Recognizing an Egg-Bound Chicken: How You Can Help


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Many chickens go their entire life and are never egg-bound.  But, as a chicken owner, it is important to know what it is, how to recognize it, and how to treat it.  The phrase may not sound bad, but it is a serious issue for hens.  Without treatment, the hen can suffer, have complications, and may even die.

How can you recognize an egg-bound chicken and how you can help?  “Egg bound” means the hen has an egg stuck in her oviduct.  The hen may never show any symptoms, making recognition difficult.  The most obvious sign would be looking sick, decreased appetite, lethargic, and continual attempts to lay the egg.

An egg-bound chicken has a stuck egg typically between the uterus and the cloaca, resulting in the cloaca being sealed shut. 

This is a life-threatening emergency that can lead to complications or death if intervention is not taken. 

Knowing how to prevent, recognize, and treat your hen is very important in caring for your chickens.  The egg binding needs to be resolved in 24-48 hours to prevent death.

Causes

When a hen is preparing to lay an egg, the cloaca seals shut the opening to the intestines to prevent the egg from being covered in poop.  As long as the egg is in the oviduct, the cloaca stays sealed shut, and the hen cannot poop. 

The hen can become septic from the backed up fecal matter and die

When you have a hen that is egg bound, if you can identify the cause, you can potentially head off problems with your whole flock. Many of the causes and prevention are part of overall flock management.  However, it is important to remember that not all causes can be preventable.  Typical causes include:

  • Passing large or odd-shaped eggs – The oviduct can only stretch so far.  Misshapen eggs and overly large eggs will not pass and get stuck.  This may not be preventable and is typically a rare occurrence.
  • Genetic issues in the hen – Some hens are more prone to laying odd or parchment eggs (eggs with no shell) on a regular basis.  These eggs do not pass through the oviduct as easily, resulting in them becoming stuck.  Do not hatch these hens’ eggs as they are likely to pass this on.
  • Double yolk eggs – They are larger than normal and more likely to get stuck.  This is not preventable and typically does not happen often.
  • Malnutrition – A diet low in vitamins, minerals, and proteins can interfere with egg development and overall hen health making a stuck egg more likely.
  • Sedentary or obese chickens – Muscles become weak, and the hen is not able to push.
  • Premature laying – Hens lay before they are fully developed, which means the oviduct is not completely ready and can often result in binding.
  • Elderly chickens – As they age, their muscles weaken, making pushing out the egg more difficult.
  • Egg retention – Chickens are picky and will “hold” their eggs if they do not have what they consider an appropriate place to lay.  Waiting on a nest box or being chased away from the nest box can result in them “holding” their eggs.
  • Infection – Infections in the oviduct/reproduction system can cause inflammation that restricts the passage of the egg.
  • Severe parasite infestation – As with most animals, chickens can get internal parasites and worms.  Treatment and prevention are an important part of flock management.

The first three causes are difficult to prevent other than to cull chickens that are prone to this and not keeping any of their offspring.  However, they are typically very rare occurrences. 

Monitor your hens to see how often these causes occur before deciding if culling is necessary.  The other causes are preventable.

Symptoms

It can be very difficult to tell that a hen is egg bound.  They will often show no symptoms.  Some hens will be secretive and isolate themselves making it less noticeable. 

The most common symptoms can also be indicative of other chicken illness.  Any hen that sits off by herself in a quiet spot with fluffed out feathers appearing to nap needs to be monitored.  If it continues, check the hen for a stuck egg or other illness.

Hens that are egg bound will often show decreased interest in food or water.  This can be hard to monitor with a larger flock.  If you typically feed at a certain time each day, watch for hens that do not come running to the feed bucket.  For free-range chickens watch for any hens that are late to come to the coop at night.

Other symptoms are more likely to indicate the hen is egg bound.  She will have shaky wings, walk like a penguin (due to the stuck egg), show straining, like she is trying to pass the egg, and have tail pumping.  These are all attempts by the hen to pass the stuck egg.  They should not be ignored. 

If you see any of these symptoms, the hen needs to be examined.  Do not always assume the problem is a stuck egg however, as this could also be a constipated chicken

Here is a good video of a hen that is egg bound.

