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Water Belly (Ascites) in Chickens

Water Belly (Ascites) in Chickens
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Ascites, also called Water Belly, is a common problem with fast-growing meat chickens. It can also be seen in older laying hens.  It is not a disease, so it is not contagious to the rest of your flock.  It is a symptom of a deeper problem, and unfortunately, the underlying cause is eventually fatal.


A hen with water belly will usually have the following symptoms:

  • swollen & distended abdomen that is soft, squishy, and feels full of liquid
  • red skin along their abdomen, likely missing feathers
  • waddling when walking
  • blue/purple tint to her comb & wattles
  • labored breathing
  • lethargy & lack of appetite
Water Belly in Chickens


A chicken with water belly is usually suffering from heart disease and/or hypertension.  The strain of heart disease causes their liver to stop functioning properly.  When the liver isn’t functioning properly, fluid begins leaking from the liver into the abdominal cavity causing a fluid filled pocket, “water belly”. 

Occasionally in very old (5+ years) chickens, the cause of the liver failure is a tumor in their reproductive system.  In any event, if your chicken has water belly, it is definitely not a good sign. There is likely a serious issue with your chicken’s health.

Water Belly Ascetis in Chickens
It is kind of hard to see in the picture, but our 6 year old Barred Rock hen has a squishy “sack” about the size of a baseball in her abdomen that keeps filling with fluid.

Risk Factors

Water belly is most often seen in fast growing meat chickens.  Their bodies sometimes grow too fast, putting too much stress on their hearts.  In meat chickens, this can often happen around 4-6 weeks when they go through a growth spurt.

Older laying hens (5 years or older) have a higher risk just because of their advanced age and the natural deterioration of their systems as they age.

Genetics – premature heart failure and developing water belly can both be hereditary.  A chicken with water belly should not be used in breeding programs.

High altitudes – less oxygen in the air can put stress on the chicken’s heart

Extreme temperatures – stress the chicken’s system, especially when they are chicks, make sure they don’t get chilly.  Extended heat waves can also stress their heart.

Diet issues – too much feed can lead to obesity and stress on the heart & liver.  Too much protein & too much sodium can also cause premature heart failure.

Ventilation issues – not enough ventilation in the coop can lead to excessive ammonia fumes which causes issues with several organs

How to help a chicken with water belly

Unfortunately, there is no cure for water belly but you can help relieve her pain.  A similar situation can happen in humans with certain cancers.  In humans, the fluid build up can be very painful as it stretches the skin and pushes against internal organs.  I would assume this condition is also painful for chickens.

You can help relieve the pain by draining the fluid build-up with a syringe.  It is a temporary fix.  It will make your chicken more comfortable in the short term but will not “cure” the problem.  The cavity will fill back up and you will have to keep draining it to relieve the pressure. In early stages it could take months to fill back up, in later stages of heart failure it could fill back up in days.

Use a sterile medium gauge needle with a syringe. 18 or 20 gauge needle with a 30 ml syringe works well. Clean the area before & after draining and wear gloves. The chicken could go into shock if you drain too much fluid too fast. I recommend not draining more than 30 ml in one sitting and going slow.  The fluid drained from the cavity will be yellow in color which confirms it is indeed leaking from the liver. It could be clear or cloudy. 

Sadly, the only other option, if you do not want to drain the cavity, is to cull the bird to end their suffering. Click here to read about assembling a chicken first aid kit

Preventing Water Belly

While many of the risk factors for developing water belly are out of your control, there are a few things you can do to raise healthy hearted hens.  Just like human hearts, chicken hearts respond best to a balanced, nutritious diet, plenty of fresh air & exercise, and a low stress lifestyle.  Regularly cleaning your chicken’s living quarters, giving them quality feed and fresh, clean water will go a long way in raising healthy, long lived hens.

