This is no Nancy Drew story. But where else other than a farm can you start a blog post with a title like that? Prepare for an explicit story of biology gone awry, though, this time, no gross pictures!

This is a triplet lamb that I’d had in the barn with her family, so I could supplement the lambs a little bit. At age seven weeks, I was planning on kicking the whole crew outside, since everything was stable, and the lambs were getting old enough to wean off of any milk supplements. It was then I happened to notice the distinctive sound of a lamb complaining while she was pooping. Sheep don’t tend to vocalize much when they are in discomfort, that’s a feature of a prey animal. The one scenario where they do tend to cry out is when they are straining, either from constipation, or when they are giving birth.

I gave her a little Milk of Magnesia to help  her loosen up, and didn’t give it much more thought. After a day or two, she was still doing it- a lot of straining, and complaining every  time she pooped. I took a closer look, thinking maybe I should try giving her an enema or something. What I found was (or didn’t find, as the case may be): she. had. no. anus. (!) About that time, my unconscious brain had this conversation with my conscious brain:
U: See, I told you! I saw poop coming out of her vagina! You blew me off.
C: But poop doesn’t come out of the vagina!
U: Well, in this case, apparently it does! Look, there’s a pellet right there, clearly coming out of the vagina!
C: Well, I’ll be. I guess you were right.

Indeed, I had sorta unconsciously noticed a couple of times that it looked like poop was coming out of her vagina, but I just didn’t gel on it, because, ya know, that’s not possible. Except that it is. It’s called atresia ani vaginalis, and it crops up in about 1% of lambs, according to a quick web search. In male lambs born with a missing anus, trouble starts early and they are likely to die. In female lambs, sometimes their bodies work out this physical compromise, creating a breach between the adjacent poop and pee tubes, technically speaking, so that the poop can find an exit.

So this was how it came to be that I didn’t notice until this lamb was two months old that she had this problem. Probably when she started eating roughage in earnest is when the complaining started. It was causing her some discomfort, but I would rate it as relatively minor: about as much annoyance as any of us may feel when we are mildly constipated.

When I first realized what was wrong, I wondered if this was some consequence of recessive genes coming through a line breeding. But after checking my records, I realized, nope. This was a complete outcross breeding. The other two triplet siblings are healthy and normal. Their dam is five and has always had normal lambs. The sire is two, has had a lot of lambs here as well. Just one of those weird anomalies that crops up, I guess. Plants or environmental factors can sometimes influence fetal development in this kind of fashion; but it’s interesting that only this one lamb had it, out of all the lambs born here.

I discussed the options with the vet. They were:

1. Leave it be. But the vet felt the lamb would likely struggle with chronic UTIs, sending her in a cycle of perpetual antibiotics, keeping her out of the human food chain as a butcher animal. And, eliminating her ability to live on indefinitely as a pet. Plus, there is the discomfort factor. So, cross leaving it alone off the list.

2. Euthanize her immediately. Which I’m sure some mercenary famers would do out of prioritization of profit over all other factors. And I wouldn’t necessarily blame them. But, this lamb was otherwise healthy and vigorous. I have a hard time euthanizing something that isn’t a complete medical disaster or suffering terribly, where it’s clearly death is the only and best choice. It’s that tricky ethical part of raising animals for food, that the fate of the little fighters is in your hands.

3. Fix it surgically. Then either let her be a butcher lamb, or sell her to a pet home where she will never be bred (in case there is a genetic component to it, either inherited or mutation, which could be passed on).

I chose option 3. The vet I work with understands the issues. She didn’t charge me as much as she’d likely charge a dog/cat client: $400, including the initial exam to assess the problem. A lot of the cost was anesthesia. Five people ended up assisting in the surgery, as it was challenging to work on such tiny structures. So she’s not making any money on this deal. And neither am I. At best, she’ll be a $200 butcher lamb, worst, I’ll sell her as a cute pet for $150.

Now that I have a lot more sheep, it’s easier to consider vet work to be a general overhead cost, and worry less about the ROI of a particular animal. When you have six sheep, a $400 vet bill kills your whole profit margin for the year. When you have sixty, it’s a little more tolerable. There are some benefits: I bring the vet interesting cases, she (and I) get to learn on a low-emotional-risk patient. It maintains my veterinary-client relationship, so that I have access to prescription drugs when I need them. Bringing the vet some revenue-generating work offsets the times I call her on the phone for advice, and she gets paid nothing. Since I am able to do a lot of basic vet work myself, the only cases I have to offer her are these weird ones; and ones that require anesthesia or more advanced equipment.

The lamb is doing well. The creation of the anus worked fine, the vet reported the “tube” ran all the way to the end in a cul-de-sac, and there was even a sphincter muscle there; just a lack of an opening. So, she cut an opening, and sutured the muscle all around in a purse string to keep it together. What didn’t work was suturing closed the old breach. It re-opened right away the evening of the surgery, so now poop is coming out of both openings. I imagine the brain and muscle memory wanted to insist on using that old opening, and will need time to learn how the new one works. We’ll wait and see, maybe the body will close it once everything heals, preferring to use the path of least resistance. Or maybe we’ll have to try to sew up that breach later. In retrospect, I think what would have worked better was to have induced pretty runny diarrhea in her before the surgery, and maintain it afterwards, so that there wasn’t much solid material to pressure that old opening to breach again. 

Incidentally, the vet consulted with her consortium of mentors on this. Only one guy in his seventies had seen this issue twice in his career. He managed to fix it once, and the other one, not.

For now, I’m continuing to give the lamb Milk of Magnesia to keep her stools at least soft, so it’s easier to push them through the sutured opening. The drug protocol is Banamine for a week, Penicillin for two, and stitches out at two weeks as well. She is such a cute, spunky, social, and vigorous little lamb, hopefully we can get this fix working and I can find her a pet home.

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