Chickens

Water Belly (Ascites) in Chickens

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Water Belly Ascetis in Chickens

Ascites, also called Water Belly, is a common problem with fast growing meat chickens, and also 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 is eventually fatal.

Symptoms

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

Causes

A chicken with water belly is suffering from heart failure and/or hypertension.  The heart failure 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 “water belly”.  Occasionally in very old (5+ years) chickens, the cause of the liver failure is from a tumor in their reproductive system.  In any event, if you chicken has water belly, it is definitely not a good sign, and there is likely a much more 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 (4-5 years or older) also 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

How to help a chicken with water belly

Unfortunately, there is no cure for water belly.  A similar situation can happen with humans with certain cancers.  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.

Be sure to use a sterile needle and clean the area before & after draining.  The fluid drained from the cavity will be yellow in color which confirms it is indeed leaking from the liver.  Sadly, the only other option is to cull the bird to end their suffering. Click here to read about assembling a chicken first aid kit

Prevention

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 & fresh, clean water will go a long way in raising healthy, long lived hens.


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64 Comments

  1. cindy mueller says:

    I have had two seperate incidences where a hen had an accumulation of fluid more towards the crop. It would become lethargic etc.. I could tilt the chicken forward and liquid would be relieved through the beak. do you know what this is, if it is preventable/curable? My birds died.

    1. Hi Cindy, that sounds like it could be sour crop. If the crop doesn’t empty entirely of food, the remnants in the crop can begin to ferment and cause a yeast infection. Emptying the crop manually like you had done will help relieve the pressure, but as a preventive measure many people add apple cider vinegar or probiotics to the water, limiting starchy treats in birds prone to sour crop (like bread & crackers) and making sure grit is always available to aid in digestion

      1. For liquid in the crop, no need to empty it, give proper dewormer. Vinegar does nothing for it. It’s worms. I cured several hens with this condition with fenbendazole or levamizole for several days at the right dosage.

        1. thank you for sharing your experiences!

        2. Jennifer says:

          Liquid in the crop is not commonly caused by worms. I’ve had chickens with sour crop or impacted crop and they definitely did not have worms. Some birds even develop a pendulous crop, which prevents food from draining into the stomach. So much misinformation spread online about chicken health, diet and worming 🥺🙄

    2. Marli says:

      That definitely sounds like sour crop which is a fungal infection in the crop. You can treat it with oregano oil, garlic oil, and a vaginal yeast infection cream. I don’t remember which are best or how much to use, but if you google it you can find people explaining how to treat. I have had two hens develop sour crop and successfully treated both. One has pendulous crop, so she needs to wear a crop bra to support her crop so it can function normally. There is a seller on Etsy who has the best crop bra design. It slips over the chicken’s head and fastens behind the wings with velcro. It’s made from a stretchy fabric like swimsuit material.

  2. Sheila says:

    Hi Cindy, I wanted to know how much Apple cider vinegar I should add to say like a 5 gallon watering can? I have a small so far healthy flock would just like to keep it that way! Great info thanks!

    1. 1 tablespoon per gallon of water a few times per week is a great health booster for your birds. If you can find raw apple cider vinegar with the mother that is best. Be careful using the vinegar if you have metal waterers though as the acidity can corrode the metal.

  3. Joshua says:

    Hello,

    Thank you for posting this blog. I have a hen who is about 2 1/2 yrs old and she has appears to be water belly as well. I got a size 18 needle and drained her below her vent on the correct side and got about 1 1/2 cups of fluid and she has (for the time being) been acting normal. I realize this isn’t a permanent fix, but I at least wanted to try it before I just decided to cull her since she is a favorite 🙂 But, when I did drain her I noticed that the fluid was completely clear. As clear as normal water and everywhere I have read they say the substance will be yellower in color. do you think this is something else or can it vary in color?

