Welcome to today’s episode of Amateur Autopsy. (Warning, graphic biology photos ensue.)

Mama with twinsLast spring, I had a ewe pregnant with triplets. At birth, the first one was mal-presented with head forward, feet back; so I assisted. He was dead, the other two live and healthy, everything looked fine. A day or two later, I noticed the ewe seemed very subtly off. I realized she was anemic, and figured maybe she lost more blood than normal during the delivery assist, and was just stressed. I brought her into the barn for a few weeks, de-wormed her, gave her alfalfa and vitamin B, and she seemed to perk up. So, I turned her back outside. Her lambs seemed to be doing well. Triplet lambs are always a little small, but they were vigorous and happy.

Abdominal herniaTwo months later, she seemed off again, so I brought her back in, and treated her with more stuff: de-wormed again, antibiotics, vitamin B, and added grain supplementation to her alfalfa. By this point, her lambs were smallish as well, I felt that all three were suffering a bit. So I opted to also offer the lambs grain too. One over-ate, spiraled into acidosis quickly and died. Grr. The other seemed ok, just small. I noticed the ewe’s udder was already dwindling in size, which is unusual for her; usually she has a huge bag and nurses big, vigorous lambs. I weaned the remaining lamb at 90 days to reduce her burden.

This, and the fact that the ewe was already drying up on her own, should have given her ample opportunity to bounce back on the summer’s best grass. But, she didn’t quite: she seemed to kind of hover in a state of leanness for the next few months. Then I noticed she had developed a small hernia in her abdomen, near the midline, but off to the side. These are most commonly caused in sheep by injury, less commonly, an inborn defect. I kept an eye on it.Droopy face

A few weeks ago, I was loading some cull ewes up to the barn, and decided that this ewe was definitely too skinny, so brought her inside to give her yet more pampering. She is one of my top-tier ewes, she’s had fifteen lambs in the six years she’s been here. I’ve used one of her sons extensively for breeding, and kept all of her daughters. At age seven, it seemed worth trying to save her from whatever was ailing her, as she had the potential to produce for several more years.

Poor demeanorI started wondering if that hernia was causing her discomfort, and thus limiting her grazing. Her temp was normal, worm egg count low, no anemia. Out of options, I gave her antibiotics, vitamin B injections, and de-wormers anyway. I discussed with the vet the possibility of surgically correcting the hernia, and she was going to look at some pictures of it and get back to me. Skinny

The next day, the ewe showed increasing malaise, and I decided that she had stopped eating, I wasn’t seeing her cud-chewing. Sheep get a certain “look” when they are very sick: their ears droop, and they show less interest in surroundings or interaction. They don’t “perk” when approached or talked to. It reminds me of myself when I have a bad flu, that feeling of not wanting to deal with any sounds, motion or light, you just want to be left alone.

She was downright bony. It’s amazing how fast sheep go from semi-normal to absolutely skeletal in a matter of days, when they are sick. So I started her on oral nutritional supplements. She seemed to rally on that for a day, then got worse again. As I syringed  liquid into her, sometimes she would aspirate a bit, and it was clear it was very uncomfortable for her to cough, and she would struggle for air. Not good.

Next day, she was dead. I opened her up, and her lungs were deep purple, so definitely pneumonia going on there. I worked my way towards that hernia, wanting to see if it had been pinching off her intestines. But I couldn’t even get there: what was really going on was a huge, gristly mass in her abdomen, the size of a football. Purple lungs

It looked like her small intestine had gone cancerous, and the wad of tissue was confusing mess of fused-together tubes. Other sections of the intestine looked healthier, but were riddled with small white lesions. There was still a little normal poop near her rectum, so some food was still managing to process and there wasn’t a blockage (yet). But clearly her ability to absorb nutrition was compromised, and that’s why she lost weight rather than gained over the summer.

Necropsy: lots of fluidThere was also just a ton of watery fluid coming out of everywhere, making it hard to even look around in there. That is not normal, and I couldn’t really even see where it was coming from, whether just her rumen, or if she had some kind of rupture which had filled her abdominal cavity. I know she was peeing normally, so perhaps she was drinking a lot of water in response to this illness. There was still some hay in her rumen, but mostly fluid. In some of the photos, you can also see deep grooves in the growth lines of her hooves, implying that she’d had nutritional stress events over the last season. Intestinal massIntestinal mass

White lesionsI suspect the poor nutrient absorption led to being immune-compromised, which led to succumbing to pneumonia; and it’s what killed her. But that monstrous fused intestine wasn’t far behind. I am disappointed to lose such a good ewe too early, but relieved to know there was absolutely nothing I could have done to save her. And it’s probably good that something acute got her, so she didn’t continue to just waste away until she starved to death, with me not knowing why. Or, worse, had I paid for a hernia repair, only to find out the whole thing was pointless. White lesions

Here is a photo of her from when I purchased her as a yearling. She’s 1/4 Dorper, and you can really see it in her massive shoulders, and tabletop fat back: she was a gainer, back in her day. Her contribution to my genetic base is significant. Thankfully I still have fourteen ewes here which are her descendants, including a great- and great-great-granddaughter! So, as with all things, she lives on in her progeny (and in the compost pile…).

When she was young...

And that concludes today’s Amateur Autopsy hour, I hope you learned as much as I did!