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Stay vigilant for twin lamb disease as critical stage of pregnancy approaches

With in-lamb ewes in generally good order and scanning results high, with plenty of triplets and even more quads than normal, farmers are being urged to keep an eye on their sheep as we head into the most critical stage of pregnancy. Louise Hartley reports.

Louise   Hartley

Louise   Hartley
Persistent rainfall has caused grass to be low in dry matter (DM), meaning some ewes are struggling to achieve the required energy intakes and could be at risk of twin lamb disease.

According to Richard Lewis, blended feeds product manager at Clynderwen and Cardiganshire Farmers co-operative based in Pembrokeshire, farmers in his area have been reporting high incidences of twin lamb disease and should therefore remain vigilant over the next few weeks.

Twin lamb disease is a result of both undernourished and occasionally over-fat ewes carrying multiple lambs. As the growth of these unborn lambs accelerates in the latter stages of pregnancy (typically 70 per cent of foetal growth occurs in the last six weeks), ewes must work to meet the energy demand by breaking down their own fat reserves in the liver into components called ketones.

If the energy shortfall in the diet is too great, ewes will mobilise too much fat, causing a poisonous level of ketones in the blood, known as ketosis. The quicker the condition is recognised the more chance there is of saving the ewe and lambs. It is vital farmers, handle and condition score ewes to monitor their status.

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Richard Lewis

Mr Lewis has received nearly 20 phone calls in the last 14 days from farmers reporting early incidences of twin lamb disease.

He says: “With a mild winter there has been an abundance of grass in fields across the UK and in general, with ewes being in good condition, many farmers have not felt the need to supply additional forage and the usual energy supplements.

“However, this year we have had one of the wettest years on record, meaning although grass cover is still good for the time of year, farmers are under the assumption extra feed has not been needed.



“Due to the low DM of the grass, ewes are struggling to eat enough forage to achieve the required energy intakes, and could be at risk of twin lamb disease.”

Reports of higher scanning percentages in flocks also mean farmers should be vigilant, as ewes with multiple lambs will be susceptible to the disease.

Knife edge

“Cases of twin lamb disease can almost guarantee the nutritional status of the flock is also on a knife edge,” says Mr Lewis.

“Farmers need to get their feeding strategy sorted and tailor rations accordingly. The easiest way to plug that energy gap right now is to feed energy dense feeds such as lick buckets, blocks or liquid molasses and introduce compound feeds accordingly.”

With many Basic Payments yet to arrive, farmers may also have been holding off buying their usual compound feed requirements, says Mr Lewis.


How to tackle twin lamb disease


Dr Phill Scott, University of Edinburgh and contributor to the National Animal Disease Information Service’s regular health bulletin provides advice on dealing with twin lamb disease.

Ovine pregnancy toxaemia (twin lamb disease) is most commonly encountered in lowground flocks, affecting older ewes carrying three or more lambs during the last month of gestation.

On farms which rely almost exclusively upon pasture-based systems with little supplementary feeding, twin lamb disease is seen in severely underfed twin-bearing ewes.

It occurs following a period of severe energy shortage, whether the result of poor roughage quality, inadequate concentrate allowance or high foetal demand, but clinical signs can be precipitated by a sudden stressful event such as adverse weather conditions, handling, vaccination or housing.

Clinical signs

Early clinical signs include disorientation leading to isolation from the remainder of the flock. Over the next 24-48 hours, affected ewes become increasingly dull and depressed and are easily caught because they are blind.

Head pressing into the corner of a pen is a common finding. Continuous fine muscle tremors may be observed around the muzzle and affecting the ears.
Ewes often become recumbent with the hind legs held out behind the ewe. An inability to stand leads to urine scalding of the ewe’s skin and fleece.


The disease’s response to treatment is generally poor, even when clinical signs are detected early.

Housed ewes should be penned separately and offered palatable feeds to promote appetite, and fresh water.

If ewes are housed, turnout to good pasture may promote appetite although such grazing is seldom available.



Treatment with propylene glycol, intravenous glucose injection, and glucocorticoid injection is successful in about 30 per cent of cases which are still able to walk when treatments commence.#

Ewes with pregnancy toxaemia must be checked at least twice daily for signs of abortion/lambing because they may be too weak to expel the foetuses/lambs. Failure to expel dead foetuses leads to them becoming rotten, releasing poisons into the ewe’s system which leads to death.



Those ewes which do recover from pregnancy toxaemia are rarely able to nurse a single lamb and should generally be culled once they have regained body condition. Wool slip occurs commonly in these recovered ewes four to six weeks after abortion/lambing.

Ewes with multiple lambs must be fed appropriate levels of high quality roughages and supplementary concentrate feeding during the last six weeks of pregnancy.

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