    1. Hmm that is unusual, the liquid is generally yellow as it’s a sign of the liver deteriorating with water belly. I wish I could be more help, but I would only be guessing about what the clear liquid could be. Some sort of cyst or infection? In the absence of a vet to consult with, I would continue on the same treatment of draining it and perhaps where it isn’t yellow this is something your hen can overcome! I would recommend adding some probiotics or vitamins to her water too to try and help her body fight whatever the issue is

    2. Danielle VonLehe says:

      Hi Joshua,

      Did you ever find out what the clear fluid was? Did your hen survive?

      Our hen has the same thing, and we drain about 120 mL of completely clear fluid every couple weeks. Her energy is very good.

      Please let me know if you have any answers.

  4. Brenda Lee says:

    Have you ever used or heard of giving colloidal silver to your chickens?

    1. Hi Brenda, it is not something that I have tried with my chickens, but I have definitely heard of farmers that do. It’s suppose to be great for antibacterial properties & general health

  5. Michaela Smith says:

    Is the syringing with a needle described in detail anywhere as Lulu had this problem and I would like to help relieve the pressure if I can.

    1. Hi Michaela, it’s best to watch the process being done. If you search “water belly chicken” on youtube there are several really helpful videos showing how it’s done

  6. Our old hen had this! We even took her to the vet. They said it was stuck egg, and we tried everything to cure that with no success. It just got worse over time, but she lived a long time with it. And she was still the boss of the flock. Poor dear – I never knew what it was until now. She stood upright she was so swollen. I wish I knew I could have drained it to make her more comfortable.

    1. It’s hard to find vets that are knowledgeable about chickens unless you live in a rural setting, but you did what you could for her! Our old head girl is just about 7 years old and has had it for well over a year, she is slowing down, but still moving around the best she can.

  7. Amy Simmons says:

    My 5 year old bantam recently developed this water belly. We had her examined, diagnosed, and drained ~ 2 months ago and she seems ready to go back in for more…. Does this act help her live longer or does it just make her time more comfy? Also she’s having labored breathing; no cyanosis, though so maybe we’re still in the early stages? She seems fine except for breathing & bloat – it’s not slowing her down any (yet). Sometimes I think maybe it bothers me more than her…. I’m kind of scared to attempt draining her myself. She’s going back in soon so maybe I’ll have him show me/walk me through it. Ugh. I love my Peepers.

    1. aww so sad. It definitely makes them more comfortable. It is unclear if it helps them live longer. I have a hen that has had water belly for a little over a year though and she is still going strong, walks a little funny but gets around and eats and free ranges like everyone else (and she is 7!). So it isn’t always an immediate death sentence. I hope your little one is as lucky!

    2. Anna says:

      I work in the medical field. I wonder if they could leave a catheter in for draining the fluid out? My dog had catheters in a wound to drain it.. I just lost my hen to water belly. If I had known she had it ..I would have attempted to drain her or take her to the vet. A site mentions it can be due to heart problems….guess just like people.

      1. I would be worried about infection leaving it in, especially if they are still living outside. They can live for a year or more before passing so that would be very difficult to keep a catheter in that long on a chicken. Unfortunately draining it doesn’t cure the underlying condition, it really just makes them more comfortable

  8. Tia Pinkston says:

    This has happened to three of my older chickens. Two have since passed, but one is hanging in there. The denseness in the abdomen feels like a sandbag and not squishy like water is this the same condition?

    1. It could definitely be the same thing. It’s not uncommon for it to feel grainy

  9. Niki Warden says:

    Thank you so much for posting this information. Our first Barred Rock “Ziva” is evidently experiencing Water Belly. Her vent area looks just like the picture you posted except she has diarrhea as well. We have cleaned her off and she is missing a lot of feathers back there. We have her isolated right now trying to stop the diarrhea. She eats, drinks, free ranges and acts normal except for the waddling, bloatness, and diarrhea.

