Were you aware that there is a disease called water belly in chickens and other poultry breeds? Water belly is the common name for a condition called ascites.
Ascites, or water belly, is a condition that is hard to treat and unfortunately has high mortality rates. I’m going to teach you ways to prevent water belly. I’ll also teach you how the disease works and how it affects your chickens. Lastly, I’ll let you know how this condition can be managed.
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What is water belly in a chicken?
If you haven’t ever had a bird that developed water belly, the term may be completely foreign to you. Water belly, or ascites (I’ll use them both) describe a condition that is common found in rapid-growing breeds of poultry.
Main cause of water belly in a chicken- pulmonary hypertension
Ultimately, the main cause of illness in a bird with ascites is pulmonary hypertension. This means that the bird’s body, mainly heart and lungs, are under tremendous amounts of stress. There are several reasons that this can occur and I’ll get to those in just a minute.
The heart and lungs work furiously to deliver vital oxygen to the tissues and organs of the body. Birds with ascites cannot keep up with the oxygen demand.
Unfortunately, this disease has a high mortality rate. This is due mostly to heart failure.
Signs of water belly in chickens
The disease is characterized by a handful of symptoms. The most common is the ‘water belly’ appearance. The abdomen is swollen and enlarged. When poked, it feels squishy, as if the belly was full of water.
This isn’t far off from the cause of the squishy, swollen abdomen. Chickens with ascites will develop a large amount of fluid in the abdominal cavity. The fluid is yellowish in color. Fluid from the liver will fill the abdomen, creating the water belly appearance.
Birds with ascites will often show symptoms of fatigue and reduced growth due to the lack of oxygen. They will often have decreased energy and a reduced appetite. This then causes the birds to slow in growth.
Ascites will also cause birds to appear in respiratory distress. This makes sense as the body is craving oxygen. Birds with water belly will pant even when they are not hot.
Lastly, water belly in chickens will cause the birds to have blue wattles and combs. As the oxygen available is given to the more important organs, the less important wattles and combs will turn blue from the lack of oxygen.
I’ve mentioned that ascites comes with a high mortality rate. Birds that have water belly can eventually die from the disease.
What causes ascites in poultry?
There are several reasons that a chicken or other poultry may develop ascites. Growth, elevation, respiratory diseases and other factors can lead to water belly.
Growth and water belly
Ascites is most commonly seen in poultry that grow quickly. It is commonly seen in meat birds with rapid growth rates, like Cornish crosses.
The disease is caused by the inability for the birds heart and lungs to deliver enough oxygen to the other organs and tissues of the body.
Birds that grow rapidly may experience growth that is so fast the heart and lungs cannot supply enough oxygen to meet the needs of those rapidly growing tissues. This high demand for oxygen to the growing muscles of the bird causes a tremendous amount of stress on the heart and lungs. They simply can’t keep up with the demand.
Elevation and ascites
Another common cause of water belly is elevation.
Farms that are located at higher elevations have a lower amount of oxygen available in the air. This puts a normal heart and lungs under stress to deliver enough oxygen. Add in a fast growing bird with higher oxygen demands and the incidence of water belly rises.
Respiratory disease and water belly
Respiratory diseases can cause ascites in birds. A respiratory disease will decrease the effectiveness of the lungs. They will cause the lungs to struggle to get ample oxygen to the organs.
A prolonged bout of respiratory disease can easily turn into a respiratory disease and a case of water belly in chickens.
Other possible causes of water belly in chickens
Ascites may also be caused by poor nutrition or genetics. Some birds may be genetically predisposed to develop water belly. They may have hearts and lungs that are not as strong and struggle to deliver oxygen.
Some studies show that certain vitamin and mineral deficiencies can lead to water belly in chickens.
Preventing ascites in chickens
Water belly in chickens is easier to prevent than it is to treat. There are two main ways to prevent ascites from developing in chickens: through the environment and through the chicken’s diet and nutrition.
Preventing water belly with the environment
The first thing that you’ll want to do is check and make sure that you aren’t living in an area of high elevation. If you live where the oxygen is thin, you may have issues with water belly developing in your chickens.
Since respiratory disease is a factor that can cause ascites, you’ll want to do what you can to prevent respiratory disease in your chicken flock.
Make sure that your chickens have good ventilation.
