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Hypocalcemia, Sudden Death, Osteoporosis, or Cage Layer Fatigue (Poultry)

By A. Gregorio Rosales, DVM, MS, PhD, DACPV, Vice President of Veterinary Services, Aviagen Inc.

Pullets or hens with insufficient dietary calcium, phosphorus, or vitamin D3 may die suddenly or be found paralyzed from hypocalcemia while shelling an egg. This may be associated with high production and withdrawal of calcium from bones for egg shell production, in which case the main lesion may be osteoporosis. At necropsy, there is an egg in the shell gland and the ova are active and fully developed. There are no other lesions, although medullary bone may be lacking. Paralyzed hens respond to calcium IV, and this response may be useful in diagnosis.

Osteoporosis is a major cause of death in high-production flocks. Hens with osteoporosis may show similar signs at necropsy, or the ova may be regressing with no egg in the oviduct. The femur is always fragile, and medullary bone is always absent in osteoporosis. These hens may also respond to calcium IV if there are no fractures of the legs or vertebrae. The use of large particle size calcium (limestone, oyster shell) in the diet may be beneficial. High rates of mortality due to fractures are common in birds affected with osteoporosis. This situation is more common in broiler breeder hens in slatted houses due to the trauma caused by jumping on and off the slats. Ruptured egg follicles indicating trauma can be found during necropsy examination of these birds.

A condition known as hypocalcemia or calcium tetany (paralysis) has been seen in modern or high-yielding broiler breeder hens. Signs such as panting, spread wings, and prostration may be seen in the early morning hours preceding paralysis and death by asphyxia. Careful postmortem examination reveals a fully active ovary and the presence of a partially or fully formed egg in the shell gland in the absence of other lesions. This indicates that the hen used all available calcium from the bloodstream in an effort to complete the egg shell. The condition is common in flocks with poor body weight uniformity that are fed high-calcium diets in the weeks before the onset of lay and brought into production by drastic increases in day length and feed allocation. Hypocalcemia can be prevented by management practices that promote body weight uniformity and avoid excessive/premature allocation of high-calcium diets and light stimulation. Mortality can be reduced by the administration (“topping of the feed”) of 5 g of oyster shell per hen for 3 consecutive days, and addition of vitamin D3 to the drinking water. This treatment should be suspended for 3 days and then repeated. Severe cases will require continual treatment for 2–3 wk (3 days of treatment followed by 3 days without). Feeding of recommended levels of calcium, using large-particle-size calcium, and providing adequate ventilation and cooling are helpful to prevent or reduce the incidence of this condition.

Mortality and the presence of an egg in the shell gland also can be caused by a condition referred to as sudden death syndrome, first reported in Australia. This is believed to be caused by marginal levels of potassium and phosphorus in the diet, resulting in cardiomyopathy.