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Ascites in Broiler Chickens

Ascites (Water Belly) in Broiler Chickens during Winter Season

Published: December 19, 2011
By: Ganesh Kumar Dahal (Guybro)
Ascites (or water belly) is a condition of fast growing broiler chickens in which the excess amount of ascitic fluid accumulated in the abdominal cavity. It has become major concern to the poultry industry around the world. This condition is extremely common in high altitude & more particularly during winter / cooler season.
Ascites is associated with inadequate supply of oxygen, poor ventilation and respiratory disease complex aetiology.  Morbidity is usually 1-5%, mortality 1-2% but can be up-to 30% at high altitude.
During winter season broilers are fed high energy diets to meet their nutritional demands. Since fast growing broilers have high basal metabolic rate (BMR), to metabolize high energy diet, their body needs of oxygen multipliers. There is high demand of blood through heart & lungs for proper body function due to high BMR & high energy diet.
This physiological demand increase pulmonary arterial pressure (hypertension). Bird lungs have very little ability to expand and the blood capillaries in the lungs are not able to handle increased blood flow or blood pressure. The result is an increased pressure in the liver with leakage of blood fluids, without the red blood cells, into the body cavity forming ascites or water belly.
Following may be the cause of ascites (water belly):
  1. Today´s broilers grow much faster, eating less feed. The growth of the heart and lungs has not increased in size proportional to the increase in body weight and breast meat yield. The rapid growth of the bird means more oxygen demand, requiring more work out of the heart and lungs.
  2. Anything that limits oxygen uptake from the lungs is going to cause the heart to work harder. Diseases of the lungs and poor ventilation may be involved. Major cause of Oxygen deficiency :
a)      Presence of ammonia in the poultry house. Birds are unable to get adequate oxygen as they inhale air full of ammonia so blood is deprived of oxygen supply.
b)      The dust particle in the air of poultry shed are inhaled by the birds and while exhaling they settle in various part of air sacs, specially thoracic air sac where air stays for longer period which leads difficulty for birds to breath hence deficiency of oxygen in the blood.
c)       Presence of high carbon dioxide level in the shed either due to overcrowding, poor ventilation, blocking fresh & cold air during winter with curtains or due to lack of proper exhaust fans results deficiency of oxygen in the blood of bird.
  1. Excess levels of sodium in the water or salt in feed leads to increased blood pressure in the lungs. Many feed millers still use fish meal high levels of sodium. Levels of sodium over 400 ppm could cause problems in broilers.
  2. High altitudes have long been known to cause heart failure and ascites.
  3. Chilling is a common cause in small flocks. It causes an increased blood flow through the lungs.
Signs of ascites:
  • High rate of panting is often observed in ascitic birds even the absence of apparent heat stress.
  • Gurgling sound often accompany as they often just sit with panting.
  • Birds which are ascitic may show sign of Cyanosis (a blue discolouration of skin) especially around comb & wattles.
  • Ascitic birds tire out easy and often die on their bellies.
  • Most death begins at about 3 weeks of age.
  • If their belly is opened, a cup or more of fluid or jellied material will pour out.
  • Lungs of ascitic bird may often appear pale or greyish. Lungs are extremely congested & oedematous.
  • Liver enlargement is often seen.
  • Thickening of right side myocardium & dilation of the ventricle are very common.
  • Microscopic finding - increased cartilage nodules in lung.
  • Sometimes birds die from the effects of too much blood and fluid in their lungs before there is any significant amount of fluid in the body cavity.
To differentiate from broiler "Sudden Death Syndrome" and "Bacterial Endocarditis", a cardiac specimen (Troponon T) can be measured in blood.
How to minimize ascites (water belly)?
  • Keep air quality fresh by moving air regularly and efficiently. In the colder months, it is better to add heat and keep the air moving than to shut down vents or reduce airflow in an effort to conserve heat.
  • Treat litter by "Liiteron" to reduce ammonia production. Litter treatment is important to reduce incidence of water belly.
  • Restricting feed, feeding a mash diet, or using a less energy and protein diet.
  • Checking sodium level of water, if sodium level is high then consider using an alternate source of water that is better quality for the first 3 - 4 weeks.
  • Replace fish meals with other readymade source like amino acid arginine, if it is being used as Sodium level more than 400 ppm could be problem for broiler.
  • Careful attention to brooding temperature is also critical for minimizing water belly.
  • Prevent respiratory disease conditions.
  • Select breeds which are not genetically susceptible to this condition.
The objective should be to minimize progression leading from pulmonary hypertension to terminal ascitis or water belly condition for availing better profit during winter season. Best Management Practice is only answer to reduce problem of Ascites (Water belly) and insure better ROI.
Related topics:
Ganesh Kumar Dahal
Guybro Chemical
Influencers who recommended :
Emad Elgazzar
Emad Elgazzar
17 de enero de 2021

