Ask the vet: your lambing questions answered

Ask the vet is a series in which readers submit questions to Westpoint vets about problems they are experiencing or are worried about on their farms.

This article looks at a host of health issues that occur in the run-up to and during lambing, including twin lamb disease and watery mouth.

Q1. Last year we had a number of lambs presented with one or more front legs back. What is the best course of action to take in this situation?

A. With lambing you may be confronted with several cases of dystocia. In this specific case, approach the situation just like any other malpresentation.

Wash and lube your hands, then carefully feel how the lamb is positioned and whether it is still alive.

The first step is to create more space. Grab hold of the head or shoulders and slowly push the lamb deeper into the uterus.

This should stop the ewe from pushing, making it much easier to work. Place your hand on the lamb’s head and guide it down past the shoulders before attempting to bring round a leg.

Many dystocias are caused by two lambs coming out at once. Before you pull, always make sure that both legs belong to the same individual.

Try reaching past the shoulder, grab hold of the elbow and carefully pull the leg up. Move your hand down to the hooves and pull the leg round whilst protecting the uterine lining at the same time. Repeat for the other leg if back as well.

Never attempt a lambing with one leg or both legs back. If the head is already outside of the birth canal and the lamb gets stuck, the situation quickly becomes more difficult and more urgent.

If the head will not go back in, or you are getting nowhere after 5-10 minutes, please ring the vets.

Q2. Each year we always seem to get cases of watery mouth. How can we prevent it occurring this season?

A. Watery mouth is the first infectious disease that lambs may be confronted with in early life. It’s caused by the bacteria E coli and can easily spread during the lambing season and affect a large proportion of neonatal lambs.

The symptoms vary from a wet muzzle, a lack of suckling reflex, an uncomfortable distended belly, to a comatose situation and death. An outbreak is best avoided altogether as it is more easily prevented than treated.

See also: Lambing tips from our award winners and finalists

Hygiene is a crucial factor. Pens should be cleaned and disinfected, and the floor left to dry before use.

E coli can thrive in the presence of faeces and cleansing. If possible, muck out and clean each individual lambing pen after use so that the bacteria don’t get a chance to build up.

It is important to make sure that lambs receive enough good quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth to obtain the immunity required to fight off infectious diseases in early life.

Q3. My neighbour has had problems with twin lamb disease. What causes it and how can we prevent it?

A. Twin lamb disease, or pregnancy toxaemia, is usually seen about one to two weeks before lambing.

During the pregnancy, lambs will need more energy as they grow. Close to lambing, this energy requirement peaks and under certain circumstances, ewes may not be able to obtain this energy from their feed alone.

This leaves them to break down their fat reserves, releasing more energy for their lambs, as well as for themselves.

When this happens too quickly, the ewe’s body won’t be able to deal with this change and she’ll start showing symptoms.

Initially look for ewes that stand out from the flock. Early stages will show lethargic, weak ewes standing off by themselves and not coming up to feed with the rest.

Soon after they may start showing symptoms such as teeth grinding, head-pressing, disorientation and could appear blind.

They become less alert and fall into a lethal toxic state if left untreated. Twin lamb disease often progresses aggressively, and if left untreated the ewe’s chance to pick up and recover will plummet. Please ring your local vet as soon as possible if you have a suspected case.

Depending on the severity of the symptoms, your vet may be able to treat the ewe, which can involve inducing the lambing in order to save her, or if she is too far gone, a caesarean section to try to save the lambs.

Preventing twin lamb disease by recognising which ewes are at risk is sometimes easier than treating it.

Ewes pregnant with twins or triplets are more prone to developing symptoms, and getting the ewes scanned can help with monitoring. Grouping singles, twins and triplets separately will allow for better dietary management, and targeted feed supplementation as required.

Older, skinny or very fat ewes all fall into the same category, and any ewe that is not eating properly due to illness, pain, lameness or because they are kept in a stressful environment is susceptible to twin lamb disease and should be watched carefully.

Lisette Smeele MRCVS
Westpoint Farm Vets

Disclaimer: Any advice given is based on the information provided and cannot necessarily apply to situations where other factors exist. If the advice required relates to a specific animal or disease problem the reader should contact their own vet or adviser with appropriate knowledge of the particular circumstances.