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Acidifiers against ascites in poultry

The cost to the worldwide broiler chicken industry due to ascites related mortality is estimated to be in excess of US$500 billion per year. The question is: How can ascites be minimised? Renata Urbaityte explains how suplementation of the diet with an acidifier can help.

By: Renata Urbaityte
Ascites syndrome is a type of congestive heart failure seen mainly in young rapidly growing meat type chickens. The term “ascites” actually refers to the fluid accumulation in the abdominal cavity (or so called waterbelly). The disease is more scientifically known as pulmonary hypertension syndrome. Ascites is most commonly diagnosed at 4-5 weeks of age. Total mortality due to ascites is higher in the male parent lines, which have the capability of faster growth and higher muscle deposition compared to the female lines (Dewil et al., 1996). The ascites syndrome in broiler flocks has been increasing at an alarming rate, and this condition has become one of the leading causes of mortality and whole carcass condemnations throughout the world.
Number of factors
Traditionally, genetics have been blamed for ascites in bird flocks. However, breeding companies have improved genetic resistance of stock to this syndrome. In reality, a considerable number of ascites occurrences are triggered by microbial factors (E. coli, Salmonella sp., Aspergillus) coupled with contributing environmental and nutritional factors. Acidifiers have gained considerable attention in modern animal production as an efficient alternative to antibiotics. Dietary acidification with organic acids has been shown to contribute to environmental hygiene by preventing feed and water from microbial and fungal deterioration. Moreover, dietary supplementation with acidifiers decreases the occurrence of pathogenic bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract thus improving animals’ growth performance and health status. It is also proven that acidifiers successfully fight against the gastrointestinal pathogens, like Salmonella sp, E. coli and Campylobacter.
Pathology and aetiology
The pathology is associated with abnormally high blood pressure between the heart and lungs (pulmonary hypertension) leading to heart failure, increased blood pressure in the veins, and excessive build-up of fluid in th liver which leaks into body cavity (Maxwell, 1990). Characteristic symptoms are: poor bird development, dilated abdomen (”waterbelly”), dyspnoea (panting, accompanied with gurgling sounds, even in the absence of apparent heat stress) and possible cyanosis (a blue discolouration of the skin, especially around the comb and wattles and muscle tissue).
The aetiology of ascites is very conflicting. Usually genetics have been blamed for the ascites. However, the breeding companies have improved genetic resistance of the stock to the ascites. The combination of environmental (ambient temperatures, high altitudes, stock density, air quality), nutritional (diet density, feeding type), hygienic (feed, environmental hygiene) and genetic events lead to this metabolic disease. A considerable number of ascites syndromes in broiler flocks are caused by microorganisms. Most of the Gramnegative bacteria (E. coli, Salmonella sp., Campylobacter) are considered pathogenic because of their lipopolysaccharide (LPS) layer.
Some studies have shown that LPS triggers pulmonary vasoconstriction leading to ascites (pulmonary hypertension) in broilers (Chapman et al., 2005). Airborne LPS is ubiquitous in the environment of broilers, and is positively related to the amount of organic dust in poultry houses (Zucker et al., 2000). For example, respiratory exposure to E. coli can amplify the incidence of ascites five-fold in broilers. It is known that Salmonella typhiumurium may cause up to 79% mortality in one week old chickens. However, in some studies lesions of salmonellosis were reported for 4-6 week old broilers with E. coli co-infection consequentially leading to ascites (Ganapathy et al., 2000). Another pathogenic agent is a mould, Aspergillus fumigates, occasionally present in the environment of all poultry. This so called ”brooder pneumonia”, forms mould colonies in the lungs, and produces hard nodular areas leading to air sac infection and subsequently to the development of ascites.
Treatment and prevention
