Saturday, March 5, 2011


I carry the problems of my animals with me at all times. Like a gray veil that sweeps from the top of my head to the ground, darkening the sunlight, draining joy from my days. Wednesday afternoon, a second lamb was born who had to be helped to breathe, who couldn’t maintain her body temperature, who couldn’t stand or nurse.

We warmed her and fed her and injected her with selenium. She lived, but she still couldn’t stand, couldn’t walk, couldn’t nurse.

Dave and I searched through our sheep books and the internet looking for solutions to a problem we could barely describe, that still seemed like a selenium deficiency, but that didn’t improve when we injected selenium.

Selenium is an essential nutrient for sheep. It protects muscles from the toxic effects of peroxides which accumulate in the body from food or exercise. In the absence of selenium, the peroxides eventually kill muscle cells. However, selenium itself can also be toxic. If you give selenium to an animal who is not deficient, you may poison them.

Finally I called Dr Weckwerth, our veterinarian. We discussed the symptoms of this lamb and the dead lamb and the two lambs who had died with the same symptoms in 2009. His suggestion was to first determine if our ewes were selenium deficient, and if they were, to inject every ewe, hoping to give each one enough selenium to share with her lambs through her blood. He found out what university to send the blood sample to and stopped at his office to pick up a vacutainer tube for the blood sample.

Dave and I talked about retrieving the dead lamb from the compost pile for an autopsy. Selenium deficiency is also called white muscle disease and is distinctive on autopsy for the unusual pale – white color it imparts to muscles. But by now, this lambs breathing was getting faster, an echo of the first’s lambs deterioration before it’s death.

The question became what to do next. Do we let this lamb die of starvation, of hypoxia because it can’t get enough oxygen, or of heart failure because it has to work so hard to breathe? Or do we kill this lamb and take it’s newly dead body to the Veterinary Diagnostics Laboratory at NDSU for an autopsy and test, hoping that they can trace the clues that we could not.

I learned several years ago that I can’t kill a lamb no matter how much it would help that lamb to die. Dave had struggled so hard to keep this lamb alive, I couldn’t ask him to kill her. So we determined to pay Dr Weckwerth to examine the lamb, record his findings and then euthanize her for us. I would take the lamb to NDSU and hopefully we would know more.

“We’re sacrificing this lamb for knowledge to help the flock,” Dave said.

“This lamb is dying,” I responded. “This way, she won’t suffer. And yes, hopefully we will know more as a result of her death.”

Dave and Dr Weckwerth examined the lamb, discussed options and possibilities, marveled over her severe entropion, the inward turning of the eyelids. This lamb had the worst entropion I had ever seen. Even when we everted her eyelids, hardly any eye was visible. “She already has scarring on her cornea from the eye lashes,” he said. “It must hurt a lot.”

Then he injected the drug and ran his hands over her shoulders and head as she drifted away. Suddenly, I noticed that her eyelids were open. She wasn’t in pain anymore.

When I walked in from the barn that evening, all the lambs were healthy and nursing, even the sibling of that first dead lamb who had seemed on the edge of death herself. The air was crisp and clear, tree branches finely cut against the darkening sky. I could see clearly now and and my heart was light. All was well in the barn


  1. Joan,
    I just joined as a follower of your blog, or whatever the term is. I've been to your gatherings a couple times and raise Border Leicesters north of you near Twin Valley. Your description of a gray veil covering you when your animals are having problems, is exactly how I feel. It's hard to explain that to most people who are thinking, "It's just a sheep". We haven't started lambing yet and won't until mid April. I'm glad you decided to have the lamb posted and will be interested to see what the results were. Good luck. Margo