My Experience with Ascites (Water Belly)
There are three major causes of a distended stomach in a bird.
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Most of us who raise ducks know how much they love to forage and spend time outdoors. They are hardy birds who prefer to play in the rain, don’t mind the snow, and can even tolerate thunderstorms and falling sleet without hesitation. Imagine my surprise when I found that one of my Welsh Harlequin hens, Chamomile, was reluctant to leave her coop. She didn’t follow her flock-mates outdoors at the opening of the barn stall on this particular day. Instead, she simply laid down. I did a quick visual exam to make sure all was well and she had no apparent signs of injury or stress. She was a favorite of our drakes, so I figured that perhaps she was keeping herself hidden to gain a little peace and quiet. I never imagined it was something greater and that we were on a one-way street toward a condition I hadn’t ever heard of; water belly.
Chamomile continued to stay indoors for the next day or two. But I noticed that she started preferring to stand over laying down. And then I saw the size of her abdomen; it was extremely swollen and distended. This didn’t look right. It was apparent we had a significant issue.
I secured her within the coop and immediately started searching in my duck keeping books and online about what could be the source for this misshapen appearance. Again and again, the same result came up; ascites, or water belly, is a condition where fluid begins to leak into the stomach. The result is a distended, tight, water balloon-like abdomen. Based on my research, there seemed to be three major causes of a distended stomach in a bird.
The first cause could be internalized egg-laying, or peritonitis. Peritonitis is a condition resulting from the yolk of the egg not being taken up by the oviduct — instead, it is deposited within the abdomen. This results in an inflammatory response from the body and infection. The second cause could be that the duck ingested a foreign object or something toxic. The third was major organ failure (most likely heart or lung) that led to fluid buildup and leakage into the abdominal cavity. So, what to do with this information? Luckily, my search led me to an article by a friend of mine — Janet Garman of Timber Creek Farm — on this exact subject. I reached out to Janet and she told me where to start.
“When I examine the abdomen of the bird,” I said in my video to Janet, “I don’t feel a hard mass. It just feels like a tight water balloon.” I sent photos as well and she confirmed it was indeed water belly, though she reminded me she’s not a licensed veterinarian. Without diagnosing the primary problem of what was causing the fluid buildup in the first place, there was a way to offer Chamomile immediate relief from the pain and discomfort; I could drain the fluid. There was no veterinarian that specialized in poultry nearby so there was nowhere for me to take Chamomile for care. I would have to do this procedure myself. And Janet agreed to walk me through it.
“It’s remarkable how quickly the bird responds once fluid is removed,” Janet said. “Be careful not to drain too much or the bird could go into shock.” Janet sent me a video of someone she knew performing extraction of the fluid. I watched as the video showed Janet’s friend gathering a needle, a cup for fluid to drain into, alcohol and swabs to clean the puncture site of the duck. “You can do this. I was worried too,” said Janet with regard to assisting her own chicken for the first time with water belly.
I shakily gathered the tools I would need and a pair of latex gloves. I had never before even vaccinated a horse let alone a small bird. I was nervous but knew that Chamomile was in pain and needed my help. I would remove the fluid and then try to address the underlying health issue thereafter. I brought Chamomile into my bathroom and cleaned her up. I snuggled her in my left arm like a football, her tail side to the mirror. I was told to insert the needle on the right side of the body, as this is where no major organs reside within the duck. “Right side and sort of low, so that it can drain more slowly over time, before the hole seals up again,” Janet coached. I took a breath and inserted the needle.
When extracting fluid, the syringe should be inserted and then yellowish liquid should be pulled from the body. When I tried to pull, the syringe wouldn’t budge. What!? “Sometimes, it’s very hard to pull. I work the syringe a bunch of times before sticking. Some are very tight,” Janet said. I removed the needle and worked the syringe to loosen it away from Chamomile. I took another deep breath and tried again, apologizing. She remained calm as if she knew that I was trying to help her.
Upon inserting the needle the second time, I inserted it almost completely until it was within the cavity of the bird. Chamomile did not flinch. I then pulled back the syringe, praying fluid was going to be drawn. Sure enough, the lemon-colored liquid started pulling from Chamomile’s abdomen. I filled the syringe, but her belly was still very large and swollen. I removed the syringe but left the needle in place so as not to poke Chamomile another time. I held the duck in my arms over a cup to catch the fluid. “Janet, she’s still draining quite a bit. I’m half a cup in. Keep going?” I asked.
“I would remove the needle,” was her reply. “She will continue to drain some but more slowly.”
I removed the needle and had a bath already drawn for Chamomile. I held a cotton swab over the insertion site for several seconds and then set her in the bathtub. Immediately, she started playing; splashing her wings and cleaning herself. She was the most active I’d seen her in days.
“They feel so much better it’s amazing,” Janet replied. “They really cannot catch their breath when the fluid accumulates.”
I took a sigh of relief. The procedure was over and Chamomile clearly felt better. Now I needed to figure out what was causing the fluid to drain into her abdomen in the first place.
Several days after the procedure, a friend gave me the name of a veterinarian who would work with ducks. I brought Chamomile to the clinic for a potential diagnosis. After an examination, it was determined she had heart and lung failure which was causing ascites or “water belly.” There was no hope for curing Chamomile, and the vet recommended euthanasia. I accepted that I had done what I could for her and that it was time to let her go.
Homesteading provides us with so many opportunities; the chance to taste produce fresh from the ground. The privilege of forming close relationships with our animals. And the opportunity to learn something never ceases. My experience with Chamomile gave me a new understanding of poultry anatomy and an awareness of a condition that I didn’t know existed. I was challenged to solve a problem for one of my animals and I was able to lean on a fellow farmer and friend for help and support. Though Chamomile’s life was cut short, the knowledge she gave me — along with her memory — will stay with me. And I’m a better farmer for it.
Originally published in the December 2019/January 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.