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Ascites in Ducks – Treating Miss Emerald for Water Belly

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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 treated her over the course of the next several months. Her condition improved, and her quality of life is good.

black runner duck with ascites

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.

From the USDA Cooperative Extension “Causes of Ascites in Poultry”:

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.)

Diet Changes

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. We add nutritional yeast flakes to their organic layer feed, too, for extra B-vitamins.

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, Miss Emerald. You can see her color is good, she's eating well, and still has a sassy quack.

Update On Miss Emerald's Ascites

February 2020 update – Emerald is still doing great, and is now the most vocal duck in the flock. Her ducky tummy is still nice and trim – no bloating in site. We did not add extra liver tonics, just plenty of access to wild forage.

January 2021 – Emerald is still looking good, with no signs of recurrence. Her plumage is much whiter, but she's still our rowdy girl. From our experience, it looks like you can successfully treat ascites in ducks.

In 2020, one of Emerald's eggs was placed under a broody hen. She now has a fine, strong son named Jasper. Jasper is a wonderful boy. He whistles and dances and protects the ladies, just like his daddy, Buff.

Emerald and Jasper, two runner ducks

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“.

black runner duck with water belly

Originally posted in fall 2019, last updated in 2021.

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9 Comments

  1. Is it possible she has egg yolk Peritonitis?
    My runner cross duck has this same look
    It’s been 3 weeks now
    We belly tapped her once at the vet it came out as almost a white liquid with a bit of milk look.
    No vet can really help around me to determine the cause for sure even after x rays and she’s still laying nice hard eggs.
    But she’s so swollen her gizzard and other organs have moved inside her to her belly and the fluid seems to be all on her back.
    Should I still tap on the lower right?
    What’s the worst that could happen if I insert the needle in a bad spot? Before I attempt this

    1. For our duck, the symptoms seemed a solid match for Ascites. When we did fluid draws and were in the right spot, the fluid was clear and yellow, and the duck noticeably relaxed as the pressure decreased. She’s been doing very well, although now she is starting to pooch a little again, so we are watching for signs of stress.

      If your vet can’t confirm after x-rays and an exam, I’m at a loss. I haven’t heard of fluid accumulating on the back with ascites, so I don’t know if it’s possible. (I would think the vet should know.)

      Normally, fluid wants to settle, so it ends up in the abdomen of the duck (or the human, for that matter).

      Is it possible that there could be some sort of infection on the bird’s back? Do any areas seem tender to the touch, or is she running a fever?

      The worse that could happen if you tap in the wrong spot is that you perforate the duck’s internal organs and they go septic and the duck dies. If the organs are riding low in the abdomen, a draw from the lower right could be quite dangerous.

  2. Another source of high potassium is Nettles. Could you give Nettles tea in the water? Also beet greens are super high in potassium as well. I only know this because I have had a hair tissue mineral analysis (HTMA) and learned I’m low in potassium so, have been trying to increase it through foods high in potassium. I do also eat a lot of winter squash in season. Leafy greens like kale and chard are also high in potassium.

  3. Thank you for sharing this. I have a Cayuga and her belly is definitely filled with fluid. I see that you used a 60 mL syringe and an #18 needle, but what length needle? One inch or one and one half inch?

    1. I think it was an inch. We got some from a friend who had some on hand. You don’t want to get too deep and increase the risk of hitting organs.

      Emerald is still going strong and has not had a relapse since that fall, so the treatment has been very effective for us.

  4. Did you feed her Raw garlic or a supplement? Also, what kind of oregano? Durvet has something called Durastat with oregano. Would that be the same use? It said for water consumption which made me doubt. Ascites in humans is treated with a diuretic. Does she get normal duck food or a lower protein? My Daisy has this. She is a young duck. Really trying to prolong her life and make sure she has a good quality of life. I have not been draining her myself. I have been taking her to the vet. Any advice is greatly appreciated. Thank you.

    1. I mixed garlic powder into their feed. For the oregano, we use some chopped fresh leaf in season, or dried leaves. I’m not familiar with Durastat, but looking at the ingredients (Salt, Citric Acid, Maltodextrin, extracts of Origanum (oregano), Rosemary, Sage, Cinnamon and natural flavorings), it looks like an herbal electrolyte blend.

      She gets normal layer feed with the rest of the flock.

      Emerald, thank goodness, has been doing great since that fall where we drained her tummy. We haven’t had to drain her again since then.

      Today she was hanging out in the garden with us while we were planting corn, searching for snacks in the loose soil. Her son, Jasper, is doing well, too.

      1. Thank you so much for answering. I will start all this right away. Plus the squash. Any thoughts on milk thistle and dandelion? I found an avian formula. I have had her on that for a week. She did seem to fill more slowly. Possibly anecdotal. I am so glad Emerald and Jasper are both well. I pray the same for Daisy. They make us fall in love quickly. That’s for sure. Daisy is so sweet. Will wrap her head around mine. I like to think it’s a hug. She is a beautiful Welch harlequin. Thank you for answering. Blessings.

        1. I would think that milk thistle and dandelion would be safe in small doses. There’s not a lot of herbal duck information out there, but as long as it doesn’t interfere with her main ration, it should be fine.

          Make sure whatever feed you’re using is fresh, and doesn’t have any sort of moldy or stale smell when wet.

          I hope your girl gets through this, too.

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