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Ascites in commercial broiler poultry and its management

Dr.Kedar Karki

Metabolic diseases affect internal body metabolism and development, and are
the cause of a large portion of mortality in commercial poultry flocks. Two of
the more important types of metabolic diseases are the cardiopulmonary
disorders: sudden death sundrome and ascites. Certain types of leg problems
are also related to metabolic distrubances.

Ascites is most commonly seen in fast growing broilers and is characterised by

the accumulation of fluid in the abdominal cavity. Although the disease is not
fully understood, this heart failure is thought to be a consequence of a lowered
oxygen tension in poultry houses and birds suffering from too little oxygen.
Poor ventilation is a major contributory factor. When the disease was first
observed, it was seen mainly in areas of higher altitude and in fast growing
broilers although it now occurs at all altitudes. Cold temperatures, coupled
with high energy diets, can result in ascites-related deaths as a consequence of
insufficient pulmonary vascular capillary capacity for the blood flow necessary
to meet a high metabolic oxygen requirement.

In the World Broiler Ascites Survey information on 18 countries from four

continents showed that ascites affects 4.7% of live broilers worldwide. The cost
to the worldwide broiler chicken industry due to ascites related mortality has
been estimated to be in excess of $500 billion per year.

Ascites is not a disease, it is a condition in which excess amount of ascitic

fluids (a combination of lymph and blood plasma which has leaked from the
liver) accumulate in the body cavity. In broiler chickens, the condition often
leads to death. The ascites syndrome is associated with abnormally high blood
pressure between the heart and lungs (pulmonary hypertension) leading to
right heart failure, increased blood pressure in the veins, and excessive buildup
of fluid in the liver (passive liver congestion) which leaks into the body cavity.

The incidence of ascites has increased worldwide over the past several years.
This increase coincides with ongoing genetic and nutritional improvements in
the areas of growth rate and feed efficiency.

Meat-type chickens are selected for growth rate and muscle mass. Due to very
successful genetic selection techniques, growth rate has increased at a rate of
4 to 5% per year over the past 30 years. Broiler performance (average of both
sexes) has improved so much that the growing period to produce broilers of the
same weight has decreased by 30% in just 15 years. A 2kg. bird took 56 days to
produce in 1976; it can now be produced in less that 42 days. Selection for

rapid growth and efficient feed conversion has resulted in a broiler with such a
high rate of metabolism that its heart and lungs are barely capable of providing
enough oxygen to sustain the body.

Contributing Factors:

• The genetics of meat birds has changed dramatically in the last ten
years. 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
• High basal metabolic rate
• High sodium/salt content in water/feed-Excess levels of sodium in the
water or slat in feed leads to increased blood pressure in the lungs.
Levels of sodium over 400 ppm could cause problems in broilers.
• High altitudes have long been known to cause heart failure and ascites.
• Chilling is a common cause in small flocks. It causes an increased blood
flow through the lungs.
• High energy rations
• Vitamin E deficiency
• Environmental factors

1. Temperature : Careful attention to brooding temperatures is critical

in the prevention of ascites. Low temperature brooding forces the birds
to use energy (which requires oxygen) in order to maintain body
temperatures. This predisposes a flock of broilers to ascites, although
the signs of ascites show up later in production. Air temperature is also
important later in production, but it is especially critical early.

2. Air Quality : Any further challenges to the bird's ability to exchange

oxygen with its environment predispose it to ascites.

o Dust - Dusty environments can contribute to the onset of ascites.

Disease causing microorganisms can also attach themselves to
dust particles, and be respired, causing irritation or infection in
the lungs. This further reduces oxygen transfer between the bird
and the environment.
o Ammonia - High levels of ammonia in the broiler house can
irritate the lungs, resulting in decreased oxygen transfer between
the bird and the environment.
o Oxygen - Natural gas open-flame brooders contribute to oxygen
depletion in broiler houses. This burning of oxygen is in direct
competition with the birds. Ventilation rates must supply enough

air to replenish the oxygen consumed. The volume of air coming
in the air intakes should be uniformly distributed to the birds.
Proper levels of oxygen typically coincide with low levels of
ammonia and respirable dust. Adequate air exchange must be
provided to broilers as a preventive method of ascites. Because
broilers have rapid growth rates, adequate oxygen levels are
essential to prevent increased stress on the respiratory system
and consequently the heart.
o Carbondioxide


Ascites is most commonly diagnosed at 4 - 5 weeks of age, although signs of

ascites have been recorded in day-old birds Low oxygen status of embryos
during incubation may be related to the onset of ascites. Panting is often
observed in ascitic birds even in the absence of apparent heat stress. This
panting in ascitic birds is due to physical restriction of the large abdominal air
sacs. The excessive abdominal fluid accumulation results in a reduction in the
volume of air that is exchanged per respiration. Gurgling sounds often
accompany panting. Their breathing sounds labroured and gaspy, and they may
be crouching and have ruffled feathers. Birds may also die without any obvious
symptoms. the abdomen of ascitic birds is often dilated (enlarged) because of
ascitic fluid in chickens that have an increased respiration rate and reduced
exercise tolerance.

