Water Belly (Ascetis) in Chickens

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Water Belly Ascetis in Chickens

Ascetis, 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.


23 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

    • 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!

  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

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