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Sheep special: Key diseases for ewes and lambs at lambing time

With the busiest period of sheep farming just around the corner, health planning now plays a crucial role in reducing lamb and ewe losses.

However, diseases do occur that cannot be planned for. Colin Greer, a vet at Abbey Veterinary Group in Paisley, says losses at lambing time can be significant, so trying to reduce these losses, meaning more lambs could be reared, can considerably improve the bottom line for farmers.

 

Hypothermia

 

One of the more common lambing conditions, hypothermia, is identified as a sub-normal body temperature and has three phases; mild, moderate and severe.

 

Mr Greer explains: “Hypothermia occurs when the lamb’s body is no longer able to maintain normal temperature, causing problems with the central nervous system, while also affecting the heart, blood flow, breathing and the immune system. Lambs get cold very quickly unless they are well fed.”

 

Mr Greer adds that a lamb’s body temperature is normally in the range of 39degC to 40degC, so, if the temperature falls below this, then the lamb is hypothermic. If the lamb’s temperature is below 37degC then it is classified as having severe hypothermia.

 

He says: “Signs of hypothermia will normally present with the lamb being lethargic, tucked up and not interested in being with their mother. Unfortunately, if the hypothermia is so severe, then you will notice that the lamb is flat and may not be able to maintain its head in an upright position.”

 

Early treatment in hypothermia is essential, but Mr Greer says treating a hypothermic lamb will depend on temperature, age and their ability to swallow.

 

“If the lamb is suffering from a mild hypothermia with a temperature of 37degC to 3degC, make sure the lamb is dry, feed and then keep warm.

 

“If the lamb is suffering from severe hypothermia with a temperature of less than 37degC, and the lamb is more than five hours old and can swallow, then feed with a stomach tube, dry the lamb and keep warm.

 

"If the temperature is severe and the lamb is unable to swallow, then inject the lamb with glucose, dry and keep warm.

 

“Finally, if the lamb is less than five hours old then feed with a stomach tube then keep warm and dry.”

 

Mr Greer adds that treating lambs for hypothermia is all about getting an energy source into the lamb before trying to warm the lamb up.

 

“This can be achieved by using a stomach tube to feed colostrum or if the lamb is having difficulty in swallowing, then injections of glucose will be needed.

 

“Prevention of hypothermia can be achieved by making sure lambs are well fed, by providing extra shelter, by bringing smaller lambs inside and providing extra checks if the weather is severe.”

 

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Joint/navel ill

This is an infection of the navel or joints which is caused by different bacteria.

 

Mr Greer says in the first few days of life the infection is connected to hygiene.

 

“The main signs to look for are that the lamb is dull, that one or more joints may be swollen and the navel is wet and swollen.”

 

He explains that treatment involves antibiotics and anti-inflammatories:“An antibiotic spray may also be used on the navels.

 

"If a lamb is a severe case, then a veterinary surgeon will be required to drain and flush any infected areas.

 

“Prevention comes down to having good hygiene during lambing season, to ensure enough colostrum has been taken and to make sure that the navel is covered with a strong iodine solution, as soon as possible, after the lamb has been born.”

Watery Mouth

Watery mouth is caused by an E. coli infection within the first few hours of the lamb being born.

 

Mr Greer says there are two main causes of this disease; the bacteria that are ingested and the quality of good colostrum the lamb has taken in.

 

However, he adds it is important to remember, that the lamb can get the bacteria from the ewe’s fleece or the bedding.

 

He says: “If the lamb has not taken on enough colostrum, the bacteria will increase, before dying and releasing a harmful toxin. If these toxins are unable to be destroyed by the liver, then it can lead to endotoxaemia, which causes the watery mouth condition.

 

“If the lamb has watery mouth then you may see signs like dullness, not feeding, excessive salivation, gas in the gut known as rattle belly, and you may notice scour. In more extreme cases, the lamb may collapse and die if indicators are not noticed early enough.”

 

Treatment can be a success, according to Mr Greer, but it does depend on how quickly the signs are noticed.

 

“It is vital to support the lamb, including hydrating with electrolytes, and with the use antibiotics, which can also be helpful.

 

“Ideally, prevention can be implemented early; by stopping lambs swallowing large amounts of bacteria and ensuring the lamb takes in good colostrum.

 

“The ewes should be in a good enough condition to produce this colostrum; with good hygiene measures and by paying extra attention to lambs that are born as multiples, or those born to poorer ewes.”

Ewe health

Mr Greer says a ewe’s health is also important during lambing, with problems arising from twin lamb disease, hypocalcaemia, and vaginal prolapse.

 

He says twin lamb disease, also known as pregnancy toxaemia affects the ewe in very late pregnancy. It occurs due to inadequate energy intake by the ewe to meet the ever-changing energy requirements of their growing unborn.

 

“The ewe will become lethargic, show a lack of appetite and may appear blind. If the ewe has pregnancy toxaemia then an oral propylene glycol should be given, alongside good quality feeds.

 

“Prevention of twin lamb disease can be given by correct nutrition in the last months of pregnancy, and condition scoring to predict the ewe’s requirements.”

 

Mr Greer says hypocalcaemia occurs after a period of stress and is caused by low levels of blood calcium.

 

He says: “Milk fever can be confused with twin lamb disease but the treatment for both is very different, even though it can co-exist with twin lamb disease. My best advice is to treat for both.

 

“Becoming unsteady on their feet, muscle weakness, an increased respiratory rate and bloating can be signs that a ewe has milk fever. Treatment for a ewe should be an injection of calcium. Response to this is normally rapid.”

 

He adds that avoiding stressors in late pregnancy, for example worming or vaccinating, can help prevent milk fever.

 

A vaginal prolapse is a protrusion of the vagina that occurs before lambing and Mr Greer says the risk of the ewe getting a prolapse depends on factors such as being overweight and ewes which are carrying multiple lambs.

 

“The treatment of a prolapse involves washing the area thoroughly and inspecting for damage.

 

Gently try to push the prolapse back into place. If this is unsuccessful, then a veterinary surgeon may need to replace the prolapse, and stitch it in place.

 

“Prevention of a vaginal prolapse, requires avoiding the ewe from getting overweight and culling any ewes that have already prolapsed.

Colostrum

  • Colostrum plays a huge role in lambing health, and ideally lambs should get a 50ml/kg dose of colostrum in the first two hours of life.
  • Then within the first 24 hours, the lambs should receive a 10 per cent dosage of their bodyweight.
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