Older birds which are mildly ascitic may show signs of cyanosis (a blue
discolouration of the skin) especially around the comb and wattles. Cyanotic
birds have been observed to die spontaneouly, especially when excited. Post
mortem analyses of ascitic birds indicate that the skin and tissues are
congested and they are often a dark red colour. Opening the abdominal cavity
of an ascitic bird reveals an amber or clear fluid (lymph) that resembles blood
plasma. This abdominal fluid is called ascitic fluid. The heart of ascitic birds is
enlarged and there is fluid in the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart).
The liver may be edematous (swollen and congested) and may have fibrin
(blood clotting protein which is soluble in the blood) adhering to the surface.
Blood plasma builds up in the low-pressure liver venous system because it is
unable to return to the heart in suficient volume. Classically, the right ventricle
(RV) is grossly dilated and can make up as much as 40% of total ventricle
weight, compared with the normal 20%. Varying degrees of lung damage are
seen. Lungs of ascitic birds often appear pale or grayish. The lungs are
extremely congested and edematous.

How Ascites results?:

Typically, as mentioned in the flowchart, the series of events that lead to the
development of the ascites syndrome begn when broilers first start to gain
body weight or muscle mass. The thin right ventricle is prone to becoming
distended in response to its increased workload. Increased pulmonary arterial
pressure (blood pressure between the heart and the lungs) is due to both an
increase in blood flow and increased resistance in blood flow.

In an attempt to increase the blood's oxygen carrying capacity, red blood cell
production is increased. This causes a "thickening" of the blood, and further
resistance to blood flow, compounding the lung congestion problem.

As the right ventricle dilates, the valves become increasingly inefficient and
allow some blood to flow back into the atrium. This leads to right ventricular
failure. The increase in back flow causes liver congestion (edema) because the
capillaries cannot exchange the fluid and the high pressure causes the plasma
to lead from the liver and capillary beds into the body cavity.

Management practices to prevent Ascites:

Feed Restriction

Reducing the feed intake of broilers decreases the growth performance. Feed
restriction is only of economic benefit when the incidence of ascites is very

From a metabolic point of view, the first three weeks of life are an especially
stressful period for a broiler. Muscle and bone growth, as a percentage of body
weight, is greatest during this time. Slower growing birds have reduced oxygen
needs. Feed restriction slows body growth, allowing the cardiopulmonary
organs (heart and lungs) to keep up with the oxygen demands of the birds.

Feed restriction during the finishing period is less important because the
weight gain relative to frame size is less. Birds which are feed restricted early
may be able to enter the grower and finisher periods with stronger
cardiopulmonary systems. With moderate feed restriction, the birds may be
able to achieve similar weights to non-restricted birds. With a smaller frame
size, there is less feed required for maintenance, and overall feed conversion
efficiency is improved through compensatory growth.

Feed form Mash Vs Pellets:

Reducing the intake of nutrients can reduce the incidence of ascites. Pelleted
feed is more nutrient dense, and allows birds to increase nutrient intake. Mash
feed can be fed during the starter period (from day 0 to 21 or 28 days of age)
to reduce ascites. When fed in the first 4 week mash feed reduced mortality
without downgrading market parameters.

Composition of the feed (nutrient reduction programs)

Qualitative feed restriction can be achieved by lowering the energy content of

the diet. If this is done early in life, when feed intake per unit of metabolic
weight is at its highest. Oxygen requirement are reduced and therefore
susceptibility to ascites is also reduced. It has also been suggested that dietary
compositions that improve feed conversion rtio also increse the incidence of
ascites. These factors include high energy density, a high protein:energy ratio,
and pelleted diets.

Lighting programs are a method of restricting feed intake by restricting access

to feed. Lighting programs have been used to reduce the incidence of leg

problems. Sudden Dealth Syndrome (SDS) and ascites. Sudden Death Syndrome
in broilers may be related to ascites and can occur secondarily to right
ventricular failure. It is possible that the step-up lighing program reduces the
level of activity compared with continous lighting. These lighting programs
reduce the number of hours of light per day that the birds are exposed to
(after 5 to 7 days of age). Programs which work well commercially reduce the
light from 24 hours / day to 6-8 hours / day, followed by weekly increases. For
broiler chickens these increases are approximately 4 hours more light each

Feed restriction can be an effective means of reducing the incidence of ascites,

but it must be used in conjunction with good management. Once optimal
management practices have been ensured, restricted feeding can be highly
effective in further reducing the incidence of ascites in commercial broiler

All the reseach has found that reduced environmental oxygen following
hatching results in irreversible pulmoary hypertension and development of
ascites. Ascites has thus been shown to be associated with both rapid growth
rate and low environmental oxygen resulting from poor ventilation, litter
ammonia and / or dust. Higher salt intake is yet other factor. Management of
ascites should address these issues in totality.