    1. I am sorry she is going through that. The Barred Rock in this picture still has Water Belly (and it’s been nearly a year and half), she goes through bouts occasionally with diarrhea and we have to help clean her up but for the most part is still hanging in there and is out free ranging with the flock every day

    2. Allison says:

      Can a chicken survive if you drain it

      1. The chicken will be more comfortable when you drain it, but it will fill back up again. How quickly that happens depends a lot on how advanced the water belly is. In early stages it might take months, in later stages it might only take a week. Unfortunately while it will make her more comfortable draining her does not treat the underlying cause of the water belly (usually heart failure). Many chickens can still live a year or longer with the condition though, so it is still worthwhile in making her more comfortable for whatever time she has remaining

  10. Niki Warden says:

    Sadly, we realized what was wrong too late and she died this morning. It was very upsetting in that she died in my husband’s arms. She was one of the four first chicks we purchased and raised 5 years ago and our favorite due to her “boss of the flock” attitude and sweet nature. She was the only one of those first chicks that would eat out of our hands. Thank you for your advice and reply.

    1. I am so sorry to hear that, it is never easy to lose one 🙁

  11. Treating chickens is extremely important when raising chickens. Your article shared a lot of experiences for me, I will always support you.

  12. sid says:

    madam some of my chickens have a kind of bulging below their feet. can you suggest a remedy for this pls 🙂

    1. They have a bulging below their feet? Like on the underside of their feet? That could be bumblefoot – an infection that will need to be tended to

  13. I think my chicken has water belly has it’s pretty swollen I drained her and it was clear so only took 2 lots of needle fluid just in case can you tell me if it will be water belly

    1. Usually the liquid from water belly would not be clear, it would be murky and yellowish. If you need to drain her again, I would save the fluid to take to your vet for testing

  14. Kris Kramer says:

    Thanks so much for this info. We drained our chicken’s belly, but the liquid was blackish. Smelled fine, but black. Any idea why?

    1. Hi Kris, blackish fluid would indicate she has an infection and will need some antibiotics. Next time you drain her, I would save some of the fluid in a sterile container and bring it to your vet. They should be able to help get her the right kind of medicine

  15. Robert says:

    Thx Liz my name is Robert from Kampala Uganda good ideas for me it’s with layer in cages having this problem.

  16. Jess says:

    One of my hens has a really big and hard abdominal area. She fundamentally it hard to walk and yesterday found it hard to poo but today had diarrhoea. She is breathing heavily and is waddling when she walks. Can anyone help as she means the world to me.

    1. Hi Jess, it is really hard to say. If the lump is more on her chest area it could be an impacted crop. If it is lower down it could be tumor or she could be egg bound. Chickens with water belly usually have a squishy lump, not a hard one. Do you have a chicken vet nearby? Your best bet would be to have her looked at by a professional

      1. Anna says:

        I just lost my hen yesterday to water belly. It says it can be from heart disease or hypertension in chickens. She was purple beak and waddles. I tried to save her but she succumbs to it. They mention treatment is draining the abdomen with a needle syringe. But, most cases are fatal. Sorry about your hen. I hope she gets better.. Prayers for your feathered friend.

        1. Sorry to hear about your hen! It unfortunately is pretty much always fatal due to the underlying health issues

  17. Karen L Barnett says:

    We have a chicken with water belly. My son and his girlfriend have taken the chicken to the vet several times to drain fluid. They are giving her furosemide liquid to keep her from retaining fluid but it’s obviously not helping. She has recently laid an egg that was pliable and see-through. The vet suggested that this was caused from a virus because we have standing water in our back yard following a hard rain and Daisy, our chicken will stand in and drink the water occasionally. There’s nothing we can do about the water as it is technically on a city easement and is the result of a faulty aquifer. My question to you is….can this be cause by a virus? I’m concerned about the amount of money my son has spent at the vet….over $600 at this point. We enjoy having the chickens but they are farm birds with a purpose, laying eggs. I also don’t want to see her suffer. And I really think she is….help???

