Spring is upon us and with the change in season comes a change in the health needs of your flock. Many birds stop laying over the winter months and start up again in spring, which means backyard chicken keepers need to be on the lookout for common laying issues. Complications you may encounter with laying-age hens include being egg bound or laying soft shelled, shell-less, or broken eggs, ascites/infection, or egg yolk peritonitis
Egg bound hens will display very specific behavior including “straining” to pass an egg (especially while standing), waddling, or a penguin-like stance. You may also observe vent pulsations, entering and exiting nest boxes repeatedly without laying, isolating themselves, lack of waste elimination, not eating or mouth breathing due to discomfort. Being egg bound is a serious medical emergency that can lead to death if not addressed.
If you suspect you have an egg bound hen, there are several steps you can follow to help your girl pass her egg successfully. I start with the simplest solution by setting up a crate in a quiet area, covering it so it’s dark, and leaving her undisturbed for about an hour. Hens that are at the bottom of the pecking order may be getting bullied when trying to use nest boxes, so this first step gives them the privacy they need to lay. If this solves your issue, your next challenge will be dealing with a bully.
If after an hour or two you’re not noticing any improvement, move on to a warm epson salt soak to help your hen relax and pass her egg. Soak your hen in comfortably warm water for between 20-60 minutes, dry her, then place her back in the covered crate to try laying again. Be very gentle and try your best to avoid struggling or flapping and jeopardizing the stuck egg.
If the soak doesn’t work, you may need to try manual removal which involves lubing up and using your fingers to help move the egg along through the vent. It’s critical to go slow and be very gentle so the egg doesn’t break inside your hen. If you feel uncomfortable, I recommend finding an avian vet in your area who can take an x-ray to determine where the egg is stuck and how best to treat.
Soft-Shelled or Broken Eggs
Another common laying concern is shell-less, soft-shelled, or broken eggs. This can be a sign of calcium deficiency, inappropriate diet, or even a genetic issue. No matter the cause, this health concern needs immediate attention before it becomes fatal. Ensure your girls have access to oyster shells (or their own egg shells), layer feed (for flocks with no roosters), or calcium supplements.
Ascites and Egg Yolk Peritonitis
One of the more serious laying complications is ascites from infection or egg yolk peritonitis. Waddling and a red, swollen vent area are the two biggest signs that immediate action is needed. If you notice a hen with egg matter near her vent, take action quickly by flushing the vent with warm water with a syringe and monitoring her temperature over the next few days to ensure an infection/fever doesn’t develop. If a fever is detected, your hen will need antibiotics to recover.
It’s possible for the fluid build up to fully dissipate with just a round of antibiotics, but if after 5 days of treatment the swelling is still present your hen will need to be drained. Using a syringe to draw out liquid is risky so its best to use a large gauge needle, puncture ~2 inches below and to the right of the vent, and allow the excess liquid to drain unassisted. It’s important to understand that this issue is likely to reoccur so regular draining may be necessary.
It’s also possible to supplement with herbs to reduce fluid build up: