraro-Fanning

Recently a friend contacted me about a duck that had a protruding belly that felt tight, much like a water balloon. No egg was felt in the abdomen and no discharge was observed. These are classic symptoms of water belly or ascites in chickens and ducks. In addition to the water belly, the bird may be reluctant to move around. Other symptoms can include lethargy, and no interest in food. In addition, the chicken with water belly may not be able to get on the roost at bedtime. A patch of red skin may be visible on the abdomen. The swollen area can be warm to the touch. For a good photo of this red patch of skin check this post from The Cape Coop.

How Does Ascites Occur in Chickens and Ducks?

Understanding a little about poultry anatomy helps us understand why the bird is reluctant to eat or move around. Bird lungs are rather rigid. They do not have the ability to expand as mammal lungs expand. As the fluid builds up and takes up space, it is harder for the bird to breathe. Because Ascites is basically a disease of right ventricle failure and hypertension, the chicken or duck will become listless, and look unwell. As the heart failure progresses, the liver begins to malfunction and release protein filled fluid into the abdomen.

For more in depth details about the pathogenesis and epidemiology of ascites in chickens and duck, refer to the Merck Veterinary Manual. The general signs of illness in poultry may be present, pale comb and wattles, dull eyes, unsteady gait, or sitting and walking in an unusual manner. Ascites in chickens and ducks there is no risk of contagion as there is in other deadly poultry diseases. If the bird is happy and content in the coop, you do not need to isolate while treating.

What Causes Ascites in Chickens and Ducks?

  • Genetics – Some breeds can be genetically predisposed to heart disease. Broiler chickens and meat breeds have the condition more commonly than backyard egg production hens. Since it can be hereditary, do not hatch or sell hatching eggs from a hen with water belly even if she is not currently showing symptoms.
  • Age – Older hens can develop water belly as their organs deteriorate.
  • Food and Treats – Too high of a protein level can stress organs. Also, a high sodium intake can throw off the balance so be cautious of the treats given to poultry. Feed your poultry the proper food and treats for good health.
  • Environmental Stress – Extreme heat can lead to organ stress and electrolyte imbalance. Chicks that are not kept warm enough can develop early heart disease. Other environmental factors include proper ventilation, cleanliness, and general unsanitary conditions.
  • High Altitude – Lower oxygen in the air results in a higher than normal incidence of ascites in chickens and ducks
  • Mold or stale food – Aphlatoxins in moldy food and
    Clostridium perfringens  can cause liver damage and result in water belly.

How to Treat Ascites in Chickens and Ducks

Once the bird is suffering from heart failure, reversing the damage is next to impossible. However, it is possible to keep the chicken or duck comfortable and happy.

Please note that I am not a veterinarian. The procedure I have used on chickens in my flock has resulted in successfully keeping the birds alive and happy for a long time. My latest case of ascites is in a Brahma hen. She exhibited classic symptoms of water belly in the fall. I drained off fluid three times over a six week period. After that, she had a good winter with no return of fluid until early spring. At that time, fluid had accumulated to the point that she was unable to roost with the other chickens. I noticed her trying to bed down on the floor of the coop, and sure enough, her belly was tight and she had lost some weight.

ascites in chickens and ducks

Draining Fluid from Water Belly

The following first aid kit items are needed for draining fluid from the lower abdomen.

  • alcohol swabs or cotton balls and alcohol
  • large gauge syringe, this can be reused during the course of treatment. Test out the syringe prior to the procedure because some are quite tight and a few test pumps will loosen it up.
  • small gauge needles – do not reuse these. Dispose of needles properly to protect yourself and others.
  • an assistant can be very helpful during the procedure although I often do this by myself.

The Fluid Draw Procedure

Have all the materials ready and close at hand. The faster you can work, the less stress the bird will endure. Identify the area for the needle to enter. This should be the right side of the belly, down and to the right of the vent. Try to let gravity work with you. The lower you can drain, the more fluid will naturally continue to slowly drain after the procedure. Tuck the duck or chicken under your arm and swab the lower belly area with the alcohol wipe. It was very helpful for me to watch a video before beginning. Teresa Johnson has a good video published on YouTube showing exactly how this procedure is done. Other videos can be viewed on Common Sense Home with information provided on how they are dealing with the issue in one of their runner ducks.

ascites in chickens and ducks

Insert the needle into the belly. Begin to pull the syringe to draw fluid. The fluid should appear yellow. If it is red, withdraw the needle and try another area. Withdraw approximately half of what is felt in the abdomen or approximately half a cup. Note* When the syringe is full, twist off the syringe, leaving the needle inserted. The fluid will continue to drain and you won’t have to continuously stick the poor bird. Remove the needle when the fluid drained is approximately half a cup. (4 fluid ounces)

Do not draw too much fluid at one time as it can cause the bird to go into shock from fluid loss. I return the bird to a quiet area for a few minutes of observation and a favorite treat, before returning to the flock. Ascites in chickens and ducks is not contagious and no isolation is necessary.

The Result

The bird usually perks up quickly and returns to normal behavior in a day or so. Another fluid draw can be attempted after two days or sooner if needed. I do not draw fluid again that same day. Each bird is different and will refill at different rates, therefore chickens or ducks with ascites will need to be monitored closely for the rest of it’s life. The fluid drain will improve the quality of life, but is not a cure.
Ascites in chickens and ducks is a result of a disease. It is not a disease in itself. Some of the illnesses that result in water belly are major organ failure, heart issues, toxins in the environment, or even a tumor. Only a qualified veterinarian can provide the testing to determine what underlying issues might be the cause of ascites in your bird.

The following photos were shared by Angela Ferraro -Fanning. I am very grateful that Angela asked me to discuss this treatment as she cared for her duck. Thankfully the duck was doing very well post draining. You can follow Angela and her tales from Axe and Root Homestead on Instagram.

Protruding lower belly Photo credit Angela Ferraro-Fanning

Keep in mind that this draining fluid procedure is rarely a cure. It does allow the bird some time to return to normal activities. The frequency of fluid draws might become more frequent, in which case you might choose to end the bird’s suffering. In other cases you may gain months of life from your backyard flock member.

ascites in chickens and ducks
photo credit Angela Ferraro-Fanning

Natural Aids for Heart and Liver Damage

Common Sense Home did an extensive search of plants and foods that could help relieve the condition that leads to water belly. Oregano and garlic are known heart healthy foods and heart tonics. Squash is high in potassium which can lower blood pressure. Read more on the natural methods being used by the duck caretakers of Common Sense Home in this post.

Most articles on ascites in chickens and ducks recommend culling the affected animal. If you feel that your bird still can enjoy a good life, taking the approach described here can buy you time with your working pet. You may get to enjoy many more months with your chicken or duck.

Are you looking for Do it Yourself style help with your backyard or small farm poultry? Please take a look at my book, 50 Do it Yourself Projects for Keeping Chickens (Skyhorse Publishing, 2018) available on this website or Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Tractor Supply or your local bookseller.