    1. Yikes that is a horrible situation. That is so much money. Water belly is not something that the chicken will ever recover from, draining the liquid is just making her more comfortable. The hen I had in the photos of this article lived a little over two years with water belly so it isn’t necessarily going to kill her right away. With drainings she didn’t seem unhappy or in pain. So unless your son is prepared to continue bringing the chicken to vet for drainings, he should see if the vet can show him how to do it himself. I have never heard of water belly causing shell-less eggs, but I am also not a vet. I have seen a couple shell less eggs from my girls, it isn’t usually caused by a virus. during the egg making process the shell is not added so it is just the membrane holding the egg together. It is not even uncommon, most chicken keepers will run into a shell less egg now and then. It is usually caused by not enough calcium in the diet, but can also be caused by stress or illness which could certainly be the case with your hen. One shell less egg isn’t concerning, but if it happens regularly it’s something to look into. I can’t tell you if it’s worthwhile to continue treating her, that is a personal call. Not draining her fluid would be painful for her so the humane thing is to either continue draining her fluid for the remainder of her life or put her to sleep.

  18. Bidge says:

    I just lost a hen to water belly last night. I didn’t even know what it was before then. She deteriorated quickly and after 24 hrs she was extremely lethargic and had no interest in doing anything other than standing up in the sun with her eyes closed. Her comb was droopy and had started turning purple too.

    We put her out of her misery last night and as soon as she passed fluid started coming out of her. And there was A LOT of it. Poor thing.

    1. Awww poor little thing. I am sorry for your loss, sometimes the most humane option is to help them pass

  19. Michele says:

    Fantastic article! Thank you so much! I have a Cayuga duck named Cayu. She is 3 and a few weeks ago we noticed her belly getting lower and lower. I did some research and here I am. I used an #18 needle (1 1/2 inch) and a 60 ml syringe. I took out 120 ml of fluid, exactly as you described. I didn’t want to stress her so I stopped and will do this again in two days. Keeping my fingers crossed that she is a happier duck soon. I found a great video on Youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sIoQ2sc-p3s Thought I’d share as I prefer the visual. Good luck to anyone that is willing to try this. You can do this!! You just need the passion and drive to make your pet more comfortable.

    1. Great job Michele! I am sure that will make her much more comfortable 🙂

      1. Michele says:

        Liz, I wanted to follow up! Cayu is still with us and thriving, May 2021. Throughout the summer, 2020, we continued to remove fluid. At one point, maybe 10 times of fluid suction, she didn’t need it anymore! She now happily manages the duck pool and keeping up with her sisters. Thank you again for your post. It was a life saver for her!

        1. That is an amazing update!! Great job!!

  20. Christina says:

    Hi Liz I enjoy receving your your information on chickens. I have a two year old chicken who is paralysed defiantly in one leg. It just happened one day I taught she was laying an egg outside . Star was still there an hour later. I have taken some hens to vets who do not know enough about hens and very expencive. Here in Ireland they usually put them asleep. My hen is a house pet now after seven months.Star is strong an fit but not able to walk.

    1. Sounds like you are doing the best you can for her! Vets here are also expensive and unless you can find a farm vet (which is rare) don’t always have experience with chickens. Unfortunately that leaves it up to us. But disabled animals can live very happy and healthy lives, I am sure Star will learn to compensate for her paralyzed leg by learning to hop about on her one good leg. One of the biggest issues with lame chickens is predators but you have that covered. Sounds like a very lucky chicken, great job! 🙂

  21. Jennifer Styles says:

    Once water fills the belly, how long does it normally take for the chicken to pass naturally and are they in pain during this process? Thanks for answering.

