Egg Binding in Snakes

An egg bound Corn Snake
An egg bound Corn Snake

Breeding snakes is a rewarding experience. It is a challenging and exciting part of keeping snakes. With reproduction in livestock, in this case snakes, there will be times when complications occur and in this article we will talk about egg binding, which is a fairly common reproductive problem when it comes to breeding snakes.

Different species of snakes will have different gestation, pre-lay shed and laying times, so it is important that you make sure that you do your research so that you understand their breeding and laying cycle so that you can catch any problems as early as possible. In this article I will use the average breeding cycle of the colubrids that we work with. After mating it generally takes around 60 days for the snakes to lay their eggs, two weeks prior to laying eggs they will go through a pre-lay shed. At this time it is important that you make sure all your temperatures are correct and that the environmental conditions are correct for egg laying. It is very important that you have an egg laying container, which can be a 2 litre ice-cream tub with a hole large enough for the snake to climb into cut into the lid. Make sure your egg laying container is spacious enough for the size of the snake you are breeding, as you don’t want the snake to be uncomfortable. Inside, fill the container just below half full with moist sphagnum moss or peat moss. Be careful not to make it too wet, it must just be damp. Also remember that it dries out fairly quickly so just check it and feel it every few days. After all this is in check, it’s all about just waiting, disturbing the female as little as possible, and just letting nature take its course. Almost all of the time all will go well and your snake will lay a beautiful clutch of eggs.

What is egg binding?
Egg binding, also referred to as Dystocia, is when your snake is unable to pass either any of its eggs, or it may pass a number of eggs and a few or one egg may be stuck or unable to be laid. Back in the day we used to just leave our snakes and if the female had one or two eggs left in her they would seem to just pass them out over time as a hard yellowish/brown egg and all would be fine. Those snakes that had complete clutches stuck would almost always die if they were not taken to the vet to get the clutch surgically removed. Today we take a more proactive approach, which we will discuss.

Is my snake egg bound?
Sometimes it is very easy to tell and other times a bit more difficult. It easy to tell once she has laid a few eggs and then the remaining eggs get stuck. When a female lays the eggs should be laid in a constant succession one after the other. If a female lays a few and you can still see she has eggs inside her and they are not passed within 24 hours she is mostly likely egg bound. In this case you will clearly be able to see the bulges of the eggs that are stuck inside her. When a female doesn’t lay at all it can be a bit confusing as you never know if she is still going to lay or if she is egg bound, this is why it is important to know roughly how long after the pre-lay shed they are expected to lay, if it goes a few weeks after this lay date then there is a good chance she is egg bound.

If there are one or a few eggs stuck in her and they are near the vent then we can sometimes just gently massage and push the egg or eggs out. If we feel they are not moving or have swollen to a point where they cannot be passed through the vent then we take a needle and insert it through the snakes belly into the egg and remove some of the yolk of the egg (this process is known as aspiration). This will cause the egg to collapse and then the egg can be messaged out or the female will then be able to pass the collapsed egg by herself. Sometimes you just have to aspirate the egg closest to the vent which might be blocking the other eggs and then she can pass all the eggs, if there is no further movement of the eggs than you will aspirate them all.

If a full clutch is stuck in a snake in most cases the safest option is to just take the snake to your vet and they can surgically remove the eggs. That being said, I have known of many breeders that have used the aspiration method which has helped save the snake.

So how does aspiration work? Sometimes, an egg or eggs can be imploded, making the eggs smaller and easier to pass. You can use a needle (18 gauge) and syringe, and isolate each egg and insert the needle into it to extract the contents, which will causes the egg to implode. Often, this alone is enough to allow the snake to pass her eggs and is the method we use the most. You can insert the needle through the belly of the snake or the side of the snake in-between the scales where they are stretched the most and into the egg. We make sure to disinfect the injection area before we insert the needle with an iodine swab or any antiseptic swab you can get at your local chemist. When aspirating caution must be taken to not allow any of the egg contents to escape into the coelomic cavity of the snake. Once done just place the female back into her cage and often the female will pass the shrunken egg within a day or two.

Aspiration must be done as soon as possible (some say within 48 hours) after natural laying attempts. After a short time the contents of the eggs themselves begin to harden, making aspiration impossible. If the eggs are not expelled within 48 hours of aspiration, they must be surgically removed.

I have tried it once with no success (maybe I didn’t have the right doses etc.) but some vets and breeders suggest you tube the snake with calcium and this will give the snake extra strength to pass the egg. This is only performed if it is known that there is no obstruction that would prevent the egg from passing out the cloaca normally.

The best thing is to try and catch egg binding as soon as you can. If eggs are left for too long then they may harden and become jelly-like, which could then cause infection resulting in the death of your snake. Eggs that we have removed after egg binding by assistance in our experience our have started to decay, we often just put them in the incubator in the hope they might be okay but we have never had success with saving egg bound eggs. Don’t write the eggs off straight away – if they look okay just try them and see if you have success.

Will it happen again?
Yes and no. I have had both experiences. I had a female Apricot Pueblan that laid an egg and had six eggs stuck inside her. I had them removed by our local vet and the next year the same thing happened and I had to get them removed again. I then sold this snake to a friend to keep as a pet and not to breed. The same thing happened with one or two other snakes, and I have had people experiencing the same problem with pythons and other species of snakes. These snakes most likely have a deformity in their reproductive tract, which prevents them from laying.

Then on the other hand many of my snakes that have had only a few eggs stuck inside them which were passed naturally a few weeks later by them or that I messaged out or helped the female pass via aspiration have gone on to the next year and many other years after that to lay beautiful clutches of eggs.

With egg binding prevention is better than cure. Make sure your snakes are healthy and at the right age for breeding. It is important to make sure they are fed healthy rodents. Extra vitamin and calcium supplementation for females during breeding season is never a bad idea and can only benefit them. There are many people that are also over eager and can feed their snakes too much, causing them to become obese. Snakes that are overweight are likely to have poor fertility and health issues when it comes to breeding. Make sure you know their breeding dates and pre-lay shed dates and make sure you have a good egg laying box with a nice damp substrate and that your temperatures are correct. By doing all this you have the best chance of avoiding egg binding. Sometimes even when you do everything right egg binding can still occur and then you can take the steps discussed in this article to do your best to help your female. I hope this article will allow you to better understand egg binding and will help you to know what to do if it does occur.

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