Female egg-laying reptiles can produce eggs even when a male is not present, so all females are at risk of being unable to pass an egg that has formed, a condition known as egg binding. Species that produce live young can also have difficulty giving birth, also known as dystocia.
Symptoms and Types
Females that are struggling to pass their eggs or give birth often act restless and repeatedly attempt to find places to dig. Straining and a swollen cloaca -- the common chamber into which the intestinal and urogenital tracts discharge -- may also be observed. As their condition worsens, reptiles become depressed and lethargic and tissue may protrude from the cloaca.
Egg binding can have a variety of causes including:
- Lack of a suitable nesting site
- Weak muscles from lack of exercise
- Misshapen or large eggs
- Injuries to the pelvis or other disorders that narrow the passageway for eggs or young
- Improper temperature gradients or humidity levels within the terrarium
Performing X-rays, ultrasounds, or abdominal exams on the reptile can help a veterinarian confirm that eggs or young are present within the reproductive tract and possibly determine why problems have arisen; blood work is also helpful in some cases. Once pregnancy is confirmed, it can sometimes still be difficult to differentiate between normal laying or birthing behavior and dystocia. Occassionally, a female will lay a few eggs and rest for a period of time, but the process should be complete in less than 48 hours. If the reptile is beginning to look stressed or unwell, intervention is necessary.
If the female appears to be in good condition, providing it with a suitable nesting site in a properly heated and humidified terrarium and leaving it undisturbed may be all that is required to stimulate the birthing process. In other cases, eggs may be gently massaged out of the reproductive tract or hormone injections given to stimulate labor. If these efforts are unsuccessful, collapsing the eggs using a needle and syringe or surgery to remove eggs (or fetuses) may be necessary.
Living and Management
Dystocia can be a life-threatening condition, but if a reptile is in good overall condition and it is treated rapidly, recovery is likely. Females that have had difficulties laying eggs or delivering young in the past are prone to having similar problems in the future. Housing these animals in enclosures that encourage physical activity, providing proper nesting sites, humidity levels and temperature gradients, feeding them well, and keeping them healthy can help prevent egg binding and dystocia from becoming a recurrent problem.