Ascites is not an illness or disease; rather it’s a symptom of one. Also known as Pulmonary Hypertension Syndrome or Water Belly, Ascites can occur as a result of dietary, environmental or genetic factors, which create physiological and metabolic changes, leading to abnormally high blood pressure causing heart failure and excessive build-up of fluid in the liver, which then leaks into the abdomen.

Symptoms

  • Dilated, squishy abdomen (water belly)
  • Poor chick development
  • Laboured breathing, panting, accompanied by gurgling sounds
  • Cyanosis (blue discoloration of the skin, especially around the comb, wattles and muscle tissue, due to lack of oxygen)
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased appetite
  • Death

Causes

  • Combination of environment (temperature, high altitudes, coop conditions, air quality), nutrition (diet density, feed type), hygiene and genetics.
  • High blood pressure as a result of various conditions, including right ventricular failure, liver disease, liver damage, liver cancer, congestive heart failure, and insufficient pulmonary circulation.
  • High altitudes, poor ventilation, and cold stress in early life.
  • Most common in young broiler chicks, 4-5 weeks old, due to their rapid growth and muscle mass putting strain on the heart.
  • In broiler flocks it can be associated with bacterial infections like E.coli, Salmonella and Campylobacter.
  • Associated with birds whose lungs are stressed by the pathogenic mold, Aspergillus.

Several diseases can cause ascites, including conditions that impair liver function due to the inability to produce enough protein to maintain pressure to keep fluid in the circulatory system, resulting in fluid retention.

Damage to the liver can be caused by:

Aflatoxicosis: consumption of toxins common in poor quality poultry feeds.

Amyloidosis: the accumulation of abnormal proteins (amyloids) in one or more organ systems; common in older birds.

Egg Yolk Peritonitis: (EYP) inflammatory response caused by the presence of yolk material in the peritoneum (the thin layer of tissue covering the inside of the hen’s abdomen and most of the organs) from a ruptured egg or a retained egg in the oviduct. The yolk material itself may only cause a mild inflammatory response, and be reabsorbed by the peritoneum.

Fatty Liver Syndrome: (FLS) commonly seen in overweight hens on a poor diet.

Heart Failure: the heart is unable to adequately pump the fluid within the blood vessels causing a variety of problems. Fluids back up into the lungs and other organs causing them to fail. This water overload can cause leakage into the peritoneal cavity and the formation of ascites.

Inclusion Body Hepatitis: (IBH) acute liver disease caused by fowl aviadenovirus (FAdV).

Ovarian cancer: common in commercial laying hens who have been intensely bred for high egg productivity and reduced broodiness instinct. The hard surface of the ovarian tumor may cause irritation of the peritoneum causing it to leak fluid.

I had a two-year old Gold Laced Wyandotte hen who looked healthy in most regards, but never laid. Just when it looked she might produce her first egg she developed the symptoms of being egg bound or a similar reproductive system issue. My friend, Thomas euthanized her and took these photos. Upon necropsy it was apparent that she had suffered from ascites that was associated with Ovarian Adenocarcinoma.

Treatment

Whether a bird can recover from ascites will depends on the underlying issue. Sometimes just dealing with the water retention is enough, while other times it’s a stop-gap measure. Only a qualified veterinarian can provide the testing to determine what  might be the cause of ascites in your bird.

If you don’t know what caused their ascites you can try to drain the fluid and monitor their progress. Some birds recover fully, some need to be drained intermittently, while others will die or require euthanization.

There are many good online step-by-step guides and videos available that explain the process in detail. In a nutshell, you (or your veterinarian) will need to use a large intramuscular syringe to drain off a small amount of yellow, watery fluid (1/2 cup or 4 fluid ounces) from the abdomen. Be careful not to hit a vein (if there is any blood, choose another location) or to drain too much, which can cause the bird to go into shock from fluid loss.

Post procedure: return your bird to a quiet area for a few minutes of observation before returning to the flock. The procedure can be repeated in a day or two. Ascites is not contagious and no isolation is necessary.

Prevention

  • Monitoring feed intake in broiler chicks. Slower growing birds have reduced oxygen needs allowing their heart and lungs not to be strained.
  • Control sodium intake. Salt causes fluid retention.
  • Clean your coop regularly; damp conditions are a medium for aspergillus.
  • Ensure your coop is well ventilated, but not drafty or cold.
  • Feed your birds a well-balanced diet and don’t allow them to become overweight.
  • Be aware that birds living at high altitude are more susceptible.

Note: I have had two hens presenting with ascites; in both cases, the post-mortem exam indicated they had ovarian cancer. Water retention can often deceptively make a hen appear robust and healthy. It’s important to do a physical exam feeling the keel (breastbone), which should be well padded and not sharp. It you can feel a prominent keel then significant weight loss has occurred, countered by the weight gain from fluid retention. In those cases, I would advise euthanasia.

2 comments on “Ascites

  1. Poor chickens. I had no idea there were so many medical conditions they could suffer from. I am glad you are learning all these treatments to bring them back to good health.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Borden, Carol Ann

    Hi Claire,

    I am afraid I come with a rather sad chicken story. Over the past several months, three of my birds have suffered serious illness. The first was Fantail, the little Orpington Cross from Elizabeth and Thomas’ flock. I separated her from the flock (something I do for all sick chicks), she was treated with a course of antibiotics,recovered and returned to the flock. Next, one of the two hens hatched here in fall of 2018 followed the same pattern, except that she was treated with antibiotic,, recovered briefly, but declined and died betore being returned to the flock. The third and most recent was hatched here this August , a little black bird, who was healthy, and only sickened when introduced to the flock. She was not treated, but when I took her to the vet, I decided that, rather than have her treated she should be euthanized. The vet, Thomas(who has been most helpful to me and my chicks) asked if I would like to send her for autopsy. Indeed, I would.

    The results were, that,, although the immediate cause of death was heart failure, she tested positive for the bacterium responsible for infectious coryza. He had other information. The bacterium responsible is Avibacterium paragallinarum (formerly Hemophyllus paragallinarum) It is characteristic of the disease that birds will respond to treatment, then relapse. Some may become carriers. The recommendation for dealing with the disease once it is in your flock is – “All in, All out”. So, my choices are, don’t add any new chicks (apparently, from my experience, not even those hatched from one’;s own flock), and either kill all remaining members of the flock, or allow them to live as long as they may, until all have lived as long as they happily can, then start again with an entirely new set of birds. I prefer the latter. Can’t see my way clear to wholesale slaughter.

    It is possible that Orpington cross may have been or become a carrier, or that one of my earlier flock was, and passed the disease on to her and to the 2 vulnerable new chicks hatched here. I am concerned about birds from my flock who have gone out to other flocks, in case any of them became carriers .

    First, the rooster from the 2018 hatch who went to Vancouver Island, and then the 4 who went to Thomas and Elizabeth for eating. The little top-knotted black hen (can.t remember her official breed name) who came with Orpington cross to my flock but was rejected by my rooster and re-homed.

    Anyway, Sorry about presenting you with a long and sorry tale. Perhaps knowing about yet another chicken disease may be useful to other people.

    Carol.

    ________________________________

    Liked by 1 person

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