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Dystocia in Reptiles

Egg binding, fetal retention, egg retention or post-ovulatory stasis are all different terms used to describe dystocia.


Egg binding, fetal retention, egg retention or post-ovulatory stasis are all different terms used to describe dystocia.

What Is Dystocia

Dystocia is when the reptile is not capable of properly passing her eggs through the oviduct or cloaca.

Box Turtle Laying Eggs

What Causes Dystocia

Dystocia is extremely difficult to pinpoint the exact cause of since it can be a combination of ailments or maladies creating the issue. Parasites, improper diet, extreme stress, improper heating, inadequate or non present nesting sites, over-breeding, systemic infections and something as simple as an egg being too large to pass through the cloaca can cause dystocia. Malformed eggs are also accountable for a number of dystocia cases each year.

What Are the Signs of Dystocia

Egg binding affects all reptiles and isolating the signs of dystocia can be difficult as they differ between species.

Dystocia in Lizards

Many species of lizard can become gravid and carry unfertile eggs even though they have never bred before. It is also true that different species of lizard can retain sperm for extended periods of time, resulting in gravidity long after they had been introduced to a male. Both of the instances, also to include recently bred animals, can result in dystocia. For lizards, it is improper nesting sites that will often cause the species to retain the eggs. A typically healthy female may not be eating but will still remain active and will be alert. Lethargy is an indicator that your female may be experiencing issues of some sort as is noticeable depression. Excessive digging throughout the enclosure and visible straining may be observed as well. In some instances an egg at the cloaca may be observed.
A cloacal prolapse can also indicate dystocia in gravid females.
It will not be easy to spot dystocia so you will need to be vigilant. Lizards can often spiral downward quickly when they are egg-bound so a vet should be seen immediately if you suspect your female is retaining her eggs.

Dystocia in Snakes

Observing and identifying dystocia in snakes can be difficult. This is especially true for viviparous species since they will often retain the entire clutch. An oviparous snake species experiencing dystocia may be seen trying to lay eggs without success. The birthing efforts of the snake will be noticeable to those who have bred before but may be viewed as an uncomfortable writhing for the inexperienced. Cloacal - caudal swelling resulting from recent oviposition (repositioning of eggs for laying) may be observed to affirm unsuccessful lay attempts. A cloacal prolapse can also indicate dystocia in gravid females.

Dystocia in Turtles - Tortoises

Chelonians are one of the more difficult species to detect signs of dystocia in. Their shell blocks any visible signs of egg presence and this can result in the owner being completely unaware that they even have a gravid turtle or tortoise. Females seen excessively digging and making attempts at laying will indicate dystocia. In some instance a portion of a clutch may be laid with the female making attempts to lay additional eggs with no success. These cases make it extremely easy to notice the dystocia allowing for the owner to take immediate action and see a vet. A cloacal prolapse can also indicate dystocia in gravid females.

How Is Dystocia Diagnosed

Your vet may do an abdominal palpitation to look for and affirm the presence of eggs though affirmative diagnosis will require radiographs (x-rays) or even an ultrasound.

What Is the Treatment for Dystocia

Treatments for egg-binding will be determined on a case by case basis. Some cases will be rectified by lubricating the cloaca and applying physical manipulation of the eggs to help palpate them out the cloaca. This should not be done at home as oviduct rupturing or egg rupturing can easily occur resulting in the death of the reptile. Calcium gluconate or lactate may be administered with a treatment plan. Calcium glycerophosphate and lactate, combined with oxytocin (which is apparently a drug that is argued among practitioners for its effectiveness) may be administered. Some cases will require surgical removal if the eggs are not passed within a 24-72 hour window.

Iguana Spay - Stitches
Iguana Spay - Eggs Removed

Iguanas that have experienced egg binding can undergo being spayed. This will prevent future issues with dystocia. The above images depict an iguana who has undergone this procedure. During the procedure the eggs on the right were removed.

How Is Dystocia Prevented

As with most illnesses encountered by reptile hobbyists, prevention begins with proper husbandry and an adequate knowledge of the species. Supplying your reptile with proper care and adequate nesting areas is crucial as a preventative measure. You won't be able to prevent all cases of dystocia, so having a reptile vet you trust is a must.


Author: Richard Brooks
Turtle Egg - © Jarek Tuszynski [CC-BY-SA-3.0]
Iguana Spay Images - © Mindy Johnson
Mader, Douglas. Reptile Medicine and Surgery SE. Saunders, 2005.
Messonnier, Shawn. Common Reptile Diseases and Treatment. Blackwell Science, Inc., 1996.