Hello Dr. Mohammed. Thank you very much you are right 100%, your answer was very helpful

Mohammad Hosein Shahir
Zanjan University
17 de enero de 2021

Ascites "syndrome" in broiler caused by:
cold stress, high growth rate especially in high nutrient density pelleted diets, high sodium and chloride intake, high altitudes, low antioxidants level in the diet, respiratory diseases, high stocking density.

Stephen Adejoro Dr
7 de enero de 2020

I believe in the dietary application of organic Betaine in the management of Ascitis in broiler. Why? Because Betaine stabilize intracellular homeostasis by increasing internal cell osmolarity there by preventing water loss to the peritoneum
Betaine also assist to minimize wet litter thereby improving oxygen by minimizing Amonia release
Betaine intermediate metabolism releases nitric oxide a chemical that help tibdilate the blood vessels and help them supply a better oxygen to lungs heart ,and other organs
So if Ascitis is linked with low oxygen level it follows that the effect if Betaine on blood vessel dilation will improve oxygen transport to the tissues
Today I am seriously promoting a form of organic Betaine blended with vitamins in Nigeria with satisfactory empirical data
Organic Betaine is critical in the dietary management of extreme heat and cold in humid tropical climate like in the South Sahara Africa.

Surinder Maini
10 de noviembre de 2015
Ascites is undoubtedly a metabolic disorder seen during winter months, a well planned heating, ventilation and adjusting nutritrition program can only solve the problem, medicines, chemicals and kidney function improvers will hardly help.
Daniel Venne
Couvoir Scott
3 de noviembre de 2015
I think the sodium value of 400ppm should be clarified. I suppose it is for the water. I would propose to add more specifically electrolyte balance. We have seen ascites with very low chloride levels and normal sodium levels in the feed . The result was the same as high sodium levels resulting in metabolic alkalosis. Changes in blood pH will change oxygen ddissociation from hemoglobine and can be equivalent to low oxygen (Bohr effect) Low brooding températures increase oxygen consumption in Young chick that cannot be compensated by ventilation.
Yasin Amro
Del Monte Foods
1 de noviembre de 2015
From our experience, You don't need to play too much with feed because the most known broiler breeds have nutrition Guieds for better results, so I prefere to concentrate on ventilation and house tempretures, if you can keep them near the optimum case you'll properly reduce the Ascites problem. this will increase your cost in winter but at the same time will save your birds.
Imdad Hussain Leghari
31 de octubre de 2015
To me the main cause of Ascites is improper ventilation.I have seen many farmers get confused with the signs of the Ascites and the bacterial infection such as congested lungs , changed color of liver accompanied with the small amount of fluid in the abdominal cavity and near heart. Ascites is accompanies with the mortality and go undiagnosed .After proper ventilation ascites subsides after a weak.
Emad Elgazzar
31 de octubre de 2015
YOU think if we increased the energy of feed it will be helpful ,another thing we can use to minimize the amonia inside the farm,with good ventillation will increase the oxygen inside the poultry farms
17 de marzo de 2022
Does it affects 4 days old chicks can they die from this disease at this early stage?
Hezron Simutengu
1 de agosto de 2021
Yes due to too much cold during the winter the farmers tend to be so protect their birds as so the ventilations are minimized depriving fresh air in the Poultry House... This can cause problem and will show in the 3weeks to 4weeks... While it's too late to control the situation but still it's not the end of story just improve the ventilations and temperature.. thank you..
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