Egg bind in poultry

A hen is said to be ‘egg bound’ (or to suffer from ‘egg bind’) when a particularly large egg becomes lodged in the oviduct and the bird cannot complete the process of laying.

Egg bind is a fairly common condition that can affect hens of any age but is most often seen in young birds laying their first eggs. It’s a serious condition that puts the hen in danger, and is invariably very uncomfortable for the bird. If you are an inexperienced poultry keeper and suspect egg bind you should contact the hospital for advice.

Clinical signs:

  • The hen’s abdomen will be swollen and, often, the shape of the egg can be felt by gentle exploration, but this diagnosis should be treated with caution. See below.
  • Egg bound hens will usually keep returning to the nest box and straining to lay, without success.
  • They will often show signs of distress around the yard.
  • Occasionally, another hen in the flock will ‘raise the alarm’ with loud squawking around the affected hen.

How is egg bind diagnosed?

The most definitive way to diagnose an egg bound bird is with an abdominal radiograph (x-ray). We appreciate that an x-ray is often neither practical nor economic for a lowly hen but backyard poultry keepers should keep in mind that a swollen and distended abdomen — the sign most people immediately assume to be egg bind — can be caused by other, more serious conditions.

If an x-ray reveals a properly formed and calcified egg we know what we are dealing with. If, however, the radiograph does not show a distinct egg it could mean you are faced with a ‘shell-less’ egg or an ‘internal layer.’ Treatment for both of these is far more complex and requires a veterinarian.

An x-ray may also reveal a fluid filled abdomen, which can be a sign of peritonitis. This might be caused by egg material that has never been passed, or by unrelated issues. In either case immediate treatment with broad-spectrum antibiotics is required.

In most cases however, egg bind will be diagnosed by sight and by feel, using a finger very gently inserted into the vent to establish by touch if there is actually an egg lodged in the oviduct. If you opt to do this yourself rather than call a vet, please be aware that cleanliness is vital. It is critical that you do not introduce bacteria into the oviduct. Thoroughly wash and disinfect your hands first. It is also often better that someone with small hands does this task. There is not a lot of room and the muscles of the oviduct can be easily damaged.

Treatment protocols:

One way or another, the recalcitrant egg must come out. There are a range of treatment options veterinarians can use, from physical manipulation to draining the contents of the egg and removing the shell. We can also place an egg bound hen in an incubator/humidicrib in a controlled environment with increased humidity that will assist the hen in passing the egg naturally.

In severe cases the only solution may be surgical removal under a general anaesthetic, sometimes resulting in a complete hysterectomy.

In practical terms that is rarely done and in fact a veterinarian is not often called in for cases of egg bind. Some vets will not even attend a hen because the cost for even simple treatments can often outweigh the value of the bird. At Alpine Animal Doctors we understand that even a lowly chook can be precious to its owner and we are happy to treat any creature if asked. But we also understand that simple economics will often mean the small scale poultry keeper will prefer to attempt a DIY treatment.

In mild cases treating the bird at home can be successful providing you proceed carefully and pay attention to strict hygiene.

In cases where the egg is just that little too large to pass easily through the oviduct you may only need to apply a lubricant such as warm olive oil or Vaseline to the vent. Try to get some lubricant just inside the cloaca but be careful not to tear the delicate tissues. If you can actually see the end of the egg through the vent, lubricate that too. Push very gently on the abdomen and the egg might come come out without too much of a problem.

After successful removal ensure that your hens have adequate protein, calcium, selenium, and vitamins A and E.  Poor condition is the primary cause of egg binding and it can largely be prevented with good diet, additional vitamins and plenty of free range in the sunshine.

For simple cases of egg binding caused by a hen’s first egg, this home remedy may be enough to save many of the birds that are lost each year at sexual maturity. If this method fails the problem is almost certainly more than minor and the egg will probably need to be drained and broken to be removed. The chances of breaking the shell and causing internal damage are quite high and we do not recommend that this be done at home unless you are a very experienced poultry keeper. Please call us for advice.

After treatment the affected bird should be kept somewhere quiet, away from other members of the flock. There will likely have been some muscle damage to the oviduct, which may never recover fully, or cause prolapse where part of the oviduct ‘hangs out’ and needs to be tucked back in again.