Treatment

Calling a veterinarian is always the right answer for any animal with a medical issue. That being said, we understand that when it comes to chickens, that isn’t always feasible.

The methods discussed here for helping egg-bound hens have been used successfully by chicken owners to help their hens however, you must realize that not all hens will survive this condition.

Before doing any treatment, you need to make sure the hen is egg bound and not suffering from another condition.  You will need to examine the hen’s vent to see if you can feel an egg. 

Use a latex glove and some KY jelly.  Gently insert your finger into the vent approximately two inches.  At this point, you should be able to feel the egg.  If you cannot, the hen is not egg bound, and the possibility is constipation or another health problem. 

Initial Treatment

For some hens, a “spa day” can help them with passing the egg.  Prepare a warm water bath with Epsom salts about three to four inches deep. 

Give the hen some calcium, like human “Tums” or a calcium pill from your vet or farm supply.  This will increase the strength of her contractions to push the egg out.  Place the hen in the water bath for about fifteen to twenty minutes, and towel her dry afterward.

After the bath, apply some KY jelly to the vent area.  If it is swollen, you may want to use some Preparation H, or another hemorrhoid cream, to reduce the swelling.  Place the hen in a darkened crate with water and food.  This process many need to be repeated three or four times over the next several hours.

Some people recommend massaging the vent prior to placing it in the crate.  However, others do not.  The problem is the egg may be broken during massaging, resulting in a new set of problems. 

If you choose to massage, do it for about ten minutes VERY gently from front to back on her abdomen.  The process will hopefully cause her oviduct to contract and push the egg out.

Secondary Treatment

If the egg does not pass, the treatment options become more difficult.  The primary action should be to seek the services of a veterinarian.  However, if that is not an option, you can try and remove the egg yourself. 

Removing the egg yourself can put the chicken at risk and should not be attempted unless it is your last resort. There is no guarantee you will be successful.

If the egg can be seen, gently make a hole in it.  Use a syringe, without a needle, to suck out the inside out of the egg.  You can now pull on the egg and attempt to remove it. 

When you can feel, but not see the egg, use lubrication on the vent and cloaca to try and remove the egg.  This may cause it to break.

If the egg breaks, make sure to get all the pieces out.  You will have to carefully remove all the pieces because any left inside will cut and or cause abrasions to the oviduct, creating a risk for infection.

This process typically takes two people – one to hold the chicken, while the other works on the egg. 

After Removal

Once you have the egg removed, you will have to place the hen in a crate for a few hours to make sure she is eating and drinking.  Monitor her vent area for excessive swelling, redness, or prolapse. 

Keep the hen separate from the flock until any swelling or redness is gone.  If your hen shows signs of prolapse, you may need to contact a veterinarian.

If the egg broke, your hen might need antibiotics to prevent infection, even if you think you got all the shell out.  Even removing it can cause minor abrasions or cuts. 

Consult your veterinarian regarding which antibiotic to use and the correct application.  If used incorrectly, they not only won’t help your hen, they can decrease the effectiveness of the antibiotic for future use.

It can be helpful to allow your hen some rest following this experience. 

Keeping your hen in a small confined area for a day or two can help you monitor her for complications, administer antibiotics, and reduce her egg-laying to give the oviduct a rest.  By keeping the hen in a dark place and reducing her feed, you will be able to slow egg production so that she does not lay for the next day or two. 

Prevention

Several reasons for egg-binding are preventable.  It is important for chicken owners to prevent egg binding when possible because often hens will show no symptoms until they are too sick to save. 

Prevention is also part of good flock management and can increase the overall health of your chickens.  This not only reduces the chance of them being egg-bound but increases their egg production.

Premature Laying

Many people want their hens to lay eggs as soon as possible.  They may try and rush the process by putting up extra lights with young pullets in an attempt to get them to lay earlier. 

However, hens will naturally start to lay when their body is physically ready.  Rushing this process means that they will be laying eggs before they are ready, which will predispose them to become egg bound.  Do not try to force early laying.

Using light in the winter to increase laying all year round can also force hens to lay.  Many hens need a rest period to allow their bodies to recuperate.  Using light to force laying can increase the risk of hens being egg bound because they get no winter rest period. 

