Updated August 25, 2021
It may come as a surprise, but there’s quite a bit to consider if you care for individuals who are laying eggs. Did you know that some individuals may need additional support or medical interventions to ensure their health and well-being? And have you thought about what you are going to do with the eggs your residents lay? In this resource we’ll take a closer look at the needs of residents who are laying eggs and discuss practices sanctuaries may want to consider implementing to help keep them healthy and comfortable.
While chickens are obviously not the only sanctuary residents who lay eggs, we’ll start by focusing on them.
The Toll Of Modern Egg Production
While it may seem like producing hundreds of eggs is a natural phenomenon of a hen’s life, this development is actually due to human intervention. Modern domesticated chickens have been selectively bred for their egg-laying capabilities in order to produce a dramatic number of eggs in a year. Whereas the domesticated chicken’s wild relative, the Red Junglefowl, rarely lays more than 20 eggs a year, a modern “egg-laying” hen, such as a Leghorn or hybrid red layer, has been bred to lay between 250 and over 300 large eggs in a year.
It takes between 24 and 26 hours for an egg to be formed internally. This means that some hens can easily be in the midst of producing an egg year round- a highly taxing, painful, and dangerous process; egg overproduction can lead to a number of fatal reproductive tract diseases such as tumors in the reproductive tract, oviductal impaction, egg binding , malnutrition, and osteoporosis. Although a domesticated chicken can live on average between ten and fifteen years, hens bred for use in industrial egg-laying facilities typically live closer to five years due to health complications associated with egg laying.
As guardians of chickens who lay eggs, there are a few things to consider:
Explore The Potential Benefits Of Implantation
Implanting a hen with Suprelorin can, anecdotally, help chickens live a much longer, healthier life than their non-implanted peers. Although not a lifetime cure and not inexpensive, implantation gives hens a break from the taxing cycle of egg production and can also give them an opportunity to heal from health challenges exacerbated by frequent laying. Administered under the skin, this rice grain-sized implant prevents specific hormones from being released in a hen’s body, which prevents eggs from being produced. It is similar in function and concept to a human’s implant-style birth control system. You can read more about Suprelorin in our veterinarian-reviewed resource, here.
Feed The Eggs Back To Individuals Who Would Benefit From Them
Some sanctuaries choose to feed their chicken residents’ eggs back to the hens at the sanctuary who are actively laying eggs or to other chicken residents who would benefit from additional protein. While this has been a common practice in the sanctuary community, the truth is that we just don’t know if this is a good long-term practice or not. While eggs can offer additional protein and other nutrients to your residents, and many chickens really enjoy them, it’s important to consider whether or not these additional nutrients will be beneficial or potentially detrimental to your residents’ wellbeing. Unfortunately, most studies about chicken nutrition are focused on exploitation rather than what they need to thrive. Therefore, we don’t know the long-term impact feeding eggs has on different individuals. If you’re considering feeding eggs back to your residents, we recommend asking yourself the following:
- Is the individual a large breed chicken? If they’re otherwise healthy, they probably won’t benefit from the additional calories and nutrients in eggs, and the additional calories, fat, and protein could result in unhealthy weight gain and weight-related issues. We recommend avoiding feeding eggs to large breed chickens as a general rule.
- Is the individual currently laying eggs? While hens who are actively laying eggs may benefit from the additional nutrients since egg production is so taxing, healthy chickens who are not laying likely do not need the additional calories, protein, fat, and calcium in eggs (assuming the shell is included). Also consider the potential implications of providing residents with a diet that is higher in calories, protein, fat, and cholesterol than what they may actually need.
- Is the individual sick or recovering from illness? If someone is reluctant to eat because they aren’t feeling well, eggs could play a role in enticing them to eat (in addition to working with a veterinarian to diagnose and, if possible, treat the condition) and could be a good source of nutrients if they aren’t eating well.
- Is the individual molting? Molting requires a lot of energy. Feathers are made primarily of protein, so individuals who are molting may benefit from the additional calories and protein in eggs.
- Is the individual on a diet formulated for “laying hens” that has additional calcium? If they are and they aren’t laying (due to sex, season, age, or implantation) they probably don’t need even more calcium. If you determine they would benefit from the additional calories or protein in eggs but don’t need the additional calcium, you could opt to feed back the egg without the shell.
