In fall 2018, we noticed that one of our runner ducks, Miss Emerald, was lethargic and having difficulty breathing. On closer examination, we suspected she had ascites, also known as “water belly”. We made the diagnosis in early October, and have been treating her since (just over three months). Her condition improved, and her quality of life is good. There is no cure for ascites, but our goal is to give her the best possible quality of life for as long as possible. She and her flock mates are trained for pest control in the garden, and are an important part of our homestead – as well as being adorable. In this post, I'll share some basic info on ascites in ducks and other poultry, as well as our treatment and care regimen.
What is Ascites in Ducks (Water Belly)?
Ascites (water belly) is a condition where fluid accumulates in the abdominal cavity. Poultry sometimes gets it, and people can, too. (An image search on “ascites” is scary stuff.) The fluid is often yellow in color from protein clots. Ascites is more common in heavier birds such as broiler chickens, and is associated with heart or liver issues. The most common suggestion for “treatment” is to cull the affected animal. She could die of heart failure, pressure on her lungs, liver problems or other issues – or she might be stable for years with care.
The disease is most commonly caused by pulmonary hypertension resulting in the failure of the right ventricle, one of the heart's four chambers. Ascites is most common in broilers raised at high altitudes (altitudes greater than 3,500 meters). The decreased supply of oxygen (hypoxia) at such altitudes can lead to pulmonary hypertension.
Ascites due to pulmonary hypertension syndrome can also occur in broilers raised in low-altitude areas. Ascites at low altitudes is usually the result of the demand for oxygen in fast-growing birds that have respiratory systems unable to handle such high demand. The oxygen demands of fast-growing broilers can be reduced by slowing growth. Strategies to slow growth include reducing the number of hours of light exposure the birds experience per day or feeding birds a low-energy diet.
Ascites can also occur as a result of liver damage caused by aflatoxin or toxins from plants such as Crotalaria (also known as rattlebox or rattleweed) or by Clostridium perfringens infection. Amyloidosis is the most common cause of ascites in meat-type ducks and breeders. Amyloidosis is the accumulation of abnormal proteins (called amyloids) in one or more organ system.
What Happened to my Duck?
It's hard to say what triggered Emerald's problem. It could be genetic, or something she ate. None of the other ducks got sick, so we can't say for sure. We had a bad bag of layer feed that smelled stale, and the ducks all ate some of it before we realized there was an issue. (Note – when you open a bag of feed, stick your head in and smell it. It should smell like fresh grains, not musty, stale grains. This food looked fine and was not expired, but it must have been stored poorly. Chocolate (our smallest duck) got sick from it right away. She lost weight and was lethargic and had trouble walking. We thought the other girls were in the clear, but there may be a link.) Aspergillosis from moldy feed can causes ascites.
Emerald has had issues with laying, too, producing soft shelled eggs and odd shaped eggs. When we first spotted her belly bulge, we thought she might be egg bound, but palpitating her abdomen felt soft, not lumpy, and there was no egg presentation by her vent. I wonder if the demand for different types of ducks has dropped to the hatcheries, so they're keeping smaller breeding flocks? She didn't have trouble until her second year, and many people butcher ducks during their first year.
The ducks have a well ventilated coop, and spend almost all day outside and playing in the pond (when weather allows). Our crew has plenty of fresh feed and water, along with selected snacks and access to fresh garden goodies.
Our Treatment for Miss Emerald's Water Belly
Since there's not much information out there about ascites in ducks, we looked at chicken treatments. Teresa Johnson's youtube video, “How to drain water belly on chicken” was very helpful for initial treatment. (Janet Garman of Timber Creek Farm helped me troubleshoot Miss Emerald and referred me to the video. Janet is the author of 50 Do-It-Yourself Projects for Keeping Chickens. ) We got a needle and syringe and drained off excess fluid. The first time we did it, it went completely smoothly. The second time we tried to take a video of it, so of course it didn't work quite as well.
To do the fluid draw, we obtained a 60 ml syringe and #18 needle. We disconnect the syringe mid-draw and empty it, then attach it again to draw off more fluid. I held the duck and Dunc worked the syringe. You want to aim for the lower right of the bird, which has less organs that are likely to be seriously damaged if the needle doesn't go in quite right. We also swabbed down the insertion point with an alcohol wipe. Before doing the draw, it's helpful to pull back the syringe to test the resistance. If the syringe is harder to pull back when it's in the duck than it is when you're pulling air, you're probably in the wrong spot. When you're in the fluid pocket, the draw should be smooth and easy. You can watch the draw in the video below. (If video isn't loading, make sure adblocker is off.)
In addition to drawing off fluid, we've also been adding oregano and garlic to the duck feed. Garlic and oregano are both antibacterial and act as heart tonics. The happy quackers are also getting winter squash, cooked until tender and diced into bite size chunks. They don't eat the squash when raw, or cooked until it's mushy, but they like chunks. Miss Emerald has been eating the squash more than the other ducks, which makes me wonder if she is self-medicating. Winter squash is high in potassium, which can lower blood pressure and help regulate heart rhythm. It's possible she simply likes squash, too.
We've purchased some dried hawthorn berries (another heart tonic) and are offering those to the ducks in small amounts as well. Next up, I'm looking into foods and herbs that act as liver tonics. There's little on alternative veterinary care for ducks, so everything gets tested in small amounts. The first rule is “do no harm”. Here's a recent set of videos of our girl. You can see her color is good, she's eating well, and still has a sassy quack.
March 2019 update – Emerald is still doing great, and is now the most vocal duck in the flock.
More Poultry Information
During the coming year, I'll be sharing more information about treating Miss Blue's foot. (Miss Blue developed a strange growth on her foot last spring that was not bumblefoot. We had to do surgery to remove the growth.) In the meantime, you may enjoy other poultry posts from the Homesteading page, including:
My friend, Janet, (mentioned above) ran into trouble with one of her sweet duckies, Miss Gretyl. Like Emerald, Gretyl has a strong will to live. Things didn't look good for a while, but she's come back and is leading a mostly normal life. You can read Gretyl's story at “Duck Botulism Treatment – Recovering from Limberneck“.