Diet

Poultry feed is commercially available and consists of a mixture of various grains, nutrients, and minerals.  It is important to make sure you either buy ready-made feed if you do not have the knowledge to adequately grind your own.  Using just cracked corn will not give chickens all the nutrients they need. 

Without proper nutrients, chickens will be more likely to become egg bound.

All chickens need calcium.  However, depending on their age and whether they are laying or not, hens need different amounts.  Calcium needs to be provided in a separate feeder to allow the hens free access.  It should not be put in their food so that they can vary their intake amount without impacting their feeding.

Chickens that free-range may take in less calcium due to being able to take in from other sources.  However, it still needs to be offered to them.

Nest Boxes

Hens that do not feel safe laying will try and “hold” their egg until they find a safe place.  Hens need one nest box for every three to four hens.  Place nest boxes in dark, quieter areas. 

Make sure younger hens or those new to your flock know where the nest boxes are. Placing some wooden eggs in the nest box can help encourage younger chicken to use the nest boxes.

Some hens can become very territorial and guard their nest box, not allowing any other hens to use it.  Other hens may attempt to “sit” the eggs in the nest box.  Monitor for these conditions as you may need more nest boxes to accommodate these behaviors.

Keep the nest boxes clean and gather the eggs often.  Hens will not use nest boxes if they are dirty, have broken eggs, or too many eggs. 

Watch for nest boxes that are not being used.  Place wooden eggs or a few collected in eggs in those boxes to entice hens and even out the laying.  If too many hens lay in the same box, they will have longer “wait” times.

Sedentary/Obese Hens

Chickens that are allowed adequate space typically do not get obese.  However, when provided too much food and not enough space, chickens will become overweight. 

The best solution is to prevent obesity in the first place. 

Feed your chicken based on the recommendations on the feed bag.  Do not use feeds higher in protein than needed and provide plenty of space for them to walk around.

If your hens are obese, you need to encourage them to get exercise to help them lose weight.  This can be accomplished in a few different ways:

  • Provide them with more space – Most chickens will increase their activity level if they have more room to move around.
  • Don’t feed human leftovers – Ensure your hens are only eating what they find free-range or is contained in their regular feed.  Human food is often not healthy for chickens.
  • Move the waterers or feeders – Chickens will have to move around more to find their feed and water if they are placed far apart.
  • Play games – Take plant-based foods, fruit, or vegetables that the chickens like and throw them into different areas of the chicken pens so that they chase after them or chase each other once one chicken has the prize!

Older Hens

You cannot prevent your chickens from aging.  Older hens do lay less frequently, helping decrease their chance of becoming egg bound.  However, when your chickens are older, it is important that you more closely monitor their health.  This can help you identify any problems with your hens, including being egg bound, as early as possible so that you can treat it.

Some people choose to “retire” their chickens once they reach a certain age.  This is a personal decision.  There is no right answer to keeping hens past a certain age. 

Infestation

Chickens can become infested with worms.  Internal parasites can cause several problems, including being egg bound. 

It is easy and fairly inexpensive to have a fecal sample tested for parasites at your local veterinarian’s office.  This can also help determine which treatment should be used.  Re-testing will tell you if your treatment reduced the worm load.

Free-range chickens are less susceptible to worms as they are not confined in a dirt yard.  If you cannot allow your chickens to range, it is important to regularly clean out your coop and hose down areas your chickens frequent.  This can remove any fecal matter the chickens would peck at, which is one of the main sources of worms.

If you do have worms, it is important to treat your whole flock.  If you do not treat all the hens, they can pass the worms from one chicken to another.  Follow all directions from your veterinarian, because often it is recommended that worming be done in two treatments with 2-3 weeks in between.

If you have chickens that appear to be egg bound, but you cannot feel an egg, check them for parasites.  An infestation could be causing the same symptoms as being egg bound.  Parasites can be a very common reason that chickens are looking or acting sick.

Vent Prolapse

In some chickens being egg-bound can lead to vent prolapse.  This can occur either before or after the stuck egg is removed.  This is a complication caused by the chicken’s constant pushing and straining to lay the egg.  Even once the egg is removed, the swelling caused may lead to continued pushing and prolapse.

Vent prolapse happens when the lower part of the chicken’s oviduct turns inside out and protrudes through the vent (where the egg would come out). 

