Signs and Symptoms: What are your sheep trying to tell you?

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We’ve all experienced a sick sheep, or at least one that doesn’t look quite right, but how do we distinguish a serious illness from one that is mild, or simply normal behavior? While your veterinarian should always be your primary source of medical advice, it’s still important that shepherds have the ability to accurately identify and describe any signs and symptoms your animal may be experiencing. When calling your vet, this information will help him/her determine whether a farm visit is necessary or if a plan of care can be initiated by phone. It will also assist you in researching the problem on your own to identify possible causes. Gathering key information and intervening early can be lifesaving, especially in emergency situations.

It’s important to regularly observe your flock so you’re aware of both normal and abnormal behavior. Some symptoms of disease can mimic normal behavior while others that seem concerning are actually benign. For instance, a healthy lamb often stretches when they get up from a nap which is a good sign. However, a lamb that stretches repeatedly, lies down again quickly and/or seems disinterested or isolates may be experiencing abdominal pain which could be serious. A healthy animal can be observed chewing their cud, while an animal in pain may grind their teeth, which can look like chewing. A healthy animal will be actively grazing, while a sick animal may stand in a grazing position with their head down, but not eating. Soft, runny feces may be perfectly normal if the sheep are grazing lush, wet pasture (a little dry hay will help), but could be a serious sign of illness in a young lamb, especially if it contains mucus or blood. Subtle differences are important.

When assessing the animal, consider the big picture to help differentiate conditions that share similar signs and symptoms. Note the age and sex of the animal; stage of production (i.e., newly weaned lamb, ewe in late pregnancy); feed type (i.e., grain, hay, baleage, pasture) and any recent changes to the ration, as well as environmental conditions (i.e., barn or pasture, forage condition, weather, potential toxins, water source). You’ll also want to note if other animals in the flock are affected, if the animal has a fever, how long the symptoms have been present and if they’re getting worse or better. This information will help eliminate some conditions and will allow your vet to focus on the most likely cause of the ailment and how best to treat it.

Once you’ve determined that something is not quite right and that treatment may be necessary, bring the animal to the barn or isolate in the field with shade and water. If a farm visit is necessary, having the animal confined nearby will save time and frustration for both you and your veterinarian, and will make treating the animal much easier.

The table below, while not all inclusive, lists common signs and symptoms, as well as contributing factors and possible causes.

Primary Sign/Symptom Details/Characteristics

(share with veterinarian)

