Acute Alopecia in Lambs?

jacobewelambI’ll start by ending any suspense: the Jacob ewe lamb died last week. This in just a week after I first noticed there was a problem, and she was five weeks old. On a Saturday, I ear-tagged and weighed all the lambs.

All looked fine and healthy; albeit the Jacob lamb was still thin. She was¬†not exhibiting as much weight gain as I’d like to see, or as the Katahdin lambs are demonstrating. She was 5lbs at birth, and was up to 9lbs 3 oz 30 days later. This, compared to #33’s triplet ewes, who all gained about the same amount of weight in just over two weeks.

And, if I compare her to the single ram lamb born in January: he gained fourteen lbs in a month, nearly tripling his birth weight! But, this was not unexpected, since her dam is severely underweight as well.

So, back to the problem: she looked fine that Saturday morning when I handled her. The following Monday night, she had large bald patches all over her hindquarters! Her wool was completely disadhered and peeling off! She was shivering-cold from the rain. I put a synthetic fleece jacket back on her (she wore this the first week of her life as well) and went inside to read. What could cause this?

None of my sheep books mentioned alopecia (hair loss) at all, except in the context of skin parasites. This was such a drastic change, surely it was not due to lice, keds or the like. I could see no sign of parasites, scabs or inflammation; and the rest of the flock is OK. So, I browsed the Internet looking for ideas. When you think of rapid hair loss, of course cancer chemotherapy is the first thing to come to mind, chemical toxicity is the most likely culprit. And, once I started thinking along that vein, I remember noticing her head in the mineral salt box when I was out there on Saturday. I think it is unusual for a young lamb to be interested in salt, if, ideally, she is getting everything she needs from nursing. alopecia

I found a few citations on the Web indicating that selenium (SE)¬†toxicity can cause alopecia; though the citations were referring to sheep turned out on grass that was high in SE concentrations. We have low SE in our region, thus it is added to all sheep mineral supplements sold here, and is certainly present in mine.¬†She could have OD’ed on the salt lick, out of a sense of desperation for minerals she was not getting in her milk. Alternatively, her dam may have OD’ed on it when she came to our place, if she did not have access to mineral supplements at Lynn’s; thus passing dangerously high concentrations of it in her milk.

This reference cites hair loss from SE toxicity. This reference cites salivation,¬†¬†neurological distress, blindness, and convulsions. By Tuesday, she was foaming at the mouth, so OK, that’s symptom #2. Wednesday, she also seemed to show some “head palsy” movement, and an odd gait in the rear, so definitely some implication of neurological problems. And she was tired, she did not want to be up on her feet much.

The first Web citation suggests treating with a sulphate mixture, but this sounded too scary to me, especially since I had no way to confirm my diagnosis. The second citation says, “Treatment may be attempted, however the prognosis is guarded.”

In case you’re wondering: a vet call is usually not warranted for production animals. It sounds harsh, but these sheep are a¬† meat crop, with their final value being only around $200. And, to some extent, doing heroics to save weak animals is not wise: it certainly does not improve your breeding program, and usually does not result in a good meat animal. I would easily spend thousands of dollars to save my dogs, who are both farm help and treasured pets. But, the sheep must make do with whatever assistance I can offer them in facing Mother Nature’s challenges, without the benefit of hospitalization.

Since she seemed OK, other than the wool loss, I started with a homeopathic remedy for poison: Arsenicum. By Thursday, I was convinced she was on the mend, she was up and about, and though still a little palsy-ish, she seemed to be nursing, keeping up with the group and staying warm in her jacket. I stopped giving the remedy, as I’m always afraid to over-do homeopathy.

But, she must have taken a turn for the worse Saturday night in the cold rain. Sunday morning, she was flat on her side, convulsing, wet and cold. I also noticed a “weirdness” in one of her eyes: it looked like the eye of a deceased animal, cloudy and motionless. Blindness? I brought her in, warmed her in the bathtub, dried and re-jacketed her, and stuck her in a dog crate with blankets and a heating pad. I gave her a few more doses of Arsenicum, then switched to Belladonna (another homeopathic remedy)¬†for the convulsions.

She improved slightly over several hours, the convulsions died down to subtle twitching, and she seemed more relaxed. I’d heard some rattle-ey breathing that morning, so then suspected pneumonia on top of everything else. So, I started her on penicillin, gave her a shot of vitamin B, and an oral dose of vitamin boost. She seemed to rally over the next 24 hours, but then crashed again, and ultimately died, a week after I first saw the wool loss.

So, the “prognosis guarded” warning was right. Though she seemed to fight hard,¬†if this was a¬†mineral overdose, it was probably too much for her kidneys, especially in her malnourished state. I’d be curious to learn if others have seen this manifestation before, or if anyone has an alternate guess as to the cause, since I couldn’t find a lot of written help on this set of bizarre symptoms.

As for me, I’m definitely going to think twice about taking in any poorly conditioned animals in the future! At least since this Jacob ewe was a gift, if I invest a lot of feed in re-conditioning her, she may still be worth it next fall when she’s bred again, if she can produce vigorous twins next year. But I think it’s a classic demonstration of how critical maternal nutrition is to the success of the offspring!

2 thoughts on “Acute Alopecia in Lambs?

  1. joyce sothoron says:

    I also have an Icelandic lamb with a first time mother that seemed to be doing just fine, but the mothers milk dried up and she fell into a state of malnurishment. I got her in a weak state and begain bottle feeding her. she was back up on her feet and looking great with good weight gain on the lamb saver powder. So I have placed her back with the flock and continue to bottle feed. But today I went into the barn and she was missing almost all of her wool???? she is up and active and eating like a champ, but the wool is coming off in hand fulls…..she looks like a chinese crested or any other hairless type animal. Do you have any idea’s thanks joyce

    • workingcollies says:

      Wow Joyce, sorry to hear you are also experiencing this. My lamb seemed ok the first few days of the hair loss, I had put a coat on her to keep her warm. Your description sounds exactly like what I saw- a hairless dog look, and wool coming off in handfuls. But then she went downhill rapidly after a few days. If it is toxicity from minerals, I suspect the only way to save them is with veterinary intervention, as it probably triggers acute kidney distress and/or failure, as the body tries to filter out the toxin. I would imagine it would cost a lot, and the animal may always be compromised from such a trauma; such that you probably wouldn’t want to breed it. But maybe if it’s a wool animal, that would be worth it.

      If I see it again in one of my animals, I think I would more aggressively treat it as poison. I’m not sure what the right course of action would be holistically, but I’d probably follow advice on treatment for toxicity, and kidney support. It could be one of those things where an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure-making sure that the pregnant and lactacting ewes have consistent and constant selenium salt supplement, so that they never get deficient and have the temptation to gorge.

      Let me know how it turns out- I’d like to learn more about it!

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