Earlier this month, I happened to be at Rancho Compasión & Blackberry Creek sanctuary when Opal had great difficulty laying an egg. Her egg was positioned askew and while straining to push it out, the uterus went with it. She had a prolapsed oviduct and was egg bound! Luckily, her caregiver noticed it and scooped her up from the flock quickly. After cleaning as much debris as we could, we removed the egg first since egg binding is a life-threatening situation. It also relieved lots of pressure on the protruding tissue. But it was too swollen and damaged to push it back inside. Opal spent a week at the vet hospital where they keep the tissue sterile and moist until the uterus could go back in. Opal is back at her sanctuary and doing good.
So, what exactly is a prolapse? How does it happen? And how to treat it?
When an egg is fully formed, it ends up in the cloaca (the cavity inside the vent where the reproductive and excretory tracts meet). To deposit it outside, the uterus holds the egg tightly, turns inside out and goes through the vent with the egg; it then retracts inside. This natural process is called prolapse or eversion. Here is a video of the last 25 seconds of a hen laying an egg:
In some cases however, the uterus doesn’t withdraw back inside the hen and remains outside hanging out the vent. This condition is called prolapsed oviduct, cloacal/vent prolapse, or blowout. Below is a picture of a normal vent followed by two showing a prolapsed oviduct.
A prolapsed oviduct is a fairly common affliction for laying hens, and can be caused by any of the following:
the egg is too large
chronic straining from egg laying
the hen was too young when she started laying
the hen is too fat
calcium deficiency (which can cause muscle weakness)
peritonitis (accumulation of egg material in the abdomen)
holding droppings for extended periods of time (for example when broody hens are sitting on eggs)
It’s a serious condition but is often manageable when caught early. The longer the uterine tissue is exposed, the higher the risk of secondary bacterial infection and damage to the organ. It’s crucial to immediately separate the hen from the flock as the other chickens may be tempted to peck at the prolapsed tissue causing severe damage and potentially death by hemorrhage.
Here is how to treat a hen with a prolapsed oviduct:
Isolate the hen in a safe and clean environment (e.g. laundry room / bathroom).
Trim the feathers around the vent to keep the area clear.
Clean thoroughly the protruding tissue and the area around with warm soapy water.
Apply an anti-inflammatory cream such as silver sulfadiazine (SSD) or zinc oxide paste (Desitin).
If the tissue is still contaminated (fecal material, debris...), swollen or damaged, go see a vet. Do not push the tissue back inside the bird.
Gently re-insert the tissue back inside the hen.
If it doesn’t stay inside the vent, try again later but no more than twice daily.
If after a couple of days, the tissue remains outside, go see a vet. Surgery may be necessary.
Supply electrolytes in water and, if possible, supplement with liquid calcium.
Keep hen isolated until she improves.
Discourage her from laying by darkening the room so she doesn’t get more than 8 hours of light per day. You could also ask your vet to give her a hormonal implant to pause her laying for a few months.
It's okay if you don’t feel comfortable doing any of this, just bring your hen to the vet without delay.
The Chicken Health Handbook, 2nd Edition, by Gail Damerow