Firstly, it is important to understand the underlying causes of an ascites occurrence on a poultry farm. In the case of ascites caused by genetics, feed restriction might reduce the effect of the disease. Slower growing birds have reduced oxygen needs allowing the cardiopulmonary organs (heart and lungs) to keep up with oxygen demands of the birds. However, reducing the feed intake of broilers decreases the growth performance. Feed restriction is only of economic benefit when the incidence of ascites is very severe. In the case of ascites caused by micro-organisms, recent studies investigating the effect of feed supplementation with acidifiers have shown promising results. Of course, optimal management practices are also very important for reducing the problem of ascites and maximising performance of broilers.
Acidifier put to the test
The effect of the acidifier Biotronic® SE (Biomin GmbH, further called “acidifier”) on ascites incidence was tested on a commercial broiler farm (Bolivia). Nine hundred day-old Cobb 500 male broiler chicks were divided into three groups. The birds were fed a corn-soybean meal diet. The negative control group diet contained no feed additives, whereas the diet of the positive control group was supplemented with an antibiotic growth promoter (AGP), and the trial group was supplemented with the acidifier at an inclusion rate of 1.5 kg/t feed. The duration of the trial was 46 days. The weight of the birds was recorded on days 14, 35, 42 and 46. Mortality and observations of the birds for abnormalities (diarrhoea, depression, immobility) were carried out daily. Ascites incidence was characterised by clinical signs (panting, gurgling sounds, cyanotic combs and wattles, excessive abdominal fluid accumulation) and mortality rates. The incidence of ascites was confirmed by post-mortem examination.
Results and discussion
For the initial 42 days, the broilers did not show any obvious clinical signs of ascites, even though on Day 35 mortality rates were recorded in the negative control, positive control and trial groups as 2.04, 3.09 and 2.39% respectively (Table 1). On Day 42 an outbreak of ascites was observed on the broiler farm with typical ascetic symptoms such as gasping, cyanotic combs and wattles, depression, extended abdomens, and increased mortality rates up to 7.53, 5.26 and 3.81% in the negative control, positive control and trial groups respectively. In the trial group, the mortality rate increased 37.27% over the mortality rate prior to the ascites outbreak, compared to
72.90 and 41.25% respectively in the negative control and positive control groups. Necropsy of the dead birds revealed the characteristic lesions of ascites. Amber or clear fluid (lymph) was found in the abdominal cavity, hearts were enlarged with fluid in the pericardium (the sac surrounding the heart), livers were swollen and congested and sometimes with fibrin adhered to their surface, and lungs were pale or greyish. By the end of week 7 the mortality in the negative control and positive control groups reached 15.39% and 7.53% respectively whereas the group fed diets supplemented with the acidifier recorded the lowest mortality rate at 6.76%. This trial result demonstrated that diet supplementation with the acidifier represents a solution to alleviate the effect of ascites on broiler farms. In this study, ascites could be attributed to a microbial cause, most probably Salmonella sp. or E. coli and some other co-infection agents. The genetic cause of ascites herein might be excluded, since the growth of the broilers was much lower compared to the standard growth performance of Cobb 500. Due to poor hygienic conditions on the farm, conditions for the proliferation of pathogenic micro-organisms in the environment and fee d were favourable. Moreover, some predisposing factors such as high altitude and insufficient ventilation were present, exacerbating the ascites syndrome in this broiler flock. Due to its antimicrobial effect, the acidifier used improved the environmental hygiene and prevented the feed from microbial and fungal deterioration.
In addition dietary supplementation with acidifiers is known to decrease the occurrence of pathogenic bacteria in the gastrointestinal tract thus improving the animals’ health status. This was confirmed by the reduction of mortality rates in the trial group compared with the negative control and positive control (AGP) groups. In this trial, the addition of acidifier to the feed was  effective in alleviating the effect of ascites caused by microbial factors in broilers.
In modern animal production acidifiers have been proven to be an efficient alternative to antibiotics. Dietary acidification contributes to environmental hygiene, with a continued function through either the feed or water into the animals’ gastrointestinal tract. The addition of an organic acid product has been successful in alleviating the effects of various intestinal diseases, with its action against ascites in broilers the latest application available to producers.
References are available on request
Source: Feed Mix magazine, Volume 17, No. 1 (2009)


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