Vent prolapse can be a very serious, life-threatening condition.  It can lead to numerous complications, and one of those is egg-binding.  It is important to consider the prolapse carefully as the stuck egg may be in the protruding material.

Treatment

A hen with vent prolapse needs immediate attention.  The first step is to wash any tissues that are outside the hen’s body.  Warm water with iodine to disinfect the area is best. 

Soak the hen’s back end in the warm water.  This will loosen any stuck material and clean any open wounds.  The warm water will also help hydrate and soften the oviduct.  The tissues need to be thoroughly cleaned before continuing.

Next, wearing gloves, use a water-based lubricant to push the protruding tissue back into the vent gently.  It is important to push slowly and gently to avoid any tears in the oviduct.  This usually takes two people, one to hold the hen still and the other to manage the tissues. 

Once the tissue is pushed back in, it will need to be treated to reduce swelling to prevent the hen from pushing it back out.  Preparation H works for this, or honey is considered a holistic alternative.

Antibiotics are recommended.  It is unlikely that you could clean the tissue thoroughly enough to prevent infection.  Also, it will often have minor abrasions from being outside of the body.  You should consult a veterinarian for the correct antibiotic and dosage. 

The hen will need to be separated from the flock. 

She will need to be placed in a quiet place with a limited area for movement until she is fully healed.

Secondary Treatment

Some hens will almost immediately re-prolapse due to the pain and swelling they experienced.  If this happens, using vet wrap or other material to hold the tissue in place will sometimes help. 

Sadly, recurrent prolapse is difficult to treat.  The hen will likely need to be euthanized to stop it from having a slow, painful death.  This is a difficult choice to make but it is, unfortunately, a part of owning animals.

It is important to remember that even if the hen does recover, her oviduct walls and muscles are potentially weakened permanently.  This will leave the hen at high risk to prolapse again. 

Many people choose to cull a hen that has prolapsed once.  Others will keep her but monitor her closely.  The longer the hen goes without another prolapse, the less likely she will have another one.

Veterinary treatment can be an option, but it does not raise the likelihood of success.  Some hens just cannot recover from a prolapse.  This can be heart-breaking; however, it is another unfortunate truth. 

If you are going to consider veterinary treatment, make sure the vet you use knows about chickens.  Even many farm veterinarians do not have much knowledge of poultry.

Holistic Treatments

If you do not want to push the tissue back in, or it is so swollen that it will not go back into the hen, there is another option.  Various holistic medicinal salves are on the market that have anti-inflammatory effects. 

These treatments, along with witch hazel or sugar, can be spread on the affected tissue and area one to two times daily will reduce the inflammation and allow the oviduct to draw back inside on its own.

Care must be taken to keep the tissue clean and dry.  The hen will need to be confined to a very small space.  The chance of egg-laying can be reduced by withholding food and water for 24 hours. 

This is a more natural way to allow the hen to heal, which reduces the risk of tears from inserting the tissue.  However, it may increase the risk of infection from the tissue being out of the body longer.

Internet searches will turn up several other “at home” remedies.  It is important to be careful when considering alternative treatments.  Some are very good, but others just waste your time and money at best and at worst, they add to your hen’s pain and suffering. 

Some sheep farmers many offer suggestions as sheep are very prone to prolapse, and what works with a ewe may work with a hen.

Summary

Egg-binding is not a common occurrence.  With proper flock management, some owners may never see an egg-bound chicken. 

The key to prevention is proper diet, exercise, and parasite control.  The more space a chicken has, the likelihood for egg-binding is lessened.  The right number of nest boxes is also important in prevention.   

That said, egg binding cannot always be prevented.  In those cases, you have options for egg removal.  It is important to be very careful during this process to decrease the risk of breaking the egg. 

After removal, the chicken will still need care and monitoring to watch for infection or prolapse.  Separating the hen from the flock for a few days to heal can be helpful.

After successful treatment, consider what may have been the cause so that you can make any changes in flock management to try and reduce the risk or any re-occurrence.  Raising happy, healthy chickens will decrease your risk of another egg-bound chicken and increase your egg production. 

April

April has owned and worked with domestic fowl including chickens, turkeys, geese, ducks, and guineas since 1998. She has a B.S. in Agriculture from Cal Poly in Pomona, CA where she studied genetics, nutrition and reproduction.

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