Water Belly in Chickens: How to Diagnose and Treat Ascites

Water Belly in Chickens Featured Image
Is your hen acting oddly and moving slowly, and does she have a distended, bloated belly? It may be Ascites - otherwise known as Water Belly.

While we never want our chickens to go through it, this terrible disease is all too common. It’s important to be able to diagnose and treat Ascites in your flock to prolong their quality of life.

This article will discuss the common causes of Water Belly, and how to diagnose your chicken and treat them for Ascites. You’ll also learn some simple and affordable practices to prevent this disease from affecting your chickens, even if you’re new to raising a flock.

Let’s begin.

What is Water Belly?

Ascites is the name for what we commonly call water belly in chickens and the primary causes of it are hypertension and heart failure.

Both heart failure and hypertension can cause stress to the liver, which begins to leak fluid if not caught early. Once this happens, the liquids build up in the abdominal cavity, which is why it is called water belly.

What are the Symptoms of Water Belly in Chickens?

The following are the most common symptoms of Ascites in chickens:

  • Swollen abdomen
  • Labored Breathing due to oxygen demands and lack of oxygen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Egg laying cessation
  • Reduced rate of growth in younger chickens
  • Lethargic and exhausted
  • Blue wattles and combs
  • Red skin
  • Feather loss – especially around the stomach
chickens with water belly next to tree

If you notice any of the above signs, it is good to consult a veterinarian who can confirm that it is Ascites and assist you with a treatment plan.

What Causes Ascites (Water Belly)?

There are many underlying causes but nearly all of them stem from other illnesses that are untreated. The main culprit and cause of Ascites is heart disease, so it is best to question what causes heart disease in chickens.

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1. Accelerated Growth

The most common cause of heart disease in chickens is accelerated growth rate because it puts incredible stress on the heart. Some chicken breeds are specifically bred as broiler chickens, and commercial operations breed meat chickens for rapid growth so they can cull them and produce a consumable product for the masses.

If you happen to have broiler breeds in your flock such as Cornish chickens, you should keep an extra close eye on them because they are more likely to have enlargement of the heart, blood pressure and blood flow issues, than other types of chickens.

2. Chronic Upper Respiratory Problems

If your flock is prone to URI’s and often get sick, they are more at risk of pulmonary hypertension syndrome simply because upper respiratory issues reduce oxygen in the blood. This makes the heart have to work harder to supply oxygen to the body.

3. Nutrition

Another common cause of heart-related problems stems from poor diet, especially diets high in fat. High-fat diets cause heart disease in chickens the same way that it does to us humans.

If your chickens suffer from obesity, you should look into what you are feeding them, and change it to so they are getting a balanced, proper diet with the right supplements.

4. Genetics and Age

Genetics plays a huge factor in heart disease for all animals, including our beloved backyard chickens. Some birds will be genetically inclined to have certain illnesses.

The good news is that you can combat genetics with environment (to an extent). By feeding your birds a proper diet, ensuring they have regular veterinary checkups, and a clean chicken coop, you can help keep them from illness.

Age also plays a part in developing heart problems – the older the bird, the more likely they are to have hypertension and heart issues.

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5. Elevation

High Altitude is one of the leading causes of water belly in chickens. Higher elevations make the heart work harder to supply oxygen to the blood and if your chickens have a lack of oxygen, it stresses the heart.

Treatment for Water Belly

You now know the most common causes of water belly in chickens. The question remains – what can you do to treat it?

Veterinary support is the first thing you need when facing a possible case of water belly.

A veterinarian is a trained professional who will conduct a physical exam, possibly do bloodwork, and listen to your chicken’s heart to determine if they have Ascites.

If your veterinarian gives you a diagnosis of Water Belly, you will have a few treatment options available to you – depending on how advanced it is.

Unfortunately, there is no cure for Ascites, but there are things you can do to prolong the life of your chicken if you and your veterinarian come to the conclusion that it would be of benefit to the chicken.

Of course, many people choose to humanely euthanize their chickens if given this diagnosis because the treatment can be invasive and somewhat costly.

If you opt to treat your chicken, you should do the following:

1. Drain Excess Fluid

The first thing that must be done is to drain the fluid.

Draining should be performed by a veterinarian once every three or so months, or any time you notice that your chicken has excess fluid around the abdomen and is displaying signs of water belly.

A veterinarian can extract up to a cup and a half of excess fluid at a time.

2. Restrict Feeding and Frequency

Restricting feeding is the second thing you can do to help your chicken – by reducing the portion size of the food they are eating, and feeding more frequently, it can help your birds from becoming obese.

It also can help slow down accelerated growth which in turn places less stress on the heart.

3. Add Supplements

There are some supplements that are recommended for Water Belly that you can provide for your chickens.

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Oregano oil and Vitamin C both seem to benefit chickens by helping their overall health by increasing oxygen and helping the immune system.

Oregano oil remains the best natural antibiotic you can give your chickens.

How Do You Prevent a Chicken from Getting Water Belly?

If you’ve ever had a hen or rooster with water belly, you know that you wouldn’t want any of your other birds ever getting this awful disease. While there is no perfect method of prevention, there are some things you can do as a precaution to help your chickens from getting water belly.

Keep a Clean Environment

A clean coop and chicken run is a great place to start. Ensure the environment in which they spend the most time is cleaned regularly to prevent bacteria and ectoparasites like mites from causing illness in your chicken which can exacerbate other conditions.

It is also important to keep their environment well-ventilated as fresh air can help prevent moldy growth. When breathed in, this is the main cause of upper respiratory infections in confined chickens.

Create a Balanced Diet and Feeding Schedule

Diet is key to the overall health of your chickens. Feed your bird with a focus on optimizing their health – getting guidance from a veterinarian on what food and supplements should be provided for your specific flock is a great place to start.

You should also have a feeding schedule that allows you to portion control what your birds are consuming. Of course, they should always have access to fresh, clean water.

How Long Can a Chicken with Ascites Live?

This truly depends on how early you catch it. If your chicken’s case of ascites is caught quite early and treated immediately, your chicken can live a full life.

However, in the incidence of ascites, it is not often that this is caught early enough and oftentimes chickens suffer needlessly because they get too sick and suffer from organ failure.

It is up to you and your veterinarian to determine whether treatment or euthanasia is more appropriate given your chicken’s condition.

Christina

A longtime resident of Southern California, Christina recently moved across the globe to Austria, where she bought land specifically to build a small house with room for a backyard chicken coop. Christina spent her childhood summers on a farm, raising and caring for a flock of hens owned by her grandparents, which prompted a lifelong love of chickens, and other farm animals. Christina is passionate about writing, having written hundreds of articles for well-known websites, and uses her English degree in service of her love for animal welfare, most recently taking on a writing position at Chicken Care Taker in 2022.

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