Lamb health issues are discussed on this page along with their symptoms and treatment.
Content warning: this page includes photos that, whilst not graphic, could possibly be confronting.
How joint ill affects lamb health
“An overwhelming number of lambs fall prey to a common condition called ‘joint ill’, a bacterial infection in the joints of lambs transmitted via wounds created from ear tagging, castration and docking sites or after entering the body through the umbilical cord. These infections can be fatal or cause paralysis if untreated. Muddy conditions allow small wounds to fester in their feet and the cold causes their immune system to falter giving the bacteria a distinct advantage”. Dr Robert Gropel MVSc
Joint ill is a common afflication affecting lamb health. If detected early enough, however, it can be successfully treated with antibiotics. Left untreated it can result in the death of the lamb.
When young Stella arrived into the care of Lamb Care Australia she was in a world of pain. Severely affected by untreated joint ill, Stella’s young joints were swollen more than we had ever seen before in any lamb. She could not be touched anywhere without crying out in pain.
Although we did everything we could to reduce her pain and cure her illness, little Stella was beyond help and the only compassionate path was to have her euthanized. Stella lost her life to an easily treatable illness that was left to fester and grow.
The Victorian Farmers Federation also states that prevention of this illness is possible by minimising bacterial contamination of wounds and by keeping lambing paddocks well drained and free of mud with adequate grass cover. A second preventative measure is to have ewes vaccinated so they will transfer passive immunity to their lambs through the colostrum or first milk. NSHMP-Arthritis.pdf (vff.org.au)
Entropian and its treatment
Entropion is a common congenital disorder affecting lamb health. It is usually characterised by the turning in of one or both lower eyelids. In-turned hairs rub on the cornea and cause severe irritation that can progress to corneal ulceration. The eyelids commonly need to be stitched by a vet in order for them to be turned outward.
Pneumonia in lambs
One of the most common causes of death in young lambs is pneumonia. For orphaned lambs inadequate colostrum intake at birth and exposure to extreme cold and rain is a precursor for this disease. Bottle fed lambs are also at risk of developing aspirate pneumonia which occurs when a teat is too fast and milk is breathed into the lungs. As a result it is very important to give bottle fed lambs lots of small breaks during feeding and to check teats do not run too quickly.
Lamb are treated with anti-inflammatories and antibiotics such as penicillin. They are kept well hydrated with electrolytes and lamb milk and oxygen is given via a nebulizer if necessary.
How bloat affects lambs
Bloating is another common lamb health issue that unfortunately can kill if not treated early. It occurs when gas forms and accumulates in part of the gut called the abomasal (stomach) and cannot be released. The buildup of gas causes the stomach to distend. Bloat is a medical emergency and MUST be dealt with quickly.
There are 2 types of bloat: Abomasal and Frothy
Affects bottle fed lambs mostly up to around 4 weeks of age. While the mechanism of abomasal bloat is not completely understood, it is believed to be caused by a build-up of bacteria in the stomach. As the bacteria multiply, the sugars in the milk ferment with excess gas production. At the same time, the stomach becomes more acidic to the detriment of other bacteria. As the gas cannot escape, it bloats the abomasum (stomach). Left untreated a lamb will die.
Disinterest in food
Stretching out body
Unwillingness to sit or lay down
Teeth grinding (pain response)
Unsteady on legs
At the first signs of bloat it is vital to act quickly. Do not wait for things to get worse and do not hesitate to call your vet for prompt advice.
Mix ¾ cup of water with ½ cup of baking soda and syringe some (carefully) into the lambs mouth. This will help neutralise the gas.
Massage the lambs stomach area, this helps the gas move. The lamb may belch or pass gas, this is a good thing.
Powdered ginger may help with mild cases of bloat. Mix two tablespoons of ginger in a small amount of warm water and administer with a syringe. Ginger has traditionally been used for the treatment of gastro-intestinal ailments. Pain meds may also be given to affected lambs.
Hold off giving any food
The vet may need to insert a tube into the lambs stomach to help the gas escape or a needle may need to be inserted into the stomach.
If you have penicillin on hand, give 2ml into the muscle and another 2ml orally.
Milk that has been overheated is a cause of bloating in lambs. Ensure the milk is never heated above tepid. When checked on your wrist before feeding it should feel just warm.
Adding some yoghurt to the milk or probiotics may also help in bloat prevention
Feed correct amounts. NEVER feed off milk packet directions as the amount each lamb needs and the frequency of feeding varies from lamb to lamb.
Ensure hygiene is used with bottle preparation
Never change milk brands abruptly. If a milk powder needs to be changed it must be done gradually (¼ new milk with ¾ current then gradually it is increased ½ new milk with ½ current, ¾ new milk with ¼ old)
Do not reheat milk. If there are leftovers from a bottle dispose of the remainder
Frothy bloat presents the same way as abomasal bloat but the cause is different. Usually it occurs when lambs have been put on pasture that is too rich. Lucerne is a common cause of bloating in young sheep so we do not advise feeding it to your lambs. Normal grass hay is recommended. With frothy bloat gas is unable to escape because a frothy substance stops it from being expelled. Also a medical emergency we recommend you contact your veterinarian as soon as you notice symptoms.