If you’ve decided that some of your residents would benefit from egg added to their diet, you’ll need to determine which eggs are safe for your residents to consume. We don’t recommend feeding eggs from new residents who are still in quarantine or from those who are in isolation due to contagious disease to other residents. It’s also important to consider the often overlooked concern of drug residue in eggs. If an individual is on medication, their eggs may not be safe to feed back to anyone (including themselves) because with many medications, traces of the drug can be found in eggs both during and for a period of time after treatment. By feeding eggs that contain drug residue to your residents, you’ll be exposing them to low doses of the medication. This could have serious complications, especially when it comes to antibiotics because it can contribute to the growing issues of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. We recommend you do not feed back eggs from chickens on medication absent specific guidance from your veterinarian that this is safe. We also recommend consulting your veterinarian with respect to withdrawal periods for feeding back eggs from individuals on medication, as egg withdrawal periods will vary depending on the medication. Be sure to discard eggs deemed unsafe due to drug residue concerns. In settings where you are unable to identify which egg belongs to which hen, you’ll need to discard all of the eggs just to be safe.
If you decide a particular individual or group will benefit from eating eggs and have identified which eggs are safe to feed to them, a popular method is to cook up some scrambled eggs or to hard boil and smash the eggs. Some folks add in other tasty treats such as cooked veggies or grains, but others stick to just egg. Many people smash up the eggshell along with the egg (oven drying eggshell and then crumbling over food would be another option) in order to provide additional calcium to hens who are actively laying, though it’s important to point out that some veterinarians recommend additional supplementation on top of this, even if hens who are laying are on a diet formulated for actively laying hens (and, therefore, fortified with calcium).
Feed Eggs To Wildlife
Some sanctuaries decide to feed some or all of their residents’ eggs to the wildlife who call the sanctuary home. This must be done carefully so as not to encourage predators to come close to resident living areas, but putting eggs further out from where sanctuary residents reside can allow wildlife to utilize the eggs if they wish without encouraging them to come into resident spaces. Some caregivers feel the residents’ eggs are not theirs to give away, even to wildlife- this decision will depend on your sanctuary’s Philosophy of Care. Other sanctuaries may feel they cannot feed the eggs to wildlife without attracting predators who otherwise would not spend time on sanctuary grounds. If you do opt to put eggs out for wildlife, also consider the risk of drug residue- eggs from hens on medications might be best composted or thrown away.
Compost/ Toss Them
For some folks, this option may initially feel wasteful, but that has a lot to do with the fact that most of us have grown up in a society that tells us that eggs from certain individuals are commodities. In reality, just because someone lays an egg does not mean we have to find a way to use it (whether that’s feeding it back to a resident or to wildlife).
Considerations For Other Egg-Laying Sanctuary Bird Residents
Of course, chickens aren’t the only sanctuary residents who lay eggs. While we often talk about the unnatural amount of eggs domesticated chickens lay, it’s important to note that some breeds of domesticated ducks lay a similar number of eggs. For example, Khaki Campbell ducks typically lay between 250 and 340 eggs per year, compared to a mallard who will lay up to 13 eggs once or twice a year. When determining what to do with eggs from other sanctuary residents, the above possibilities can also be applied to other bird residents. When considering whether or not to feed eggs back to other bird residents, we recommend asking yourself similar questions to those described above for chickens in order to determine if certain residents would benefit from having their eggs fed back to them and which eggs are safe to feed to them. A few additional things to keep in mind:
- Just as we don’t recommend feeding eggs to large breed chickens, we also do not recommend feeding eggs to large breed turkeys as a general rule. Much like with large breed chickens, large breed turkeys must have their diet managed and their weight closely monitored to prevent obesity and obesity-related health issues. Keep in mind that some breeds of ducks who are typically raised for their flesh are also prone to obesity and obesity-related health issues, and while they many not need their diet managed to the same extent as large breed chickens and large breed turkeys, they probably don’t need the additional fat, calories, and protein in eggs.
- The nutritional make-up of eggs from different species varies- duck eggs, for example, have more protein and are much higher in cholesterol and fat than chicken eggs. While some sanctuaries may collect everyone’s eggs and cook them all together to feed back to their residents, other sanctuaries feel more comfortable only feeding residents eggs they themself laid or other residents of the same species laid.
You might also consider implantation for other bird residents. Depending on the size of the individual, they may require two implants rather than one, and you may find that the implant wears off more quickly in some species or individuals.
Ensure Residents Who Are Actively Laying Are Getting Enough Nutrition
Because laying eggs, especially an unnatural number of eggs, is a taxing process, it’s important to ensure that your residents who are actively laying eggs are getting all the nutrients they need. You can read more about dietary considerations in our species-specific Daily Diet, Treats, And Supplementation resources.
Egg Residue Considerations During The Treatment Of Backyard Poultry | FARAD (Non-Compassionate Source)
Khaki Campbell Duck | The Nature Conservancy (Non-Compassionate Source)