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TREATMENT OF CHRONIC EGG LAYING
Chronic egg laying is a complex problem with no easy solution. The following article is a general description of the treatment options and considerations for birds who are chronically laying. Every bird is an individual however, so we recommend that every excessive layer have, at a minimum, a thorough history taken, a physical exam performed, and a specific treatment plan devised.
There are three categories of treatment options:
1. MANAGEMENT OF DIET, ENVIRONMENT, SOCIAL LIFE, AND ACTIVITY / EXERCISE
The diet of many pet birds is an unbalanced one. Normal egg laying creates great nutritional demands; excessive egg laying creates proportionally greater ones. Hens that are laying chronically can suffer from serious, even life-threatening nutritional problems, including (but not limited to) calcium deficiency. Converting from an unbalanced diet to a balanced one is vitally important for any bird, not just an chronically laying one, but it is often a challenging task that takes months to accomplish. Despite an owner’s best efforts it is nearly impossible to avoid some time during the conversion process when the bird is stressed and when it is eating a less than ideal amount.
To guard against contributing to deficiencies during the conversion process we recommend beginning with steps that allow the bird ready access to the food it prefers. We want to attempt to control the excessive laying first, before decreasing and eliminating access to the original food. Examples of some of these strategies include:
Allow access to the regular diet twice daily for 15 to 30 minutes; one time should
be at sunrise.
Place the new food in the regular food bowl, and the regular food in a new bowl.
Place the new food on skewers.
Let the bird see the owner examining and appearing to eat the new food.
Allow the bird to eat near the owner.
Nutritionally complete formulated diets (we recommend Harrison’s Bird Foods and various Lafeber products; mixes that include kibble, seeds and nuts tossed together are not balanced) should comprise 50% to 80% of the consumed calories. The components of the remaining 20% to 50% of the diet depends partially on the species of the bird, but can include:
Dark green, red and orange vegetables
Cooked meats, fish, and eggs
Rice and grains
Pieces of nuts
One particular exception that we have encountered a number of times to the usual difficulty of converting to a balanced diet is converting a cockatiel to Harrison’s Fine Grind Bird Food. If the Harrison’s is sprinkled on a countertop and the owner stirs it around, acts interested in it and pretends to eat it while the bird watches, many cockatiels will try it and readily continue to eat it.
TOYS AND “FURNISHINGS” Egg laying will be stimulated by some features of the bird’s environment, so removing or altering these features will help to lower the pet’s reproductive drive. Nest boxes and potential nesting material should be removed. Toys that the bird appears bonded to or has been observed going through the motions of mating with should be removed as well. The intent is not to deprive the pet; inappropriate items should be replaced with acceptable ones, such as puzzle toys and safe chew toys.
PRESENCE OF A MALE Females are reproductively stimulated by the presence of a male. Most hens are very sensitive in this regard; a male that is kept in a different part of the home is still a significant stimulus. That said, if there is a male present and it is not an option to separate the male and female into different homes, then keeping the birds in different parts of the same home is still worthwhile.
LIGHT Light exposure is a potent stimulus for egg laying. Decreasing light exposure often works as the most powerful management tool for quickly stopping excessive laying. The daily light exposure (including both natural light and artificial light) should be decreased to eight hours or less. This can be accomplished by covering the cage or by establishing separate sleeping quarters that the bird is moved to at its “bedtime”.
This decrease in light exposure can be done at once, without gradually tapering. The bird should be maintained at this amount of light until laying has been controlled for a month or more, and then a very gradual transition, over 3 to 4 months, can be made to 10 to 12 hours of light exposure per day. If the bird is then consistently maintained at this amount, light will likely become less and less of a stimulus, until it is not a factor at all.
