Diagnosing a bird by assessing their external symptoms is always a bit tricky. In the unfortunate circumstance that your bird doesn’t make it you can send it off for a professional necropsy or attempt a DIY necropsy and hope someone can find the answers from your photos and notes.
I have had several hens with reproductive issues: prolapsed vent, egg binding and ovarian cancer. The two who experienced the latter also had ascites, which is not an illness or disease; rather it’s a symptom of one.
Also known as Water Belly, Ascites can occur as a result of dietary, environmental and genetic factors, which create physiological and metabolic changes leading to abnormally high blood pressure. It then causes heart failure and excessive build-up of fluid in the liver, which leaks into the abdomen. You’ll know your bird has it when you do a health check and their abdomen feels soft and squishy.
A few months ago, I was contacted by Bitchin’ Chickens follower, Suzanne, about her hen. This is her first person account of trying to diagnose and treat Serena, followed by her questions to me and my responses.
Serena, Mixed Breed Hen, 5 years old Suspected Cause Of Death: Ovarian Cancer
July 27: I noticed my hen, Serena, had a very distended abdomen about the size of a softball, which felt like a water balloon and was causing her breathing troubles. I emailed you, who suggested it was Ascites. I then contacted the Department of Agriculture to find out how to euthanize her. I was advised that the only humane way was to dislocate her neck. I have attempted this previously on young roosters with unsatisfactory results.
I just couldn’t do it, so opted to puncture her distended abdomen with sterilized pointed scissors. I did so and a clear greenish fluid came out enabling her to breath comfortably again. She stayed in a small kennel with heat and food and had a great appetite. After three nights I decided to see if she wanted to spend time with her friends. Much to my surprise she rallied and went about her business with no apparent ill effects.
September 21: Serena’s abdomen was distended, so I punctured it and may have hit a vein as she had some fresh blood along with quite a bit of fluid. A couple of nights in home care and she went back outside feeling better.
November 2: The third time she had a harder time regaining her strength, but did get well enough to join the flock in the yard. I did get some fluid out of her abdomen, but it was still distended. Serena then started roosting at night on a low perch and after a few weeks of this she moved to the nest box where she slept for the last few weeks. She was still out and about with her flock.
A few days ago it was apparent the she was getting worse. Last evening she was outside of the coop when I went to close up so I brought her inside. Her breast bone was very prominent and abdomen swollen. She was bedded down in a kennel with low heat.
December 7: I was not surprised that Serena had passed away in the night. I decided to see what the problem was and necropsied her. I feel so bad. She must have been in pain as her guts were full of what I think are numerous tumors and water filled sacs.
Suspected Diagnosis: Ovarian Cancer
Hens with ovarian cancer may have a history of egg binding, vent prolapse, or laying soft-shelled or shell-less eggs. (Suzanne had two hens that sometimes laid either soft-shelled or rough textured eggs, but didn’t know if Serena was one of them). Early ovarian tumors may appear as small, round, white nodules, but as they progress they become a gray-white, firm cauliflower-like mass. Ascites usually develops when tumours have spread through the abdominal cavity to the pancreas and other internal organs. In the latter stage, hens are usually extremely thin and assume an upright penguin stance due to their discomfort. Up to 30% of laying hens will develop ovarian cancer.
When would have been a good time to euthanize her? As you can see from Suzanne’s experience dealing with Ascites by draining the fluid is a temporary fix and not a long-term solution. I have opted to humanely euthanize two of my hens who had ascites; in both cases they were suffering from cancer.
I talked to Dr Vicki Bowes, Avian Veterinarian/Pathologist from the Ministry of Agriculture’s Animal Health Centre about one of my hens with the same condition as Serena. She advised me not just to lift up a bird to gauge their weight, but to feel their keel (breastbone). It should be padded and if it’s sharp that’s an indicator of severe weight loss and a signal to euthanize a sick bird.
“Ascites is not infectious, but is commonly seen in mature laying hens. Nothing can be done to change the ultimate outcome. I don’t think it starts out as painful, but as fluid fills the abdomen it starts to compromise the bird’s ability to move air through the air sacs and breathe. The tumours also produce compounds that break down muscle tissue, which is why she became so thin.” – Dr Vicky Bowes
Can you advise me on a good method of humane euthanasia for a small home flock owner? Cervical dislocation is considered the best method, but it does require practice and there is room for error. I think for the novice using a hatchet or sharp knife is quick and easier to do properly. Unless you take your bird to the vet to be given an overdose via injection there is a certain level of violence, even in ‘humane’ euthanasia, so you have to consider your well being too.
Dr Bowes suggested that if a bird hasn’t shown some clinical improvement after 24 hours one should consider euthanizing them. I told her that I was equal parts coward and optimist, and like many people hold out hope and wait too long. In each case I wished, in hindsight, I had made the decision sooner.
FYI: If you do attempt to drain fluid I would recommended using a 1″- 1½” intramuscular syringe (22 gauge) which will not only make a smaller puncture hole than scissors, it will be easier and will allow you to draw more fluid out of the abdominal cavity.
Many thanks to Suzanne Myers for her story and photos, used with permission. And my appreciation goes out to Debra Watt, Veterinary Technician, for studying the necropsy photos and concurring with my diagnosis.
The cancer that you suspect here may be Marek’s. Because the Marek’s vaccine only stops tumors in the brain and brain stem, (so that farm production and meat hens can keep producing and wont become paralyzed,) chickens usually have some form of Marek’s tumors even if they show no signs. I have found these sorts of tumors in most hens that I have necropsied from my flock and other’s flocks. It could be that laying often leads to these tumors, but its more likely that all chickens are infected with Marek’s and when they die there is some involvement from tumor production. So I expect some of this….not this severe, of course, but its usually there.
I agree with using a needle and syringe (you can buy them at Tractor Supply and also at various farm supply companies) to drain ascites. A chicken can live happily for quite a while being drained like that, but since the fluid is coming from some organ disease or material in the body cavity, it wont be for long. I don’t think that they experience pain in the same way that we do so don’t feel bad that she may have been in pain. Chickens keep being chickens and they limit their movement as they go downhill. Very interesting!!
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