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.


41 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.

    • Liz says:

      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

  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!

    • Liz says:

      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?

    • Liz says:

      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

    • 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.

    • Liz says:

      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

  4. 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.

    • Liz says:

      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

  5. RP says:

    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.

    • Liz says:

      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.

  6. 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.

    • Liz says:

      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!

    • 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.

      • Liz says:

        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

  7. 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?

  8. 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.

    • Liz says:

      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

  9. 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.

  10. sid says:

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

    • Liz says:

      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

  11. Donna says:

    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

    • Liz says:

      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

  12. 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?

    • Liz says:

      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

  13. 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.

    • Liz says:

      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

      • 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.

  14. 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???

    • Liz says:

      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.

  15. 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.

  16. 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.

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