Ascites in Hens

This past week I have fielded questions from two readers about clear fluid coming out of their hens’ beaks.

Chickens do not vomit. Unlike humans, they don’t have the ability to upchuck the contents of upset stomachs. So, when you see fluids come out of your hen’s beak, something is very, very wrong. It might be that the chicken has a tumor, or an impaction, or a dead section of the intestinal tract that is blocking the passage of material, so that the only way out is up through the throat and mouth. If that’s the case then what is ejected is dark and vaguely food-like. Your hen might have sour crop, which is when the crop isn’t doing it’s job, and yeasty, sour-smelling liquids accumulate there. Your hen might have peritonitis, which is often caused by internal laying and a subsequent infection. Dark fluids fill up the body cavity, and when there’s nowhere else for them to go, they come out the beak. It’s awful. I’ve seen it here.

If the fluids coming out of the mouth are clear, then it is likely a case of ascites. This is a disease seen across the animal world. Humans can get it. Hypertension and liver damage cause fluid to accumulate in the body cavity. Chickens also get ascites. It is an economic liability in the commercial broiler world. The meat birds grow so fast that their organs can’t keep up. There’s a genetic component to this disease, specific to industrial agriculture, but ascites is also being seen in backyard chickens. There are some possible causes.

Chickens have lungs, but unlike ours, they are fixed in the thoracic cavity and are small and can’t expand. When the hen has oxygen demands that it can’t meet, ascites can occur. Poor ventilation and damp conditions with ammonia in the air can reduce the lung’s ability to function. Too many backyard coops are small, dank, and not well-ventilated. That can add to the ascites risk.

Liver damage can cause ascites. Cancer and tumors in older birds can impair liver function. A necropsy on my elderly hen Edwina showed a diseased liver, with the concurrent clear liquid in the body cavity. This was understandable to find in a nine-year old bird. But if your young (under two-years of age) hen shows signs of ascites, it might be because what you are feeding is harming the liver. Excessive scratch corn can cause fatty liver disease and possibly contribute to ascites.

There is some research that shows that stress, including rapid changes of temperature, can increase the ascites cases in a flock. This makes sense, since the disease is linked to blood pressure and overworked hearts.

So, what to do if your hen “vomits” clear liquid? Unfortunately, that will likely be the first sign that something is amiss, and by then the situation is severe. Do not isolate and bring inside. Your chicken needs fresh air and sunshine. If she is so ill that others are bullying her, separate to her own pen. Do rethink what you are feeding. If your ill hen is eating and drinking, leave her be. She might rebound. However, if after three days she is lethargic, and is not eating, she could starve to death. Please consider euthanizing her. This is the hard part of chicken keeping. You can’t always fix the problem.

black star

A healthy Black Star hen.


  1. Thank you for this post! I have a 1 1/2 year old Ameracuana hen that vomited clear liquid a couple of times over the summer. It had no color or smell so I assumed at the time that it was water. She was never the best layer (small, thin shelled eggs from the beginning), but she hasn’t laid at all since April. She’s clearly underweight, but she still a voracious eater and has always been the queen bee of the flock. She’s always the first to the scrap bowl and is spunky enough to steal food from the other birds. In a couple of the hot spells over the summer she became so listless that I was sure she would die, but she rebounded every time. She almost always has droopy wings these days and can’t fly up to the highest roost anymore. I know that her days are numbered, but as long as she’s still eating and socializing I’m going to just leave her be.

  2. I have had several cases of that myself. I always go the natural route first…epsom salts, olive oil, no scratch. I have never had a bird that survived it. Thank you for this post Terry. Makes me feel better. This is one of those so hard to pinpoint the cause.

  3. There’s one much less scary situation where clear liquid will come out of their mouth. If you pick them up right after they’ve drank water, you can squish the crop just right so that some of it comes back up. This only happens to me when they’ve drank A LOT of water or are struggling not to be picked up.

