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Egg Binding in Pet Birds

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Egg binding in pet birds is a serious and sometimes fatal condition that requires immediate veterinary attention. Egg binding occurs when a female bird cannot pass an egg through her reproductive tract, due to factors such as poor health, age, obesity, or egg malformations. A related but less common condition, dystocia, occurs when the passage of an egg is blocked by an obstruction such as a tumor or a malformed oviduct. In either case, the bird's survival depends greatly on the owner's ability to recognize the problem and react quickly.

When Pikachu, a Senegal parrot, suddenly appeared distressed, refused to perch, and stood on the floor of her cage with an oddly wide stance, her owner was concerned that the bird had suffered a stroke. A quick trip to an avian veterinarian revealed the real problem: a fully formed egg was stuck in the oviduct and was pressing against the nerves that ran to Pikachu's legs. Since Pikachu was a single pet bird that the owners believed was a male, this emergency was doubly surprising. In reality, egg binding is an all too common affliction in companion birds, especially the smaller species such as cockatiels, canaries, parakeets, and finches.

"We probably see this more commonly in cockatiels and budgies (parakeets) than any other pet birds," said avian veterinarian Scott McDonald, DVM, who travels around the country providing bird health care and sexing services. (Many pet birds are visually monomorphic, which means that the exterior appearance of both the males and females is the same, so gender can only be determined through DNA testing or laparoscopic surgery.) "This is probably because these species are more commonly kept as pets and because of their propensity to lay eggs even without the presence of a mate or nest box," McDonald said.

Risk factors

Although egg binding can occur in birds of all ages, the problem is most common in very young or very old hens. It's also more likely to strike pets on a seed-only diet, because seed is deficient in calcium and several crucial vitamins. Calcium is needed not only to properly form the eggshell, but also for many other  bodily functions, including the muscle contractions needed to expel the egg. And finally, environmental factors such as lack of humidity or low ambient temperature can make eggs more difficult to pass.

Symptoms of egg binding

Symptoms of egg binding can vary, but in most cases the bird's discomfort will be obvious. If you notice any of the following, it's time to call your vet:

  • Appears fluffed or lethargic
  • Has difficulty perching or remains on cage floor
  • Displays lameness or paralysis in one or both legs, or stands with an unusually wide stance.
  • Exhibits labored breathing
  • Displays frequent tail-wagging, or attempts to lift tail while straining
  • Has swollen or distended abdomen or vent area
  • Unable to pass droppings, or has droppings pasted around vent area

What to do

Egg binding is always an emergency and can rapidly escalate to kill your pet. There are a few at-home measures that might help, but if your bird doesn't completely pass the egg within an hour or so, bring it to an emergency vet experienced in avian species for immediate treatment. Even if it is able to eventually lay the egg without intervention, schedule a follow-up exam to prevent future problems.

At home: Place the bird in a heated environment-about 85-95 degrees F--with high humidity. That can mean a pet carrier placed on top of a heating pad with a wet sponge inside, or it can mean dragging the cage into a closed bathroom while you run a hot shower. If the egg is visible through the bird's vent, you can also dab a little KY Jelly or mineral oil around the vent to help lubricate the passage.

At the vet's office: Your vet will first assess the severity of the problem by conducting a physical exam, and possibly taking a radiograph to see where the egg is lodged. In minor cases, injections of calcium and vitamins A, D, E, and the mineral selenium often help the bird to pass the egg. Sometimes human drugs such as oxytocin are used to increase contractions, just as they are used to induce labor in a pregnant woman. In more severe instances, your vet might have to remove the egg surgically and repair any tissue damage. In this case, antibiotics, steroids, and IV fluids might be needed as well.

Prevention and avoiding recurrences

As is the case with any illness, prevention is certainly preferable to treatment. In egg binding, that usually means simply feeding your pet a high-quality diet. Seed mixes alone, even those marketed as "fortified," are woefully inadequate to meet birds' nutritional needs. Consider switching to a formulated diet-commonly called "pellets"-and offer your pet a wide variety of fruits, veggies, and whole grains. Ask your vet if additional vitamin supplements are warranted. Birds that have suffered from egg binding once are more prone to future episodes, so be certain to provide sufficient calcium, either in supplements or food items.

In Pikachu's case, she was one lucky parrot. She passed the egg with no permanent damage, and her owner revamped her diet to include nutrient-rich fresh foods and pellets. Now when she's on the cage floor, she's down there to romp and tussle with one of her many toys.


Credit: Reviewed by John A. Bukowski, DVM, MPH, PhD and Susan E. Aiello, DVM, ELS
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