    1. The chicken I had in the main photo for this article lived about a year and half after we first discovered the water belly. Sometimes they can pass quickly, but sometimes it takes awhile, every bird will be different. They will be uncomfortable the whole time unless the liquid is drained however. My girl managed to still get up and around to free range and hang out with the flock, but you could tell was uncomfortable when it hadn’t been drained for awhile

  22. Deb Distefano says:

    I have a 4 year old gal. I think she has water belly. At first it was squishy. Now it seems hard. The symptoms point to this. I found her in the bushes last night not being able to walk. She can’t walk at all today. She gobbled up a scrambled egg and a little bit of water. Last week I checked to see if she was egg bound, she didn’t seem to be. Could this be something else?

    1. Hi Deb, water belly is generally squishy because of all the fluid that is building in the cavity. If it is hard, I would suspect it is something else, possibly a tumor or a hernia. A visit to the vet might be in order to properly diagnosis her.

      1. Skye says:

        My sweet bantam Little Chicken passed today. She had this two weeks ago. I drained it. She was more comfortable, but I knew she was going to pass. She lived a few weeks more enjoying her flock mates. She was 10 (ten) years old, so a long life I think. I miss her. She was a great sitting Mama.

        1. I am so sorry for your loss – 10 years is indeed a good long life but it’s always sad. I’m glad you could at least make her comfortable in the end

  23. Vonnie says:

    I have read that you should only drain 60ml at a time or you risk sending a hen into shock. I had a hen that was very swollen & it took several days to drain her at only 60 ml per time. Can you safely drain more than 60 ml at a time?

    1. I have never tried draining that much at once. The most I have ever done is 50 ml in one sitting. Once you have diagnosed her with water belly and drained the initial amounts, as it refills it’s easier to keep up with (mostly because you are aware of it and keeping an eye on it). So after you get over this initial draining, you should find the “maintenance” ones will not be as full

  24. Vonnie says:

    Thanks so much ! Sadly, I don’t think this girl has water belly – nothing came out when we attempted to drain her. As I felt her abdomen it felt solid – I am GUESSING she either has a tumor or EYP & what I’m feeling is a mass of infection. She is still eating/drinking & doing all things chicken. As long as she is not in obvious distress we will let her be.

  25. Audrey says:

    I have a small grey hen with water belly. She was given to me by some old neighbors, so I do not know her breed or age. We stuck our fingers up her vent trying to release some fluids and the liquid came out a yellow-ish color, but I was also very concerned with the small amount of blood that had drained out as well. We will be trying the draining method soon, but I was wondering whether blood in the live fluids is common or something to be concerned about…I cannot find an answer anywhere. Please get back to me soon, she’s weak in health so we need to know what to do with her!

    1. Oh dear that is not good. I apologize for not seeing this sooner. If she indeed does have waterbelly there is no way you would be able to release the fluids via her vent. I would be very concerned that what you did do was break an egg that she was near to laying (the yellow liquid being the yolk). Unless she passes all of the pieces of the broken shell she could die. You definitely need to get her to vet as soon as possible. The blood could be from tiny tears in the cloaca from egg shell shards. If the liquid that came out was not from a ruptured egg then it could be an infection in her digestive tract. In any event, she should be diagnosed by a trained professional. In a case of waterbelly, there would be a softball size lump hanging on her abdomen nearly between her legs.

  26. Audrey says:

    Okay, thank you very much. We are almost certain it is water belly by now. We live in a small town and the closest vet that takes chickens would be about 2 hours from here. We decided to grab some syringes from the local pharmacy and drain her belly. We were able to get about 25mm out, and another 10mm a few days later. After that, we tried draining her again and found some more blood. We aren’t as concerned anymore, though. She has been up and walking, (looking way better than she had looked weeks prior) eating and drinking. I have been giving her oregano oil lately through a dropper. We haven’t tried draining her for a few days now, in case we encounter more blood. As far as her behavior and physical demeanor goes, it seems to be getting better.

    1. That is excellent news!! As she ages you might find that you need to drain her more frequently but in the early stages you might be able to go weeks in between draining her. So glad you are able to help her and make her more comfortable, great job!

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