  4. I hope you can help I recently got 4 bluebell chickens that roam around in my orchard . We let them out every morning but they hide under their box at night and we have to physically pick them up and put them in their box. They just won’t go up the ramp into their house. Obviously with it getting darker earlier and the bad weather is not helping I just don’t know what to do to encourage them to put themselves to bed so I can shut the door to keep them secure until morning.they were 14 weeks when we got them and they lived in a large outdoor run/kennel, for the last 3 weeks we have tried putting them on the ramp halfway and they walk up fine but just won’t attempt to do it themselves .any ideas would be a big help.

    • I’ve fielded this question many times! I don’t go into detail in off-topic questions, but I’ll send you in the right direction. (If what I have in my posts doesn’t help, I’m happy to answer private emails, and appreciate a “cup of coffee” in return – it’s what keeps this site up and running.) Birds need to learn to roost. Usually it takes just a couple of days of putting them on their roosts and they’ll get the hang of it. So, if they aren’t, it’s likely something that they don’t like in their coop. Since you describe your coop as a “box” it might be that by the time they go to bed, it’s too dark in there for them – chickens have no night vision. You can read more about roosting here, and do look at my FAQ on coop design criteria.

  5. I have twenty four young hens at the moment, hatched between April 9th and May 27th. I haven’t seen any of them do it lately, but when the whole batch was younger say 10 to 15 weeks any number of them would expel water back up after drinking. It didn’t seem to bother them. In fact they usually gobbled it up out of the dirt. I’m sure it was just the water that they had just drank. Maybe drinking to fast, I have never seen any of my older girls do this. However everyone from that batch of 24 is do very well. In fact five of them started laying this week. I just wanted to hear someone else’s thoughts on this and if anyone has ever seen young birds do that.

  6. I had a 1 yr old Maran who was looking poorly, a bunch of greyish sour smelling water poured out when i picked her up, with bits of grass in it. I treated her with yeast infection cream for sour crop and she seemed to improve for a while. Then it became impacted so i massaged the crop every day and gave olive oil and it seemed to pass. She improved for a few weeks, then she got sick again but was eating a bit and drinking. She died about 3 months after the initial sickness.

  7. I too have seen my girls take on loads of water then expel a bit back through the beak. I always think it’s a bit like babies “take a bit more than you need then throw up the excess”. Mine are all healthy and like someone else said they sometimes start to take the puddle of water back again. Yuk, I wipe it up.

  8. I picked up a hen right after she drank and I think she “dribbled” the water out of her mouth because I put pressure on her crop. Other than that , I have never seen it happen. The chicken in question is less than a year old.

  9. You folks are picking your hens up a lot, which is why there are so many comments about water coming out :) Chickens do drink a lot of water – they need it to make those eggs. All food first goes down into the crop, which is at the base of the throat. It’s simply a pouch – think water balloon – and if you squeeze it, stuff will come out. Since there is a sphincter going to the next stage (the gizzard) if you push on that crop and your hen has just had a long drink, water will come out the mouth. Not something to do on a regular basis!
    I do have to say that healthy hens should not be spewing water out of their mouths. Something else is going on. Heat stress causing excessive drinking? No food in the crop so that there’s nothing to absorb the water? Are they so bored that they’re drinking excessive amounts of dirty water? Do they have grit in their diet which allows them to digest their food in a timely manner?

  10. Well, of course we like to pick up our chickens, Terry! Mine don’t particularly love it when I pick them up but sometimes they will jump into my husband’s lap or mine when we are sitting out on the patio.

    But, back to topic, my two 2.5 yr old Barred Rocks are doing very poorly. After I contacted you in the spring about Scarlett being sick, she started doing better physically for a couple months but hasn’t laid an egg since then. Amelia recently became very lethargic and has a very solid mass in her crop. I noticed that she spewed some clear water out of her mouth this weekend. Also, both of them have had diarrhea for a couple of weeks and some mornings there is nothing under where they roost. This morning neither of them wanted any scratch.. I gave them both some oatmeal with olive oil this morning and they ate it all. I know that I may be prolonging their suffering but they’ve improved in the past. I will try a couple of remedies but I know that it is really bad if they continue to not want the scratch.