Disinterest in food
Stretching out body
Unwillingness to sit or lay down
Teeth grinding (pain response)
Unsteady on legs
Massage stomach area
Do not offer lucerne or clover/alfalfa as it is too rich
Do not allow overfeeding
When first being introduced to fresh pasture monitor closely for signs of bloating
Offer a high grade hay grass
Video showing the swollen sides of a lamb suffering from bloat:
Flystrike in lambs and its treatment
Flystrike is when a blowfly lays eggs in the fleece of the sheep and the eggs hatch into the larvae that in turn become maggots. These maggots then eat into the skin and tissue of the sheep.
Flystrike is most likely to happen underneath the tails of lambs and sheep so keeping a close eye on this area especially in the warmer weather is important. Also keep an eye out for small nicks, cuts or abrasions on your sheep as flies are very attracted to blood and can start laying eggs very quickly. Flystrike can happen anywhere on the body, not only under the tails.
Time of year most prevalent
Warmer weather – more blowflies
Warm day following rain if the sheep have got wet and the fleece is moist
Following shearing due to the possibility of cuts.
Hanging of the head
Walking displays physical discomfort
Being off their food
Small white maggots (can look like worms) may be visible. The larger the maggots the longer they have been there.
Wipe away maggots with a warm wet cloth, can slightly wet or dampen the cloth in with some iodine and water
Many maggots will fall out with the wiping but if not all are removed apply water pressure with a 20 ml or 50ml syringe or even a hose as the maggots may have dug in too far for wiping to be effective
Spray generously with Extinosad
Check the rest of the sheep for maggots
Treat sheep with antibiotics in case of infection and pain relief
Check again 24 hours later
If you see your sheep/lamb has a cut or abrasion spray with Extinosad after cleaning immediately.
Cut away any dirty wool from the bottom area, maggots can also live in the wool.
In severe cases a course of antibiotics may be needed.
Scabby mouth is a disease that affects lamb health. It is a viral disease that causes scabs and pustules, usually around the mouth and face of affected animals. Animals become infected with scabby mouth when abrasions in the skin allow the virus to enter and establish. Older sheep tend to be immune as a result of previous contact with the virus.
The signs of scabby mouth are raised scabs with a red ulcerated area underneath the scab most commonly around the lips, muzzle and nostrils but also less commonly the eyes, feet, lower leg, anus, vulva, udder, scrotum and pizzle.
The only real cure for the condition is to allow time for the virus to run its course. At the same time treatment with an antibiotic and steroid cream and ensuring the area remains clean and any excess scabs soaked off also helps.
Hypothermia in newborn lambs
Hypothermia, which literally means ‘temperature below normal’, occurs when too much body heat is lost or too little body heat is produced, and the result is a drop in body temperature.
Newborn lambs cannot regulate their body temperature so succumb to hypothermia very quickly. Usually born across the coldest months of the year, hypothermia is inevitable in lambs that have not received adequate colostrum, because they lack the energy stores to maintain their body heat. Lambs are born with a store of brown fat around the heart and kidneys. This is their only source of energy during their first hours, and they use it up quickly. If they don’t get colostrum within those hours, their bodies will be deprived of energy and heat, Hypothermia will ensue.
Hypothermia puts a huge strain on a baby’s organs. Depending on the stage of organ shutdown, recovery may or may not be possible. When hypothermic lambs arrive into care they are initially put into a warming bath to raise their body temperature slowly. An Intensive Care Unit, if available, is also of great assistance in providing the same care.
How scours affect lamb health
Unlike adult sheep, lambs do not have formed faeces (little round balls) until they are several weeks old but this can vary from lamb to lamb. It is not uncommon for scours to occur in young lambs.
Scouring is another name for diarrhea. It is very common for lambs to develop some form of scouring especially when they are introduced to a new milk. It could be from colostrum to powdered milk or from Mum’s milk to powdered milk. At times it is unavoidable, but if treated properly it should not become a huge problem.
Scouring is not what makes the lamb sick, dehydration from scouring is, so it is very important to ensure scouring lambs have adequate water intake. Feeding electrolytes in between milk feeds is a good way to keep them hydrated. Alternating bottles between electrolytes and milk is also a good way to slow down scours.
Depending on the cause of scours D’scour may be sufficient to cure the problem. If the scours is caused, however, by an infection then a vet visit and vet prescribed ScourBan may be needed to get it under control.
Scours that are a dark green to black colour with a very pungent smell are most likely caused by a bacteria like E Coli, Cryptosporidium or Coccidiosis. If a lamb scours for more than a few days with no improvement or shows other signs of illness such as a temperature or inappetence a vet should be consulted.
Lambs with contracted tendons
A contracture is when a tendon or tendon sheath stiffens and becomes permanently tight, limiting flexibility and joint movement. Lambs are somtimes born with this condition possibly due to overcrowding in the womb. A treatment that works well for this problem is splinting the lambs legs to straighten them.
Photos: Letitia Green