The coop or barn where the chickens are should be well ventilated. Clean, fresh air will help reduce the amount of bacteria or viruses that will cause respiratory disease. Stale and stagnant air harbors disease-causing organisms, so you’ll want to flush those out with clean air.
If your coop has bedding, make sure that the bedding is clean and low dust.
Use a flaked bedding, not a fine bedding. Also, don’t use cedar bedding for your chickens. Cedar bedding is toxic to the chicken’s respiratory system and can lead to respiratory illness.
Preventing water belly through nutrition
Always make sure that your chickens have access to clean food and water at all times. Remove stagnant water.
Remove old feed or wet feed daily.
Moldy feed can cause illness. Ensure that your chickens are getting a properly balanced diet that is intended for chickens. Don’t feed chickens duck feed or ducks chicken feed.
One of the reasons that meat chickens develop water belly is due to their rapid growth.
You can slow the growth to reduce ascites. Even a slight reduction in growth will decrease the incidents of water belly in your flock.
You can reduce the amount of growth by either providing a feed with a smaller amount of energy or by reducing the amount of feed.
For example, if you are feeding a grower feed that is 26% protein and your chickens keep developing ascites, you can lower that down to a 24 or even 22% protein feed. They will still grow fast but they shouldn’t develop water belly the same way.
Chickens that are provided with a constant supply of feed may develop ascites. If your flock is developing water belly, you can reduce the total amount of feed that they are given. Instead of giving feed 24/7, try feeding them twice per day.
How to treat water belly in a chicken
Unfortunately, ascites is hard to treat. There is not a permanent solution that is approved to treat water belly. You can’t call your vet or go to the local feed supply store and get a medication that will cure it.
However, there are some methods that have promising results that are being researched that you could try. If you have a bird that develops ascites, you may want to try some of these natural cures for water belly.
Draining water belly in a chicken
When you call your veterinarian about water belly in chickens, they are likely to tell you that they can drain the fluid from the swollen abdomen in chickens with water belly.
They can use a needle and syringe to remove the build up of fluid from the liver. Keep in mind that while this will make the bird more comfortable, it is not a permanent solution. It must also be repeated as the fluid will continue to build up.
Here’s a video that explains draining water belly in chickens:
Natural cures for water belly
As I mentioned before, there are no medications or ‘cures’ that can treat ascites. You can’t go to a feed store and order a medication for it. However, there are some natural treatments that are being researched that are showing promise.
If you find yourself with a bird that has water belly, you may want to try one or some of these treatments and cure it.
Oregano essential oil may be a treatment for ascites in birds. In one study, Greek oregano reduced mortality rates in broiler birds with ascites by 59%. It may be a good idea to feed birds that could develop ascites oregano as a precaution.
Vitamin C has been shown to reduce the incidents of water belly. It may be another possible treatment for ascites in chickens. Vitamin C is thought to improve the efficiency of the digestive tract and cause less stress on the bird’s body. This study using broiler birds indicates that supplementation of Vitamin C greatly reduced both the cases of ascites and the number of deaths from ascites.
Check out these posts for more information about possible water belly treatments:
How long can a chicken live with ascites?
This truly depends on the condition of the bird and if it is treated or not.
Some chickens will deteriorate rapidly if the underlying cause is not remedied.
A few chickens that are caught early can have the ascites remedied. Birds with fairly advanced ascites may not truly recover. Some that are treated by having the fluid removed can live up to several months but generally in a deteriorating condition.
Can you eat chickens with ascites?
Ascites is not a disease or infection, so the meat is safe to eat. You may notice when you butcher meat chickens that some of them have developed the condition and didn’t show outward signs before being slaughtered.
Final thoughts about water belly or ascites in chickens
This is truly one of the situations where ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.
There isn’t a good way to treat water belly in chickens, so it’s a better idea to prevent it from occurring if possible.
Monitor birds with rapid growth rates, such as Cornish crosses or other meat type chickens. Reduce feedings if necessary.
Make sure the birds always have access to fresh water and feed. Remove old feed or feed that is wet.
Good ventilation will help keep respiratory disease at bay. Use flake bedding that isn’t cedar. Pine flakes are a good option.
If you find yourself with a chicken that has ascites, some possible treatments include Greek oregano, Vitamin C, brewer’s yeast, flax oil and the herb eyebright.
Have you had a chicken that developed ascites? How did you manage/handle it? Let me know below!