Here’s my first dead lamb of the season. (Warning: this post has images of internal organs.) This is the part you never think of when you first get into raising animals. Of course you just visualize the miracle of birth, cute lambs prancing about; and, if any problems arise, heroic medical interventions which always result in salvation and choirs singing. Well, there is plenty of all that, for sure. But, there are also dead things.
At first, this shocking reality comes crashing down, and makes one go through a period of thinking to hell with this animal husbandry crap. Because it does not match up at all with your original vision. But after a while, you get used to it, and adjust to the reality that was obviously there all along. Now I’m pretty casual about it. Here we go:
It helps to have a lot of animals. Because to me, this is just number 4044, and I only knew that from reading her ear tags. I had to look in the computer to recall her dam’s number. If you have few sheep, and you’ve named this one Chrysanthemum or something, then it’s much more heart-wrenching. I read a few Facebook sheep discussion lists; and wryly smile over all the new-to-livestock people who mourn the loss of one cute bottle lamb or another. Lamenting, Snowflake has gone over the rainbow bridge, RIP, my darling lamb, may you always run in green pastures in your little diapers and your waggy tail! And I think, oh, someday, you’ll be so over that.
And, instead, they might end up like me: donning latex gloves, drinking a beer, casually tolerating the reek of a ready-to-explode rumen that’s been sitting out in the sun all day; and fileting open ol’ Buttercup on the chest freezer in order to necropsy her. And thinking, hmmmm, Buttercup, your kidneys don’t look so hot.
Not that there isn’t still disappointment and a reverence for life. Certainly lambs are adorable, it’s sad that some of them don’t get to live very long, and distressing wondering if it’s a bad husbandry choice that has caused the loss. Not to mention, this lamb woulda sold for $350 in a short couple of months! But, Mother Nature has tough standards for survival, despite our best attempts to beat her at her game (and I do score some pretty awesome points against her sometimes!). In the end, it is what it is: once they’re dead, they’re dead; you might as well learn something from the loss. And every dead animal is a huge learning opportunity. The education that animal’s death provides may prevent dozens of losses in the future. Sometimes I am just too busy or tired to necropsy. But more and more, I remind myself, it only takes 15 minutes, and it really should be done every time. A good instructional video on lamb necropsies can be found here.
I nearly tripped over this lamb carcass in the pasture. Sometimes they are hard to see in the grass. Sick lambs seem to do one of two things. If they are feeling really poorly, they tend to try to crawl off on the edges of the pasture, and die in privacy and shelter. Or, they just drop dead right in the middle of everything. This one was the latter. What they were doing immediately prior to death is a clue.
If they’ve crawled off, I suspect e. coli scours, because although that comes on fast, they usually go through at least a day of their gut hurting before it kills them. So that one can often be caught in time, if one notices a lamb that’s “off” in one way or another. Lambs which are succumbing to starvation are also found on the periphery. When I do my flock checks, I always walk the perimeter looking for these crawled-off lambs, because they can usually be saved.
For lambs which die right in the company of all the other sheep, I suspect something more sudden: a random heart attack, a broken neck (from acrobatic leaping), blunt force trauma (from being butted by an adult), or clostridium. This was a big, vigorous, beautiful single lamb, 3.5 weeks old, with no diarrhea. So clostridium was definitely my first guess.
Clostridium perfringins is a fast killer. They say, the first symptom is dead lambs. Because, there usually are no presenting symptoms in time to treat. Clostridium bacteria are normally present in the intestine, but certain overfeeding conditions (namely, a lot of carbs and sugars, or very high protein) can allow the bacteria to proliferate. These bacteria release toxins, so when they multiply unchecked, they can rapidly murder the host. Other names for this disease are enterotoxemia, overeating disease, or pulpy kidney. The latter is a good pneumonic when doing a necropsy.
Indeed, this lamb’s kidneys were mush. I didn’t have handy a photo of a healthy kidney, but Google images reminds us of what they should look like:
They should be plump, dark red, with obvious kidney shape, that is firm when cut into, and slices neatly. These kidneys were pale, amorphous blobs that I could squish with my fingers, and which disintegrated when cutting with a sharp knife.
There was a little fluid around her heart (which can also be a clostridium sign). Her lungs had some red areas; so she was probably also fighting some pneumonia. Her liver was splotchy, with redness around the edges, which I am guessing is a result of coping with the toxic load of the bacteria. And she had angry, red small intestines. Her rumen was odd: the small mass of under-hydrated chopped grass was surrounded by a gray, clay-like layer, which I think was the inner stomach lining, destroyed and de-laminated. No parasites that I could see. Definitely lots of things going on, but my primary guess is clostridium; with maybe secondary pneumonia contributing to her immune system distress.
This doesn’t alarm me too much, I feel I only get about one of these a year, because my lambs are not on creep fed. Plus, I vaccinate the ewes for this during pregnancy, so they should pass on maternal immunity to protect lambs during most of the high milk output window.
But, there are exceptions to the rule. Sometimes the vaccines don’t work on some individuals. Sometimes maybe the vaccine didn’t get administered right (like the needle shot through the other side of her skin and I didn’t see it). Sometimes maternal immunity drops off earlier-than-typical in some lambs. My backup plan for clostridium is always this: if I were to see more than one case clustered together, where I might have a trend, I would rush to the feed store and buy the vaccine, and do all the lambs, and hope that salvages the situation. But one lamb a year? Not worth putting them all at risk with one more injection and set of stressful handling to questionably save a single individual.
For next time: now I have a ewe with no lamb, who has an uncomfortably full udder, at risk of heading into mastitis. I have two other triplet lambs from different sets which I’m bottle feeding to help them along. This gets me thinking…