Possible Causes
Abnormal Gait/Staggering Young lambs: stiff gait, arched back or unable to stand White muscle disease (selenium deficiency)
Young lambs: fever, swollen warm knee and/or fetlock joints Joint/naval ill
Lamb: fever, weak, off feed Pneumonia; sepsis; clostridial disease
Any age: appears blind, head hyper-extended, star gazing, unable to stand Polioencephalomalacia (polio; thiamine deficiency)
Any age: especially if feeding baleage, circling, head tilt, off feed Listeriosis
Any age: weakness or paralysis of the hind legs Meningeal worm
Late pregnancy: weak, off feed, fruity breath Ketosis (pregnancy toxemia)
Late pregnancy: stiff, splayed legs, twitchy Hypocalcemia (milk fever)
Rams: especially during breeding season Head trauma
Changes in Feces Any age: hard pellets Fever; dehydration; parasites (especially barber pole worm)
Any age: soft/loose, on lush pasture Normal (add dry matter (i.e., hay))
Any age: soft/loose or liquid, sudden onset, with or without abdominal pain, especially after change in feed Acidosis; enterotoxemia (overeating); clostridial disease
Any age: watery Coccidia; acidosis; parasites; infection
Any age: with blood and/or mucus Coccidia
Distended Belly Bottle lamb Abomasal bloat
Males: intact ram or wether, straining to urinate Urinary calculi
Adults and older lambs: lush pasture Frothy bloat
Adults and older lambs: excessive grain consumption, rapid change in diet Free gas bloat; enterotoxemia (overeating); obstruction
Eye Inflammation Young lamb: inverted eyelid, red/ulcerated conjunctiva, watery discharge, usually unilateral Entropion
Any age: yellowish green drainage, crusty eye matter, red conjunctiva, unilateral or bilateral Conjunctivitis
Any age: irritated conjunctiva, squinting or teary eyes, holding eyes partially shut, possible opaque appearance over eye Pinkeye (especially if seen in multiple animals); foreign body; dusty feed or seedheads
Fever Any age: rectal temp > 103.5, dehydrated, body is warm to touch especially ears, sunken eyes, increased respiratory rate Acute bacterial or viral infection; feed or water contamination; wounds
Any age: sensitive to light/sun Plant toxicity; infection
Ewes: udder hot, red, hard/lumpy, no milk or milk appears discolored or chunky Mastitis
Head/Neck Edema Lambs 3 weeks to 4 months old: anterior throat Milk goiter (normal)
Any age: under jaw Parasitism (bottle jaw)
Adults or older lambs: possible facial hair loss Clostridial disease; plant toxicity; insect sting; bluetongue
Adults or older lamb: distinct lump Caseous lymphadenitis (CL); abscess (skin or tooth)
Hungry Lambs Newborn: cold, weak Hypothermia; mastitis; rejection
Ewe: refuses to let lamb nurse Mastitis; lamb soremouth (check for teat lesions on ewe); poor mothering
Lamb: reluctant to nurse, scabs on nose and/or mouth Soremouth
Lamb: nurses but fails to thrive Subclinical mastitis in dam
Lamb: stealing milk from other ewes Mastitis in dam
Labored Breathing Any age: with fever and/or nasal discharge Pneumonia; upper respiratory infection
Any age: hot day or after exercise, with or without panting Heat stress; exertion
Lethargy Baby lamb Pneumonia; joint ill; starvation; hypothermia
Any age Pneumonia; parasitism
Ewe in late gestation Ketosis (pregnancy toxemia); Hypocalcemia (milk fever); early labor
Limping Young lamb: possible joint swelling Injury; joint/naval ill
Any age: with leg/joint swelling Injury; infection; septic arthritis
Any age: multiple animals in flock affected, malodorous tissue/drainage, grazing on knees Foot scald; hoof rot
Adults or a heavy pregnant ewe Overgrown hooves
Lactating ewe: rear leg Mastitis
Nasal Discharge Any age: often with bloody mucus, head shaking, snorting Nasal bots
Any age: bilateral, with fever and/or labored breathing Pneumonia; upper respiratory infection
Adult or older lamb: bilateral, fever, excessive salivation, possible ulcerations of oral/nasal tissue, weakness, depression Bluetongue
Oral and/or Nasal Lesions Young lamb under 1 month: scabs on lips and nostrils, multiple lambs affected Soremouth (orf, scabby mouth)
Adult or older lamb: nasal discharge, excessive salivation, possible fever, weak, depressed Bluetongue
Pain Lamb: frequent stretching, hunched appearance Abdominal pain; enterotoxemia (overeating); clostridial disease
Rams and wethers: straining to urinate, reddish urine, kicking at abdomen, tail twitching Urinary calculi
Adult: kicking at abdomen, kicking or thrashing legs while lying, not eating or ruminating, grinding teeth Abdominal pain; mastitis
Any age: licking, rubbing or itching affected area Skin or soft tissue infection/trauma; meningeal worm
Any age: grinding teeth, droopy eyes, ears back or down, flared nostrils, off feed, not ruminating, isolating from flock Generalized pain
Any age: abnormal gait, limping, reluctance to stand or move, grazing on knees Injury or infection involving feet, hooves, legs or pelvic region
Scours/Diarrhea Young lambs under 1 month: especially bottle lambs, possibly with watery mouth E. Coli; Salmonella; enterotoxemia (overeating)
Lambs or susceptible adults: feces watery, dark, may be foul smelling with mucus and/or blood Coccidia (especially if seen in multiple animals); parasitism
Any age: profuse, severe, sudden onset, especially after change in feed Acidosis; enterotoxemia (overeating); clostridial disease; ingestion of toxins
Any age: acute or chronic GI infection: viral, bacterial, protozoal
Any age: intermittent, very soft, often greenish, grazing wet or lush pastures Normal (add dry matter (i.e., hay))

By:  Roxanne Newton and Kathy Bielek, EAPK Communications Committee


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