REMOVING THE EGGS FROM THE CAGE Most birds will lay their average clutch size, stop laying and become broody; they will remain broody for a week or so past their usual incubation time. (Cockatiels, the most common species that we see with chronic egg laying, have an average clutch size of 4 to 7 and average incubation period of 12 to 18 days.) We usually recommend leaving the eggs in place, as long as they are not broken, until the bird loses interest. Many pet birds will not follow this plan, though, and will either not attend their eggs at all, or will continue laying well beyond their average clutch size (again, cockatiels are the #1 offenders). If this is the situation then the eggs should be removed as they are laid.
SOCIAL LIFE Birds are highly social creatures and will readily bond with their owners as tightly as they would other birds in a flock. Some birds will view one or more of their owners as potential mates, and this situation will be a reproductive stimulus. Owners should avoid petting, stroking, massaging, kissing and cuddling their bird. Again, the intent is not to prevent the bird and owner from bonding; inappropriate contact should be replaced with positive, acceptable contact. Training commands and tricks is excellent bird - owner interaction. A few training websites are:
Barbara Heidenreich’s Force Free Animal Training at: www.BarbarasFFAT.com
Parrot Training at: www.GoodBirdInc.com and http://www.goodbirdinc.com/
Lafeber at: http://lafeber.com/pet-birds/avian-expert-articles/
ACTIVITY / EXERCISE Studies of wild parrots demonstrate that they spend close to 80% of their waking hours foraging for food. An abundant, readily available supply of desirable food that does not have to be extensively foraged for (for pet birds, their food bowl) may also be a reproductive trigger. Redirecting the pet bird’s mental and physical energy into foraging activity can have the effect of decreasing its reproductive drive. Some foraging ideas:
Hide food in toys or boxes or wrap it in paper
Divide food into different bowls that are distributed throughout the bird’s environment,
and randomly change the location of the bowls
Wedge pieces of nuts and other treats into holes of wooden or plastic toys; hang
Weave greens into the cage bars
Mix food into toys and other inedible items
An excellent DVD, “Captive Foraging” by Dr M. Scott Echols
Providing as large an area as possible for flight, playing and exploring is also helpful. Simply providing the area is not enough for some birds, who need to be encouraged to explore and “taught” to play.
Medications known as GnRH agonists can potentially help control excessive egg laying but, used alone, they will never cure the problem.
There are two forms of GnRH agonist. One, leuprolide acetate, is an injection given a muscle. The starting protocol is one injection once every 2 to 3 weeks for 3 injections. The response of individual birds is highly variable: some hens cease laying after 3 injections, some cease after more than 3 injections, and some never stop no matter how many injections are given; of the hens who cease laying, some stop for a few weeks, some for a few months and some for as long as two years. Leuprolide acetate is very safe. We do not try it often, however, because of cost: at this time (2015), the smallest amount available for purchase costs more than $1300.
The other form of GnRH agonist is the sustained release implant deslorelin. Deslorelin implants are about the size of a grain of rice, and we place them under the skin or muscle of the breast while the patient is briefly under general anesthesia. Deslorelin implants are somewhat more likely to be effective than leuprolide acetate; when the implant works the effects will last from 3 months to a year or more. Side effects are uncommon, but one rare side effect is worth mentioning: some parrots will self-mutilate at the site of the implant, and they will continue to do this even if the implant is removed. The current cost is about $150 for the implant and $150 for the procedure to place it. One significant drawback that limits their use is that deslorelin implants are only approved for use in ferrets in the United States; their use in birds is illegal.
Spaying a dog or cat is removing it’s uterus and ovaries. Birds cannot be spayed: it is possible to remove a bird’s uterus, but it is not possible to remove the ovary because of its close anatomical relationship to several large blood vessels.
Removal of the uterus is an intricate procedure with a high rate of complications, including death during or soon after surgery. The smaller the bird, the more likely it is to suffer surgical problems. Birds that successfully have their uteruses removed can still suffer significant reproductive tract problems, including ovarian cysts and tumors, and serious inflammation and infection of their coelom (abdomen) if a follicle leaves the ovary and becomes loose in it.
Yarmouth Veterinary Center
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