Monday, February 23, 2009

If you can't catch them...

At 6:30 in the morning, the sun is just rising. Snow drifts glow light peach; ice crystals in the air glitter.

The sheep aren’t awake yet. It’s my job to wake them. One of the best ways to discover which sheep are just about ready to lamb, or just about ready to have problems, is to wake them and make them stand up. I move through the barn, talking as I walk. “Christmas, you’re pregnant this year, I’m so pleased.”
“No, Sammy, I know you aren’t pregnant, sorry to disturb you.”
“Come on Available, you have to get up. Come on, up you go. Up, up,...”

Available is awake. She seems to be holding her chest a little off the ground, but when I try to force her to stand by hoisting her butt up, she can’t get her feet under her. She pees a little, so I rush to the barn cabinet for some keto sticks. I swipe the thin plastic strip across her vulva. Not very wet, maybe I imagined the pee. But I begin counting off the fifteen second test time anyway. Within just a few seconds, the pale pink test square on the strip turns a dark purply red. She has ketones in her urine!

Ketones in the urine mean that Available is in metabolic distress. Her body is not getting enough calories, so it is metabolizing her fat. Ketosis is frequently a fatal problem for sheep. We need to get some energy into Available and then induce labor. Once her lambs are born, she won’t need quite as many nutrients.

I mix some propylene glycol in a quart of warm water and return to the barn. The fact that Available can’t stand will make gavaging her easy. I will kneel over her shoulders and insert the long tube of the gavage bag into her mouth. The drench of water and propylene glycol will give her the calories she needs.

I can’t find her. All the sheep are finally awake and wandering around the barn, not quite ready yet to step out into the cold wind that blows across the barnyard from the south. Available is somewhere in that mass of white and gray and speckled sheep, but I had only noticed her sickness, not her facial characteristics when I was in the barn before. I wander through the flock and finally find her ear tag number, 29 white. She looks fine, a little unsteady on her feet, but definitely walking around. I don’t want to chase, tackle, and take down a ewe who has trouble getting up just so that I can give her a little water and a little energy. Our rule of thumb has always been if you can’t catch them, they’re not so sick.

One hour later, when Dave and I go out to feed the sheep, she is gets up before I enter the barn and wanders unsteadily out to the corn feeders. We grab her as she wanders by and inject her with dexamethasone, a hormone that will induce labor in 24 to 36 hours. We again decide not to gavage her. Our reasoning complex and perhaps not very good: it is healthier for her to get her energy from corn than from propylene glycol; the keto sticks aren’t always accurate; and she doesn’t look too fat, or too thin, the more normal conditions for a sheep to develop ketosis.

Maybe she’ll be all right. In any case, we certainly won’t treat her until we can catch her.


  1. It's Tuesday night, how is Available?

  2. Is there any way you can induce a ewe? (Naturally)

    1. We haven't found any natural inducers except possibly rupturing the sack of amniotic fluid that sometimes hangs out of the ewe and sometimes seems to stay just inside her vulva. If she is in good, productive labor, you'll be fine. But if you rupture the sack when labor is progressing poorly, you run the risk of infection. I usually only use a chemical inducer when the ewe is way beyond her due date and doesn't seem healthy or when she has pregnancy toxemia and we have to get the babies out.You don't use oxytocin in sheep to induce labor. Contact your vet to get the proper drug..