Chicken Water Belly or Ascites Prevention & Treatment Options

Chickens are remarkably hardy creatures that can withstand many conditions when cared for properly. As a chicken owner, one of your duties is to keep your flock in good health. What would you do if you noticed one morning that a hen has developed a strangely bloated belly? Do you know what this could mean? This is called water belly, or ascites, and it can be a dangerous condition when not treated properly.

Today, let’s talk about chicken water belly, including what it is and how you can prevent it from happening.

chicken wateting

What is Water Belly?

Water belly is technically called “ascites,” which refers to the accumulation of fluid within the abdominal cavity. Ascites is also known as pulmonary hypertension syndrome, and it can also happen in people. The condition can form as early as 4 or 5 weeks of age in broiler chickens, but it can also develop over time and is based on a wide variety of factors. Since it is not a disease, other chickens cannot catch water belly from another member of the flock that has it. That said, water belly should not be left untreated.

What Causes Water Belly?

When a chicken develops water belly, it is often because they also have hypertension and, possibly, heart failure. A condition like heart failure puts loads of stress on the chicken’s body, so much that their liver begins to fail, too. The liver has many functions, but the one thing it does best is filter out some toxins out of the blood.

Since the liver is not able to function, the fluids within the organ begin to leak out and, because they need to go somewhere, that fluid collects in the abdominal cavity. You may see a similar condition in people who are suffering end stage cirrhosis of the liver.

Occasionally, older chickens may develop ascites after a tumor forms in the reproductive system.

Now, you are probably thinking, what could cause a chicken to get hypertension or heart failure? Well, there are several risk factors for that:

  • Genetics. Some chicken breeds are more susceptible to water belly than others. Broiler chickens, for example, tend to have issues with ascites more than egg producing chickens. Water belly can be hereditary, so do not breed chickens or sell the eggs of those that develop this condition.
  • Purpose. Accelerated growth — often seen in hybrid chickens — can put a strain on the organs. That may lead to heart-related conditions.
  • Age. Deterioration from old age can cause water belly in chickens.
  • Upper respiratory issues. If you notice that your chickens are suffering from multiple respiratory infections, they also have an elevated risk of heart-related diseases. When there is a lower amount of oxygen, it could make the heart work much harder.
  • Environmental stress. Heat can cause stress on the organs and electrolyte imbalances. Improper ventilation, unsanitary conditions, and other poor conditions may also lead to ascites.
  • Nutrition. If your chickens eat too many fatty foods or have a too high protein intake, it increases their chance of obesity. Being overweight may lead to hypertension or heart failure. Additionally, if you feed your chickens any moldy or stale food, the aflatoxins may cause enough liver damage to cause water belly.
  • High altitude. The higher the elevation at which you live, the harder it is for your heart to pump oxygen through the body. If your chickens are not getting enough oxygen, the strain is too much for the heart.

Symptoms of Ascites

Chickens with water belly will have the following symptoms:

  • Swollen and distended belly
  • Stomach feels squishy and full of liquid
  • Labored breathing
  • Lack of appetite
  • Waddling and laziness
  • Red skin on the stomach
  • Missing feathers on the stomach
  • Purple or bluish tint on the wattle and comb

How to Prevent Ascites

Wondering how you can keep your chickens safe from water belly? Unfortunately, there is no way to prevent ascites. It is a side effect of other conditions, so you must prevent those from happening first. Ascites can be caused by a number of things, including environmental stress. As long as you provide a clean coop that has plenty of ventilation, you can put many illnesses to rest, including chronic respiratory diseases.

You should also ensure that your chickens are eating a healthy mix of premium chicken feed and snacks. If you end up giving your chickens far too many fatty or sugary snacks, they could put on too much weight. Keeping your chickens healthy and strong is essential.

Although you can prevent genetic issues from arising, it is important to research the breeds that are susceptible to ascites, as well as the diseases that cause this condition. Keep in mind that hybrids are vulnerable to illnesses and diseases like this one. If you end up bringing some hybrids into your flock, know which ones could wind up with this condition.

