Here is the only picture I captured from Saturday. I went to the Washington State Sheep Producers (WSSP) Sheep School. There were several sessions held. This was the last one, and the only one I could swing schedule-wise. It was on a farm in Friday Harbor, on San Juan Island. So a bit of a travel effort to get there. Mostly a hardship in catching the 6:20am ferry in Anacortes, Freezingwhich is an hour away. The ferry trip is 80 minutes, but I was able to work on my computer the whole time, so it didn’t feel like travel time. Not to mention, the San Juan ferry route is beautiful. This view was from my seat on the ferry on the return trip. Sometimes I think of ferry travel as a pain, and it is. But, it’s also such a lovely aspect of our region, how can you not adore an excuse to ride on a big boat through gorgeous waters to an island destination? The enthusiasm of all the tourists on the ship reminded me of how lucky we are to consider ferries mundane…

The class was taught by Dr. Jill Swannick, DVM, who is currently the president of WSSP. The syllabus had some things I already know how to do, like blood draws; and discussions on OPP and other diseases-of-monitoring are old-hat to me. So, I had waffled on whether to go. But, what piqued my curiosity was the promise to learn how to do epidurals. I am so glad I traveled all that way and paid a $63 ferry fare to attend, epidurals were worth the entire day. I realize now, I should have asked my vet to teach me this long ago, and to make sure I had an Rx of Lidocaine on hand. But, I had never really grasped the application before. Of course we all know about epidurals being used in human baby deliveries, but I’d not thought much about the application to sheep.

Here’s what they’re good for. Blocking pain on a ewe that’s having a difficult birth, especially the delivery of a dead fetus. Or, curtailing contractions when you want to slow down the process of pushing, so that you can cope with whatever is happening, be it prolapse or fetal entanglement. Dr. Jill showed us how to do an epidural at the tail joint, which would block pain and feeling at the pelvis and vaginal region. You know you’ve done it right if, in ten minutes or so, the ewe’s tail is limp when you lift it, her muscles not detecting your probing. If that doesn’t work, or you’re in a more serious pickle, you can do it up just south of the hip bones, knocking out her hind leg function.

The hosts of the day’s education were Rex and Lisa Guard, and they were so kind to let use their near-mature butcher lambs for learning. We all had the opportunity to try both a tail and leg block. I didn’t do a good job on my leg block, but others did, and sure enough, those ewes literally dropped and lost the use of their back-ends. It was so helpful to not only hear the theory, but actually practice it.

I don’t get a lot of difficult deliveries, but each year, I usually have one or two. How nice to now have this pain control tool to increase animal comfort and welfare during a really difficult birth. The other thing Dr. Jill talked to us about was just the process of birthing, and when we’d want to use which drug. She cited that a lot of her clients call in a panic asking for oxytocin, because that’s what everyone associates with birthing and birthing complications. But she implored us, think.

Oxytocin increases muscle contractions and contributes to maternal hormonal processes. So, it’s good for kicking out a retained placenta, it’s good for letting down milk, and for helping a ewe bond to a potentially rejected lamb. What it’s not good for is difficult births, because it accelerates a process we really want to slow down.

With each labor contraction, the ewe’s body is separating more and more of the placental buttons. Thus reducing the lamb’s blood, nutrient and oxygen supply with every push. If we realize there is trouble, the last thing we want to do is accelerate the process of pushing and the lamb losing blood supply. Instead, we want to relax the ewe and her contractions, and slow down the process so we can intervene. Dr. Jill explained, an epidural and Lidocaine buys time. It buys us time to get entangled babies untangled, to rearrange a mal-positioned fetus, or to open up a stubborn cervix.

Plus, it reduces short-term trauma to the ewe, since she can’t feel all the bruising and damage we’re causing while we’re repositioning babies or manipulating the cervix. Of course, she’ll feel it later, Sick smile. But, that’s what Banamine is for, to control pain and inflammation over the next week. In the short-term, we want the ewe to feel less pain, to keep her from going into shock, and just generally having a miserable experience. And we also want her to push less.

I can see that it’s good to start with the tail block, as sometimes it’s helpful to have the ewe both stand and lie down. The change in position is often useful when working with a stuck, but live lamb. All parties are working towards a common solution, to get that lamb in the right position to make a clean exit. In that case, frequent maneuvers and position changes often facilitate getting the stuck unstuck.The tail block would just make it so the ewe can’t feel what’s happening at the cervix and vaginal opening, making a minor interception more comfortable.

But, when it’s clear it’s a dead lamb you’re pulling, or there is some triplet entanglement disaster, I think knocking out the ewe’s whole back end would be better for everyone involved. FreezingIt would help to have the ewe push less (it really bruises your hands!) and just stay where you put her, so you can concentrate on lassoing the lamb’s front feet and  head to haul it outta there with brute strength. But it’s definitely worth weighing before you do it: do you really want a ewe that’s going to be down for a few hours? Pro’s and con’s…

I can think of two or three cases  where this would have been really useful to me in the past, however, so I’m looking forward to having this in my took kit for the future. If you raise lambs and this is not currently in your skill set, I definitely recommend you ask your vet to teach you how to do epidurals, and equip you with an Rx of Lidocaine to have on hand for emergencies. If you can give SubQ and IM injections, you can definitely do an epidural, and it’s not high risk. Worst-case, you insert the needle wrong and it’s intra-muscular and doesn’t work for the intended purpose, but it won’t have any adverse effects.

The rest of the day was spent teaching others how to do blood draws, a lot of discussion on nutrition, and also discussing handling of prolapses, both vaginal and uterine. These are things I’m more comfortable with, so my participation shifted to being sheep grabber and holder for others to practice. Thus is why I didn’t capture many photos, I always had a sheep in hand! There happened to be all women in the class, and they were all delightful company, funny, practical and curious. What better way to spend a Saturday than ferrying to the San Juans for a frank discussion on sheep biology and a practice session on giving epidurals? PrincessBlack SheepRainbow