    • All bad signs. Lethargy is never good, and combined with diarrhea and not eager to eat, you know there’s something very serious going on. What is the color of the manure?

      • Bright green with white bits or white with bright green bits, it varies. After their olive oil yesterday, Amelia’s was brown but still diarrhea..but at least something came out! They didn’t want any scratch this morning but did crowd around for compost bugs.

        And on a better note, Henny Penny, who looks like Owly, has lost most of her feathers in the past couple of days. She looks plucked. For such a pretty bird, she looks hilarious when she molts.

        • Ah, I just read Lisa’s and your comments below about bright green poo. That’s not hopeful for my girls, is it?

          • Honestly, it’s bad. When I was a new chicken keeper I did everything I could to keep those hens alive. But then I learned how to do necropsies and I discovered that they were very, very ill, and that my “cures” were only keeping them going despite horrible, terminal ailments. It’s hard to tell whether a chicken is suffering – you see them eat and walk around. But I am sure (99%) that if I looked inside of her that I’d see something bad. I’d say that as soon as she stops eating on her own (not gruel and hand-fed treats) that it’s time to euthanize.

  11. aha! So speaking of the colour of manure…and I know that this might or might not be related, a sure sign that there is something (I suspect internal laying due to several lashes over the years) wrong with my red sexlinks has been bright green poo accompanied by lethargy and of- colour comb. I try to keep a good eye on what everyone is up to and lethargy and a downward tail prompts me usually to begin a bit of epsom salt treatment (bath in warmer weather and often orally due to time commitment involved) but seeing the ‘death poo’ as I call it (where the green is so bright that it stains the bedding) is a VERY loud warning sign and I take immediate action for 3 days to a week of epsom salt, oils etc….3 out of 4 have had to be euthanized after a time including some good months before ‘the end’ but for me, it has been a sure sign of something bad going in internally.

    • Exactly, that green poo is never, ever a good sign. Once in awhile, especially when heat stressed, hens drink too much and they have watery, whitish manure. Green diarrhea, though, is always indicative of a serious and likely lethal ailment.

  12. We have had one hen who has been through that cycle about 3-4 times now and currently appears quite healthy….it often seems that we buy her a few very good months where she looks the picture of health (perky, interested, tail way up, good colour etc). 3-5 days of treatment has worked for some reason for her. Given the popularity of backyard chickens, I wonder if pharmaceutical companies have begun to do research in this area….I would think that they could stand to make a tidy profit which of course is their MO. I have to admit that I would like to know more about why this happens so that some prevention might be applied.

    • LIke with humans, the biggest components are genetics and diet. The backyard chicken market is very small compared with the broiler agribusiness. If anything, information from that research is what will trickle down to the backyard keeper. It’s why I keep an eye on industry newsletters.

  13. When this happens to one of my hens cull. I’ve never had one recover.
    For me it is the best thing for my hen.

  14. This is very off topic here,but I wanted to share. I have gone the route of cat food, extra protein, etc..for pecking order problems..I had heard that protein helps with this…in my experiments I found that it didn’t change anything..then I put in two compost area’s in the pen with lots of interesting things tossed in which separated them as they ate..and it made a big difference in the behaviors. I should say that they don’t get to get out to free range…we have daily visits from owls, eagles, hawks, roaming dogs, and an occasional racoon and I am too busy to supervise. So they are in a pen all day..the other day you posted about alfalfa…so I went to our local feed store and found small bundles of it to try( my reason is that my Delawares are eating me out of house and home with their appetite for feed), they didn’t have molasses covered alfalfa, but I got plain old weed free stuff…My chickens turned their noses up at it until my “Lovey Leghorn named Lavender” tried it …and now they all are eating it! Thanks for the tip, I love it when something healthy makes a difference.P.S I tried cracked corn but they still ate just as much feed and nothing changed. I so appreciate all of your wise words…:)