Veterinarian Diagnosis of Water Belly

vet working on chicken farm

If you suspect that your chicken is coming down with water belly, your chicken needs attention immediately. Call a veterinarian. Here is what you can expect when visiting the vet:

  • An abdominal exam will take place. For extreme cases, the vet will be able to diagnosis ascites with this exam only.
  • A quick heart exam is also given. The vet will check your chicken’s heartbeat and blood pressure.
  • The veterinarian may also like to run some tests on your chicken’s blood. This will include a white blood cell count, oxygen, and protein. Once those readings are gathered, the vet can choose the best treatment plan available.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for ascites in chickens, but you can treat the conditions that cause it.

Treatment Options for Water Belly in Chickens

No matter what you do, the condition will not vanish forever. As mentioned above, ascites cannot be cured entirely. You can take some precautions to keep the condition from forming. Because water belly is incurable, some chickens may choose to euthanize members of the flock. However, if you know how to treat your chicken’s water belly, they can continue to live a long and healthy life.

Here some of the treatment options:

Draining Water Belly

You will learn quickly that draining the fluid from your chicken’s belly is the best way to relieve the symptoms of ascites. If you have a trusted veterinarian close by, they may be able to do this for you routinely, but you should learn how to do it at home as well. Draining fluid from your chicken’s belly also saves time and money.

This means that you must draw the fluid out with a needle. Don’t get too squeamish, as it will not hurt your chicken. It helps them immensely.

Here is what you will need:

  • Rubbing alcohol
  • Bowl
  • Protective gloves
  • Antibiotic spray
  • 60 cc syringe and an 18 gauge needle

How to Drain Your Chicken’s Water Belly

veterinarian applying injection to chicken

Now that you have gathered your items, here is how you go about draining your chicken’s ascites:

Step One

Gently pick up your chicken (or have a friend help you) and hold them with their rear end (also called the vent) facing you. The best method is a football hold.

Step Two

Locate the insertion point for the needle. The area is close to the vent, about 2 inches away, slightly to the right. It is pivotal that you choose the right side, because the left side is where your chicken’s essential organs are located. Having found the location, clean it with some rubbing alcohol.

Step Three

Ensure that the syringe is prepped — sterilized and all air removed from the tube. With the area cleaned, gently insert the needle. Start to draw out the fluid, which will be a pale yellow. This is a sign that the kidneys are not functioning properly. If the fluid is either black or green, it could mean that your chicken has an infection. Green or black fluid also means that you are going to have to contact a vet for antibiotics.

Step Four

This should be a slow process. Avoid drawing out too much liquid at one time. It should only be about a cup and half of liquid a day. The wound will continue draining slowly over the course of the next couple of days. Remember, that you do not want to reinsert the needle once you have inserted it into the chicken. One draw per needle.

Step Five

Once you are done draining your chicken’s water belly, put some antibiotic ointment on the wound. Keep your chicken isolated for a couple of days if they are ill. If you do the drain correctly, you won’t have to go through this process for 2-3 months.

Supplementation

One of the best ways to assist with water belly is to supplement your chicken’s meals with some oregano oil and vitamin C. These two ingredients can relieve some of the symptoms of ascites. While vitamin C and oregano oil are not a cure, they do boost immunity and oxygen. Plus, both of these are also excellent antibiotics. Your hens also will not mind having oregano oil and vitamin C, either.

Reduce Food Intake

Aside from draining your chicken’s belly, you can also reduce the amount of fluid that builds up in the abdomen by giving your chicken smaller meals throughout the day. Most chicken keepers give their feathered friends a large portion only once a day. Reduced feedings can prevent obesity. Plus, it helps your chickens from having too much protein at one time.

Final Thoughts on Chicken Water Belly

What is chicken water belly? A condition that affects chickens, causing them to accumulate fluid from a damaged liver in their abdomen. It is not a fun condition, and it can kill your chicken if left unattended. However, if you detect ascites in your chickens before it gets too bad and treat it effectively, your birds will go on to live long and healthy lives.

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