Water belly, or ascites, is a condition most commonly found in rapid-growing birds, such as Cornish crosses between the ages of 4-6 weeks old. Ascites is usually a result of pulmonary hypertension. The rapid growth seen in meat birds causes an increase in the demand for oxygen in the bird’s body. The heart and lungs can’t always keep up with this high demand. Ascites is more common in higher elevations where the oxygen supply is already lowered.
You can tell if your bird has ascites by checking for a few tell-tale signs. Ascites is often called water belly due to the abdominal swelling that the condition causes. When pressed, the stomach is soft and squishy. You may notice some labored breathing that is accompanied by gurgling sounds. Birds with ascites will lay around more, eat less and gain weight slower. Birds with a severe oxygen deficiency will have blue wattles and combs. A veterinarian may pull fluid from the abdominal cavity to check for ascites. If the bird has it, there will be a yellowish fluid present from the liver.
There aren’t good ways to treat ascites once your bird has it. Unfortunately, it has a pretty high mortality rate. However, there are some things that you can do to prevent your birds from developing the condition. Since ascites is most common in higher elevations, make sure that you aren’t trying to raise rapid-growing meat birds where oxygen is thin. If you live somewhere that has a reduced oxygen supply, go with a slower-growing breed. Once you’ve ruled out elevation as an issue, the next thing you can do is decrease the growth rate of your birds. I know that sounds counterintuitive since you bought rapidly-growing birds for a reason.
You can reduce the growth rate of your birds a couple of different ways. You can reduce the overall amount of feed that they have access to. Instead of feeding them all that they can eat, all day long, try feeding them twice a day. Another way to reduce their growth is to feed them a less energy-packed diet. Choose a feed with a lower protein percentage to cut back on the rapid growth slightly.
There are a few other factors that may help reduce the incidence of ascites in your flock. Always provide your birds with clean, fresh food and water. Remove any wet or old feed. Make sure that water sources are clean and free of debris. Also, make sure that your birds have good ventilation. This applies during incubation, transportation and growing areas. Respiratory disease can be a precursor to ascites, so you’ll want to reduce the chances that your birds will develop respiratory diseases as well.
Ascites is a perfect example of ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’. Even if you try to prevent ascites, you may find that you have birds that develop it. This could be caused by factors that are out of your control like the elevation (and therefore oxygen available in the air) or genetic predisposition.
While there is no definite cure for ascites, the symptoms can be treated. There is research being performed that is studying possible treatments for ascites. That’s what I want to share with you today. If you’re raising meat birds, these treatment options may allow you to raise the bird to slaughter size. These treatments are fairly new and still considered experimental but have promise.
When you’re raising meat birds, avoiding the development of ascites in your flock should always be on the back of your mind. Remember, there isn’t a good treatment for ascites, so it’s much easier to prevent the condition if you can.
Currently, one of the most common ‘treatments’ for ascites is performed by veterinarians. A veterinarian can use a needle and syringe and remove fluid from the abdomen to reduce swelling. We know that ascites is caused by an oxygen deficiency, so removing the fluid from the abdomen does not treat the disease but simply relieves one of the symptoms. Keep in mind that this is not a permanent solution and will have to be repeated frequently. If you have a pet that develops ascites, I would not remove the fluid as a long term treatment. It’s not a pleasant experience for your or the bird.
There is some promising research being performed with oregano, more specifically, oregano essential oils. Greek oregano has the highest concentration of a compound called carvacrol. This compound increases the effectiveness of the digestive system. The digestive system uses a large percentage of the oxygen (approx. 1/3) in birds with ascites. This reduces the amount of oxygen available to other organs and tissues. When the oregano essential oil was introduced in the diet of broiler birds with ascites, the mortality rate was reduced by 59%.
Vitamin C is also being tested as a treatment option for birds with ascites. Vitamin C has shown effective in treating birds with ascites. This treatment is limited in effectiveness though. Birds that have developed ascites due to a salt imbalance can benefit from additional vitamin C. Vitamin C is not usually added in birds that have a well-balanced diet. However, birds that are under large amounts of stress, including stress from rapid growth, are more likely to develop a salt imbalance that can affect the blood/oxygen ratios. Vitamin C can reduce these imbalances and reduce the incidences and mortality rates of ascites in broiler birds. Some studies even indicate that added vitamin C can increase growth rates without the development of ascites.
Other treatments that are being researched include brewer’s yeast, flax oil and the herb eyebright. According to some research, these treatments can be used to reduce the instances of ascites and increase survival rates. Again, it’s best to prevent the disease if possible. If for some reason you have birds that develop the condition anyways, you may want to try treating it and see if you can save the bird.