I had a sick ewe a few weeks ago. I noticed her on a Friday night, doing a strange stand-up, sit-down routine multiple times, implying rumen discomfort. I finished my chores and went to check on her, thermometer and antibiotics in hand. She had a temp, so I gave her an injection. I could feel and hear a lot of foam in her rumen when I kneaded her belly, so I went back to the house and retrieved a mix of olive oil, baking soda and water to help her stomach settle out. The oil theoretically breaks the surface tension of liquid in the rumen and allows the bubbles to dissipate; and the baking soda raises the pH, in the case of a too-acidic stomach. I’ve had this work within minutes on small lambs with frothy bloat.

The ewe was down and let me work on her without objection. I thought she’d look better by morning when the bloat relieved, but she didn’t. She was able to burp, and was pooping normally, so that was a good sign. She was still down, her legs like wet noodles. She could move them, but could not bear her own weight. I carried her to the ATV and hauled her up to the barn, and she rode listless, without objection, on my lap. A very pretty ewe with lots of flashy, white markings, and one of my best metrics-wise from this year, out of one of my favorite ewes. Murphy’s Law: if one gets sick, it’s always gotta be a good one. But maybe I caught it in time.

I gave her everything I could think of: Nutridrench, Pepto Bismol, vitamin B injections, a pain reliever and anti-inflammatory. The floppy legs and laid-back attitude were strange- could this be grass tetany or hypocalcemia? Really bizarre to think, this time of year on a five month old ewelamb, and just on grass and grass hay. But, grass does do weird things sometimes when it’s stressed from drought. And there was a change in diet, adding  hay. I had calcium injections on hand, for treating ewes with hypocalcemia caused by the stress of late pregnancy. I gave her that, and she seemed to rally; she was very thirsty and drank electrolyte water. Later she declined again, and started having tremors, so I gave her a second dose of calcium. By evening, her head was perky and she looked alert, though still recumbent. She’s turning the corner, I thought.

But the next morning she was worse again, could hardly hold her head up, and more tremors. I did more reading, and stopped by the feed store and found a CMPK (Calcium-Magnesium-Phosphorous-Potassium) supplement, so thought I’d try that, in case hypomagnesia was the problem . After this injection, she seemed to rally gain, and eagerly munched on hay. Ok, now, she’s turned the corner, I thought. But by evening, she’d declined again. Running out of options, I gave her a second dose of the CMPK, and another antibiotic injection, plus a drench of kefir, more Nutridrench, and vitamin C plus zinc. The latter because I started to question, what if it’s toxicity from eating some weird plant? I really should have done C and Z earlier, since those are harmless otherwise. Her fever had dissipated, so the antibiotics were working, at least.

I looked at a fecal sample from her- her manure looked good until Sunday, when she started having diarrhea. She had 165 eggs in the slide, which is a little high for my sheep, but normally I don’t get concerned until they’re over 200 eggs and also skinny. She’d been de-wormed once this summer, and she was in good flesh. Her color was good, no sign of anemia.

I checked on her every few hours all weekend, making sure she was bolstered and sitting upright to keep her rumen semi-functional, and constantly offering her food and water. Dealing with sick animals takes so much labor, but of course, you try everything  you can. I didn’t bother calling a vet, her symptoms were so all-over-the-map, I figured they wouldn’t know any more than I did, or have anything to try I hadn’t tried already, (other than intensive care, and that’s not an option for production sheep).

She was dead by Monday morning. I opened her up when I got home from work, and found dark purple lungs (they should be pink); so she had pneumonia, for one. Her rumen was also shot- the papillae were all peeled back, as with acidosis. I can’t imagine why she would get this on forage, that’s a disease of grain-fed sheep. Her liver looked good, so toxicity seemed less likely. Her kidneys maybe looked a little fat, pale, and splotchy- but not dramatically so. Enterotoxaemia (pulpy kidney)? Again, really weird on modest feed, but it is known to occur on the best growing lambs. I put the gory entrails photos at the end, if you are curious…

I sent a liver sample to the lab to look at her minerals, and they were wild, all over the place and inconsistent with anything else I’ve seen here. Too low in copper, iron, potassium, moly, sulfur, zinc and selenium; too high in calcium, manganese and sodium. So I think she was also dealing with some kind of metabolic imbalance. High sodium happens when sheep run out of water, and I’m pretty diligent about checking the tanks daily; but perhaps if she felt bad, she wasn’t bothering to drink adequately.

So, I’m puzzled. She may also have had something rare, like meningitis. Any other ideas? But judging by all the things wrong with her, there was no saving her, she was  train wreck. Maybe it was just bad luck, a lethal combination of more than one life-threatening illness all compounded on one animal, during a stressful feed change time and strange weather patterns. She’d also been vaccinated for CL a week prior, and chlamydia about three weeks prior: so yet more immune challenges (the downside of vaccines: they don’t come without risks…).

Of course I watched the rest of the flock like a hawk in the subsequent weeks, but all the other sheep seem fine, so hopefully this was just a one-off! I haven’t lost an adult or semi-adult sheep since last summer when my newly purchased fancy ram died suddenly, so I guess I was due to take a hit!

Necropsy photos follow.

Purple lungs (the left lung had more healthy pink tissue than the right):

Plump and pale kidney:

Nice liver (the splotches are debris sticking to it, not defects):

Rumen with papillae peeling off in a big string: