When we keep any livestock in a permaculture system we need to be ready for managing illness and injury. You can check out my post on hospital cages and meds and equipment to get yourself ready for this inevitability.
Every time one of your animals gets sick you are going to learn a bunch of skills. And because its often a pretty stressful time those skills are going to be emblazened in your mind forever! Not in the least because of the high emotion involved in caring for your beloved unwell furry/feathered friend.
And so it was the case with Margo, the gorgeous Barter chook who came down with the dreaded Ascites.
So what is Ascites?
Ascites also occurs in humans, dogs and other species and its generally a secondary effect of a serious disease process such as cancer or heart disease. Sometimes the damage occurs in blood vessels during a sudden spike in temperature. We had certainly had some sudden hot days spiking from under 30 to over 40 which could have accounted for Margo’s ascites.
Ascites is when fluid begins to build up in the peritoneal cavity or abdomen. You will notice perhaps that your chook is lame or squatting in an unusual position. On further investigation you will notice a very swollen abdomen. Now its really important here to determine exactly what is going on, as your chook may in fact be egg bound, or have egg peritonitis which also causes the abdomen to swell, but requires a totally different treatment
Tree change for a city chick
The gorgeous Margo was brought to us by some friends from Sydney who were having fox problems and decided their remaining chicken needed a new home. Margo took a while to fit it but ultimately became top chook (the rest of the flock just couldn’t compete with her fancy honey blonde fantail- she was the Jennifer Aniston of chickens)
Margo did not like being handled and she was pretty highly strung. She preferred to perch up high off the ground if a log or rock was available, but having survived a fox attack & losing her previous flock it was no wonder she was a bit of a loner. So I was surprised to find her squatting in the same spot on the ground in our chook run for a couple of hours one day and when I went to check her out she stayed still and cried out a little. I’m sure she was asking for help.
Symptoms of Ascites
So Margo had a big swollen belly and was only able to walk in a squat position with her legs wide like a cowboy. I gently felt around for the possibility of an egg stuck inside her abdomen or just behind her cloaca and picked her up. Poor Margo. Immediately a yellow fluid came pouring out of her mouth and I pretty much knew I was dealing with a case of ascites. So into the hospital cage she went.
I realised the ascites was so severe that she might drown in all this fluid and so I performed an emergency maneuver to try to get some of that fluid out immediately. That was to tip her upside down and literally let all the fluid drain out of her mouth. This is a big risk as its possible for a bird to choke or for some of it to get caught in their trachea and into the lungs. If they do aspirate fluid into their lungs then pneumonia can set in and be fatal.
With Margo already so full of fluid I felt it was a risk worth taking so I performed the maneuver to drain as much fluid out as possible and popped her into the hospital cage. She was fine and did not aspirate any fluid. This was a huge relief!
Help from a kind country vet
I then took a trip to my lovely local vet . He was more than happy to provide me with some free equipment I needed to get rid of the acites fluid building up in Margo’s peritoneal cavity. What an awesome vet! I literally walked off the street and explained the situation and he gave me some thick gauge needles with catheters and some large syringes so I could syphon some of this excess fluid from Mago’s abdomen.
I suspected Margo likely had cancer, or heart disease or some other serious illness that would eventually cause her death, so my goal here was to make her more comfortable. Sometimes birds can recover for several months or longer and provided they are not suffering then its worth the effort if you feel confident to perform the procedure.
A single life
Margo did recover for a few months but was unable to be rehomed with the flock. After an initial two weeks of isolation building up her strength again Margo had lost her place in the pecking order and the other birds kept attacking her. But knowing her loner temperament I knew she didn’t mind her own company. I kept Margo in her own pen and let her out to free range in the daylight hours and she seemed very happy.
Palliative care continues
Eventually the cancer that had caused the ascites caught up with Margo. I noticed she was unable to empty her crop. I switched her to soft foods and cleaned out her crop and some of the seeds that were lodged in there. I treated her for sour crop but this had little effect. Through observation I deduced a tumor was blocking Margo’s G.I tract and there was no way for Margo to physically digest nutrients and that ultimately this would cause her death. I continued to feed Margo her favourite meal of soft mango pieces and yogurt and some blended scotch fillet for a few days till she passed away in her nest one night under the warmth of the heat lamp I had installed for her.
I knew I had given Margo a little extra time and made her as comfortable as possible while she was ill. I learned a whole lot more about ascites and was able to practice some important first aid techniques that will benefit all my other chickens from now on. Such is the life of a chicken fancier.
Vale Margo. Gone, but not forgotten.
I would love to hear of your experience with ascites or sick chickens. The more we share the more we can support each other in caring for our animals. Please go ahead and add your story to the comments below