Ben Crisp BVSc MRCVS, The Chicken Vet
Chickens are rather unique by virtue to the fact that their reproductive tracts are in use almost every day of the year.
Unfortunately, this means that occasionally they can run into trouble with their reproductive tract.
Most commonly egg peritonitis can occur. This is an infection of the hen’s abdomen. In many cases, E. coli gets in to the abdomen either through the vent (often due to pecking) or through the airways (respiratory diseases such as Infectious Bronchitis or Mycoplasma can damage the airways allowing bacteria to reach the bird’s airsacs, once bacteria reaches the airsacs it is a short distance to the ovaries which are covered in nutrient rich egg yolks). Once bacteria infect the developing egg yolks in the hen’s abdomen, they have a ready source of nutrients and cause your hen to develop a fever and blood poisoning. The bacteria tend to stop the hen laying normally and in many cases, she will lay into her belly rather than into her vent thus further feeding the bacteria.
Affected hens are often dull, have a swollen hot belly and overtime, loose condition. Due to their stoic nature and abundance of feathers, most cases of peritonitis are not detected until it is too late. I would urge all owners to pick up their birds at least once a fortnight to get an idea of body condition and weight.
In mild cases of peritonitis, antibiotics and painkillers can be given, together with a hormonal implant to stop your hen laying (this cuts off the nutrient supply to the bacteria). However, for more advanced cases, surgery remains the only option to flush out the bacteria from your hen’s abdomen. In these cases, there is always the risk that your hen will be too ill for surgery and euthanasia is unfortunately a possibility.
To reduce the risk of peritonitis developing, monitor your chooks for respiratory disease and vent pecking.
Stories about egg bound hens are commonly found on forums on the internet. In reality, it is rare for hens to become egg bound - often they have peritonitis. Usually, either a large egg (often linked to an unbalanced diet with too many treats) or stress causes egg binding. Egg bound hens are often seen straining for long periods in the nest area. To check if your hen is egg bound, pop on a glove and lubricate your little finger, and gently insert it into her vent to feel for an egg. The first approach to resolving such cases is to lubricate the vent and leave your hen in a dark quiet area for a few hours to see if she passes the egg. If not, then the egg may need to be broken inside her - this is a job for your Vet since sharp pieces of shell may damage your hen’s vent. In cases whereby the egg is much deeper inside your hen, the eggs may need to be surgically removed.
Occasionally, laying hens can suffer from a prolapsed vent. As with egg binding, prolapses are often due to oversized eggs caused by an unbalanced diet. The main issue with prolapses is that they are bright red and are irresistible to the rest of the flock. Once hens start pecking at a prolapse, the victim can die due to pecking related injuries within minutes. If you find one of your girls has a prolapse, separate her immediately from the rest of the flock. Wash her prolapse with tepid water and inspect it for injuries. If the prolapse is damaged, your hen will need to be taken to a Vet straight away. If the prolapse is ok, lubricate it with KY-Jelly and pop it gently back in. If the prolapse keeps popping back out then your Vet can stitch it in, with a quick and simple procedure.