Understanding and Treating Water Belly in Chickens

Since I wrote about the Cornish Cross chicken breed, I thought a post about water belly would be helpful. While other chicken breeds can develop this affliction, it tends to affect broiler birds the most. So strap in; this is a lot of information! But it’s good to know if you have chickens. Let’s get started.

Ill chicken

Water belly, also scientifically known as Ascites Syndrome or Pulmonary Hypertension Syndrome, is a disorder that affects both commercial and backyard poultry flocks. Despite its prevalence, many poultry keepers can benefit from understanding the condition better.

This comprehensive guide aims to delve deeper into the signs, causes, treatment, and preventive measures for water belly in chickens, equipping you with the necessary information to manage this condition effectively.

Understanding the Physiology

One needs to consider avian (bird) physiology to understand water belly. Chickens have a unique respiratory system, quite unlike mammals. They possess air sacs that aid in respiration but do not have a diaphragm.

The lungs and air sacs are compressed when fluid fills the abdominal cavity due to water belly. This makes breathing difficult, leading to hypoxia (lack of oxygen), which can result in organ failure and death if not treated.

View of Some of a Chicken’s Internal Organs Including Lungs and Air Sacs.

In-depth Look at Symptoms

Early Warning Signs

  • Sluggish Behavior: Chickens may seem less active than usual, often sitting or lying down more frequently.
  • Panting: A chicken might breathe through its beak, especially when not particularly hot, as an early sign of respiratory distress.
  • Distended Abdomen: One of the most noticeable signs is a swollen, fluid-filled belly.
  • Difficulty Breathing: The fluid accumulation puts pressure on the respiratory system, making it hard for the bird to breathe.

Advanced Symptoms

  • Pale Comb and Wattles: A lack of blood circulation can lead to paleness in these fleshy, visible structures.
  • Cyanosis: In severe cases, the comb and wattle may turn blue because of lack of oxygen.
  • Heart Failure: In advanced cases, the heart fails because of ascites syndrome (water belly) stress on the organs.


Environmental Factors

  • Ammonia Exposure: Ammonia fumes from droppings can irritate the respiratory system and contribute to the disorder.
  • High Altitude: The reduced oxygen levels at high altitudes can aggravate the condition.
  • Stress: Any form of stress, including temperature fluctuations and overcrowding, can be a contributing factor.
  • Poor Ventilation: Lack of fresh air can contribute to respiratory distress.
  • Natural factors: Sometimes, when a baby chicken doesn’t get enough oxygen during incubation, changes can occur in its heart. This is a natural event that, unfortunately, happens occasionally.
Little sick yellow chick with closed eyes sits on a stethoscope

Other Factors

  • Genetics: Fast-growing chickens have higher energy needs and require more oxygen. Often, their respiratory systems cannot keep up with the higher oxygen needs. Their rapid growth makes them more likely to develop the condition known as water belly. However, this condition can also occur in other types of chickens.
  • Sex: Males tend to develop this condition more often than females.
  • Diet: Nutrient-dense feeds can be problematic. Some studies also found that mash feeds are better than pellet feeds for chicken breeds prone to developing water belly.

Read more in this article from the International Journal of Livestock Production Vol. 2. It’s not light reading but filled with good information!

Diagnostic Methods

  • Abdominal Fluid Test: The fluid in the abdomen is generally clear, but sometimes it can be cloudy and have clumps.
  • X-rays: Less clarity in the abdominal area and signs of an enlarged heart or the region around the heart and liver.
  • Heart Electrical Activity Test: Slower heart rate and changes in electrical patterns suggest problems with heart chamber enlargement and irregular rhythms.
  • Heart Ultrasound: Issues with heart valves, a decrease in the heart’s pumping efficiency, expansion of the heart chambers, and fluid around the heart.
Veterinarian examining a chicken

Treatment: Integrative Approaches

Immediate Measures

  • Isolation: Find a spot away from the rest of your flock to isolate your ill bird. Make sure that you place water and food close by.
  • Temperature: Ensure the area where you separate your sick chicken is warm but not hot.
  • Dietary Changes: Lowering protein and nutrient density in food may help. As well as restricting the amount of feed you are giving. Rapid growth stresses chickens’ cardiovascular systems. Reducing food intake can slow rapid growth down and provide some relief.
  • Light: Generally, broiler chickens are provided with 24-hour lights to promote rapid growth. Giving dark times that last 6-8 hours in chickens with water belly has been found to help.


  • Diuretics: Diuretics like Furosemide can control or slow the fluid build-up from water belly. Always read labels and give only the recommended amounts. Too much Furosemide can cause dehydration.
  • Enzyme Inhibitors: Enalapril is a medicine used to treat heart issues in birds like chickens. It’s often given along with other medications that help remove excess water from the body.
  • Imidapril: Imidapril helps prevent changes in the right side of the heart caused by cold weather or other factors in meat-producing chickens. Sometimes, these heart changes happen when a chick experiences hypoxia(low oxygen levels) during the early stages of life (during incubation). Hypoxia can also make the right side of the heart abnormally large.
  • Supplements: Studies have shown that Vitamin C and E, selenium, and fish oil (omega-3 fatty acids) may help treat water belly early in cases. Be sure to follow directions for dosages on the packages or prescribed by your veterinarian. Poultry DMV has a helpful chart with the recommended supplement and medication dosages.

Prevention: A Multi-Faceted Approach

Environmental Measures

  • Altitude: If you are considering raising a broiler breed, raising them below 3000-4000 feet is best. Higher elevations can make your chickens more susceptible to water belly.
  • Ventilation: Make sure that your coop is well-ventilated. The build-up of gasses like ammonia can increase the chances of your chickens getting water belly. Excess dust can also contribute to respiratory illnesses, which stresses a chickens’ internal organs more.
  • Temperature: Try to regulate the temperature inside your coop. Extreme temperatures can also stress your birds’ systems, especially if they are not cold hardy chickens like Cornish Cross or Silkies.
  • Stress Management: Overcrowding can cause stress in your flock and increase exposure to ammonia from waste. Ensure that your coop has the appropriate space for the number of chickens you have.
Broiler farm for the meat industry

General Flock Management

  • Regular Check-ups: If possible, schedule routine health check-ups with a veterinarian specializing in avian medicine.
  • Isolation: New birds should be isolated and observed before being introduced to the flock to prevent the spread of disease. Isolation will keep your flock generally healthy.


  • Sanitation: Regularly clean and disinfect coops to reduce ammonia levels and minimize bacterial load.
  • Visitor Control:Limit the number of people and vehicles that come into contact with your flock.


Water belly in chickens is a complex issue that requires a multi-faceted approach to diagnosis, treatment, and prevention. While it is challenging to treat, understanding its underlying causes and early symptoms can go a long way in managing this condition.

It’s essential to consult with a veterinarian for precise diagnosis and treatment options tailored to your specific circumstances. Keeping your birds healthy involves more than just reacting to diseases—it’s about creating an environment where they are less likely to occur in the first place.

Let me know in the comments if you found this article helpful. I’m wishing you all healthy and happy flocks!

Chris Lesley Bio Picture
Chris Lesley has been Raising Chickens for over 20 years and is a fourth generation chicken keeper. She can remember being a young child when her grandad first taught her how to hold and care for chickens. She also holds a certificate in Animal Behavior and Welfare and is interested in backyard chicken health and care.

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