Help for an EGG-BOUND HEN: Know the symptoms, causes, and prevention of this life-threatening condition.

Recognizing an egg-bound hen... 

It was the end of a 95 degree day (one of many in a two-week hot streak). The sun was setting, and soon it would be time to put the girls to bed. 

We called our chickens in from free-ranging. They all came running. All but Cocoa. That's odd, I thought. Cocoa is usually the first one to come charging in when I call, because she knows it's treat time (usually leafy greens). Where was she? 

We went in search of Cocoa. We found her up the hill in our yard, hiding near the base of a tree. Her tail feathers weren't up in their normal perky position. They hung down close to the ground. She seemed sleepy. Her back end made a pulsing movement, something hens do when they are ready to lay an egg. But Cocoa's egg should have come much earlier in the day! Something was wrong. Cocoa was showing signs of being egg-bound, a dangerous and possibly fatal condition for a hen if she didn't get help.

Signs and symptoms of an egg-bound hen:
  • Repeated visits to the nesting box, but no egg 
  • Sleepy, lethargic or droopy behavior
  • Feathers fluffed out around the bird's body and hen sits low to the ground
  • A pulsing vent area or a straining, pumping movement
  • A firm egg-shaped mass can be felt when you gently feel the hen's abdomen
Possible causes of egg-binding:
  • Dehydration
  • Over-heating
  • Lack of activity
  • Lack of calcium in the diet, or some other nutritional deficiency 
  • Stress
  • Too little access to nesting areas
  • An over-large or misshapen egg
  • The hen's pelvis to small
  • The bird is young and not fully mature
  • Heredity 
  • An overweight hen
The Dangers of a hen being egg-bound:

  • Infection
  • The egg could break inside the hen, leading to the possibility of injury when the broken shell passes
  • Internal bleeding
  • Damage to the oviduct
  • Death
  • A prolapsed uterus 

In our situation, it was the summer heat that contributed to Cocoa becoming egg-bound. When it's hot, chickens are more stressed. They tend to move around less, and they may become dehydrated. Even if they have plenty of water, if that water becomes too warm, a bird may avoid drinking it. Hens need water to lubricate the oviduct where the egg is formed. 

(Geez! It takes a lot of work to keep chickens for those revered farm-fresh eggs! These days, with free-range eggs becoming more available, I'd understand if you thought I was crazy for all this fuss over one egg and one hen. But I happen to be a little chicken crazy. And maybe you are too, since you're reading this article). 

Once we recognized Cocoa's problem, we took fast action...

What to to if your hen is egg-bound...

A vet is your best bet when dealing with an egg-bound hen, but if you don't have access to a vet, there are some home remedies you can try. 

What you will need:

Dish pan (or other reservoir big enough to fit your hen)
Epsom salt
Vegetable oil (any kind)
Calcium carbonate 
Medicine dropper
Medical exam gloves
Plain yogurt (or applesauce or baby food)
Storage bin (or some other box or kennel)

What to do:

If you believe your hen is egg-bound, based on the symptoms listed above, do the following:

1. Calcium. Egg binding may be due to a lack of calcium. A hen's muscles need calcium to contract properly and get the egg out. I keep powdered calcium carbonate on hand. I used this with Cocoa. This can be mixed with yogurt, applesauce, or baby food and placed in a medicine dropper and fed down the throat of your hen. Mix 2 teaspoons powdered calcium carbonate with 2 tablespoons yogurt, or enough to make it runny enough to get down the bird's throat. (Yogurt is my first choice because it provides even more calcium.) Try to get as much of the yogurt concoction as you can down the bird's throat. You can also try Tums, but you will need to get the hen to eat them, which may be difficult if she has lost interest in eating. You can try breaking them into pieces and hiding them in something like grapes. Or you can crush the Tums and use the powder as described above. Give your egg-bound hen calcium. It's quickly absorbed and can help. 

2. Warm epsom salt bath. Fill a basin with a few inches of warm water (not hot), enough to come up the birds chest as she sits in it. The kitchen sink can work, but you may prefer to keep the mess outside. If it is warm enough outside, this is fine. If it is cold, treat the bird indoors. Add a 1/4 cup of epsom salt to the water and let it dissolve. Gently submerge the hen's belly and back end in the water. You can place one hand underneath her belly and one hand on top of her back. Have someone else hold her wings if she tries to flap. Gently massage her belly. With her head away from you, pull your hand along her belly toward her vent. She will most likely enjoy this bath and find it relaxing. Epsom salt can help her relax the same way it helps you and me, which is what she needs. Allow her to remain in the bath for about 15 minutes.