Water Belly in Chickens

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Maria schimmel

Monday 19th of June 2023

Got a farm raised chicken everything was done when cleaning inside found 0range liquid balls in cavity is this a Mexican thing


Tuesday 20th of June 2023

I am sorry, I am not super experienced with chicken autopsies. I am not sure what orange liquid balls would be, sorry I can't be more help


Monday 29th of May 2023

Thank you so much for this information,i hav learnt one or two things.Stay blessed


Wednesday 10th of May 2023

Hi Liz, I believe my hen has water belly and will work to drain her and see how that helps. This information and your follow up comments on an article over 5 years old are truly amazing, thanks for your time.


Wednesday 17th of May 2023

I hope this helps your hen!


Friday 14th of April 2023

HI there,

I have a hen with water belly. Im familiar with it because I had another hen that had it but ultimately passed. I know how to drain the fluid so I tried yesterday. I was able to get some out but eventually the syringe stopped suctioning. Today I tried again and I could not get suction and what eventually came out was blood stained. She seems to have internal bleeding as I can see her skin is bluish on one side of her belly. I'm concerned she won't make it another day. My question is do I try to drain again? If its bloody what does that mean?


Sunday 16th of April 2023

Are you sure you didn't accidentally insert the needle into a vein? It could just be the position of the needle that is causing you to draw some blood instead of fluid. A blueish color is often seen in the wattles and combs of chickens that have water belly, but not usually seen in the abdomen. I think you may be right that something else is going on, something that is causing internal bleeding. Do you have a local vet that you can consult with? Without xrays or testing the extracted fluid, it's hard to really say what could be causing internal bleeding or blood in the fluid. I would try to drain her again but in a slightly different location. I am sorry, I hope she finds some relief soon


Friday 24th of March 2023

Culling is not the only option. Water belly isn’t always the sign of a severe underlying condition. Other keepers drain their birds then keep an eye on them and repeat the procedure throughout their life as fluid builds up. In later stages water belly can cause heart failure but if caught before then it isn’t always a death sentence.

I am continuing to reaserch water belly as one of my young hens has it, but I already know that this is misinformation and may harm others birds, it’s incredibly concerning to see someone reccomend culling for this treatable condition. In the cases where culling is recommended water belly was left un treated too long or is a one symptom of what will lead to death. Water belly isn’t a death sentence. Drain the fluid (not all at once as it could lead to shock and that could kill the bird) and keep an eye on your bird, if they seem to be getting worse culling is likley the best option but what I’ve seen so far (excluding this article) is that usually they will get better.

Here are two of the other articles I have looked at so far. The experience of the writers directly contradicts this articles “facts” it’s concerning to me that this is one of the top results when searching water belly and it holds such devastating misinformation. I’ve seen other articles from this site that are accurate however so I hope they redact or revise this article in light of their error.


Friday 24th of March 2023

Thank you for your comment, although I must admit I am confused by it. I only mention culling in one sentence, and in no way was it intended to be presented as the first or only option. I clearly talk first about draining the cavity, and then culling is mentioned as the other alternative if you are unwilling to drain it. Water Belly is not something you should just ignore, it will not just go away. If you are unwilling to drain the cavity, then the humane thing to do is to cull the bird so it does not suffer. The full cavity is pushing on all their organs and stretching their skin, it is painful for them.

Draining the fluid is not a cure for the underlying health issue (both the articles you suggested say the same), but it will help your chicken feel more comfortable and resume normal activities temporarily. The cavity will fill back up, slowly in the early stages and quicker as the heart disease gets worse. Yes, there are other causes beyond heart failure (like toxins ingested, respiratory disease, or tumors), but heart failure is the most common cause in backyard laying hens. Water belly does not cause heart failure, it is the other way around. When the chicken's heart is overworked from heart disease, it stresses the liver, causing it to spill fluid into the abdominal cavity. I have treated a chicken with water belly, and she was able to live comfortably for over a year after we started draining her regularly.

I am sorry to hear about your hen, I hope you are able to provide her some relief with draining

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