3. Lubricate the vent. Put on a pair medical exam gloves. Really. You're gonna want them. Using the vegetable oil (like olive oil or some other oil), rub some oil around the hen's vent. You can gently poke your oiled finger into the vent opening to lube it up inside a bit, too. (I know, those farm-fresh eggs are priceless aren't they)? This step is important. It will help the egg slip out easier. 

4. A quiet place to wait. When the bath is over, dry your hen off with the towel as best you can and place her in a quiet spot. (Some say to use a hair dryer to dry her off. Cocoa would have freaked out if I'd done this. I say, if you want to use a hair dryer, do so only if it doesn't cause more stress to the hen). We used an empty dog kennel with pine shavings on the floor as a warm, quiet place to put Cocoa. A cardboard box, laundry basket turned upside down or an empty storage bin lined with hay or pine chips could also work. Let the hen stay there for about 30 minutes. If the egg is not produced, repeat the bath, then leave her again in the box. Repeat the bath after each 30 minute rest in the box until the egg is produced. 

What if the egg doesn't pass? Sometimes, the stubborn egg will need to be collapsed inside the bird and the shell passed. I do not feel qualified to tell you how to do this, but here is a link to a short article with some tips about doing this. There are some risks involved in collapsing an egg internally. (This might be a good time to change your mind about getting a vet involved). Collapsing the egg is a last resort because it has the potential to cause injury. But if your hen has not passed the egg within 24-48 hours, this in itself becomes life threatening, so collapsing the egg may be your only choice. 

Ways to prevent egg-binding...

Calcium: As already stated, calcium is important in the business of egg-laying. A hen's muscles need calcium in order to contract properly and move the egg along. Normally, a good quality layer feed will contain enough calcium for a hen's diet. But there may be reasons she is still deficient. Perhaps she isn't getting her share of feed, or it is hot and she isn't eating as much. Also, it's a popular practice to give hen's raw apple cider vinegar in their water for the pro-biotics. But in summertime, when it is hot, this can actually interfere with calcium absorption. So avoiding ACV when it's hot is recommended. Another food to avoid is spinach. Raw spinach interferes with calcium absorption no matter what time of year. People think spinach is a good treat for hens, but dark leafy lettuce is better. To insure plenty of calcium, you can sprinkle crushed oyster shells on the ground for your hens to pick up when they need it. You can also do this crushed egg shells. 

Hydration: Getting enough water is vital to the egg laying process. Without enough water, the oviduct may become dry and less lubricated. Summertime is a threat because of the risk of dehydration. One way to ensure your hens drink enough water, is to keep it cool. You can check out some ideas for keeping chickens (and their water) cool in one of my articles here. Placing ice in your chickens water can go along way, but it melts fast and has to be replaced often. Some people like to use insulted drink coolers with a chicken nipple arrangement, so birds can get a fresh, clean drink every time. 

Access to enough nesting areas: Hens can experience egg restriction if they have to wait a long time to get to the nesting box, or if they are penned in an area that doesn't have access to the place they usually lay their eggs. Be sure you provide enough nesting boxes, 1 for every 2-3 birds. If you let your birds free-range in a fenced area, be sure they have access to their usual nesting place, or that they are really comfortable using a different box in a different location.

Enough exercise: This one isn't hard for birds who get let out into the yard. However, if birds are held inside an enclosed run all day, and never let out, they can become sedentary and overweight. Make sure they have at least the minimum space required: 8-10 square feet per bird. (Birds that are let out during the day to free-range need only 4 square feet of run space, because they spend less time in the run). For more on this and other backyard chicken questions, check out this article by CountrySide Daily. Also, if it is hot, (you'll know your birds are hot, if they walk around with their beaks open and keep hanging out in the shade) hens will slow down and sit more to stay cool. To help with this, if they are usually contained, and if you can, try letting them out into a yard during the cooler parts of the day, even if it is only for 2 or 3 hours. Your birds will appreciate it, and their eggs will be healthier for you to eat, too. 

Quality layer feed: A good layer feed will be formulated to provide the right nutrients and calcium to laying hens. Be sure your birds only have access to their layer feed for the first half of the day, to ensure they eat enough of the feed. They can enjoy healthy treats sparingly later in the day, if you want, like leafy lettuce, meal worms, "scratch" and seeds. But, avoid feeding your hens too many treats that may interfere with their nutritional balance, or add to a weight problem. 

Let's chat: Have you ever had to help an egg-bound hen? I'd love to hear your story in the comments below.

Joy--Fearless Farm Girl,

"Farm girl: it's a verb, because it's what you do."

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  1. Great post, I have never had to treat an egg bound hen - but you did a nice explanation! Thanks for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Diana! Now you know where to come if you ever do face this problem with a hen :)

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