Sheep “Shipping Fever” – No Good End

Appetite returns, for morning glory
Appetite returns, for morning glory

I mentioned that one of my new sheep seemed to be feeling under the weather the first few days after I got her home. But after giving her some liquid nutrient as a pick-me-up and immune system support, she seemed to recover, and I saw her grazing, chewing her cud, and generally looking fine by the end of the week. I check on all our animals daily, so am quick to observe any problems.

Last Friday evening, I noticed she was hanging her head again, and seemed thinner, with runny eyes and new diarrhea. Saturday morning, I brought her up by the house and started her on vitamin B injections and liquid nutrient, and presented her with lots of things to eat. She did not seem to have an appetite; so I started her on penicillin too, which is recommended for “shipping fever” related pneumonia. I de-wormed her with Ivermectin, worrying that if she was also dealing with a parasite load, this would make her recovery more difficult. I waffled on this chemical assault, but decided it was probably the right tradeoff given the circumstances, and the weekend timing.

Monday she seemed to be responding to this regimen, she was up on her feet, cheerful demeanor, head and ears up, interested in her surroundings and starting to snack on leaves and grass. Ah, I thought, she’s turned the corner, now we just need to stay the course and rebuild. She passed some monster-sized tapeworms, but that didn’t necessarily alarm me, as my understanding is that tapeworms are not a drastic threat to sheep.

But, Tuesday she was lying down again, and had lost her appetite again. <groan> To vet, or not to vet- it is a difficult question for production animals, because vet care can rapidly consume several year’s worth of lamb crop income. It’s tough, you’d like to save them all, but it’s the financial reality of farming that you can’t. Not to mention, there is the question of whether this was just an unthrifty animal who was prone to disease, and whether you want that in your breeding program.

I decided to bite the bullet, since I’d gone through a lot of trouble to get these genetics. I was able to get an appointment for the afternoon. When I loaded her into my van, she was walking fine and jumped in on her own. There was some delay at the vet, and by the time we unloaded her, she had totally crashed, was collapsing and in severe distress! Ugh! How quickly they can go downhill! The vet really hustled to get her stabilized, with Banamine, Naxcel, glucose, thiamine, and oxygen.

The vet felt that she has probably been struggling for a long while, much longer than the 3 weeks I’ve had her home, and that the travel stress finally did her in. Interestingly, he said he was surprised to  hear that tapeworms were being passed- he didn’t feel that Ivermectin would kill them, so they were likely exiting the host on their own (because they sensed it was a sinking ship). He felt that tapeworms that large in a 7 month old lamb were unusual, that she must have been fighting those since she was a tiny lamb.

Then we went over the options: $300/day to keep her in the clinic and pump her full of stuff (on top of the cost already incurred for the heroics to stabilize her). <sigh> Unfortunately, that’s just not warranted for a $250 sheep. So, I took her home with bags full of meds. Even then, the prediction was that she’d likely suffered liver and lung damage, so her health might always be compromised. He gave the “prognosis guarded” code name for “pretty hopeless,” but I figured we’d give her a shot.

She didn’t make it to 10pm, unfortunately. I am disappointed, she was a very nice looking ewe with a great pedigree. But you do what you can, and she did not give any earlier indications that she was this bad off. Sometimes animals are stoic and it’s just not obvious how sick they are, and it’s hard to differentiate between “off my feed” and “on death’s door”. I had a necropsy done, and he noted severe lung damage, severe pericarditis, some liver damage, and parasite load despite just being de-wormed; and this conclusion, Neither of these conditions were reversible based on the severity of changes on necropsy, and despite the degree of treatment, mortality was inevitable.

This is why it’s hard to make any money on farming- I’ll have to sell four lambs to recover from the “investment” of this lamb! :-{ Though, I will say, I sensed that the vet adjusted his prices according to my reply to this question, “what is the sheep’s name?” to which I answered “number 9021.” I am betting that if I would have said “her name is Daisy” it would have cost double! 😉 Several times, he mentioned that he knocked some amount off the “usual” rate.

There are always things to learn from these setbacks, at least. I had a nice chat with a fourth year vet student at the hospital, I think her name was Christie, while we waited for lab results. She was delighted for the opportunity to learn more about hair sheep, listen to fluid-filled lungs on the stethoscope, and review the prognosis and treatment with the doc. Hopefully she got in on the necropsy as well. All notes in her notebook to review later with her university advisor!

For me, I’m reflecting on this whole “shipping fever” phenomenon, and resolving to be more aggressive with treatment when I see signs of it in the future (though it’s unclear with this lamb if even that would have helped, it sounds like she had silent underlying illness for too long). I’m not a big fan of doing “preventative” antibiotic administration, but maybe this is one instance where it’s warranted (at least if you see an animal distressed at all after travel). Wardeh had written about shipping fever last spring when some of her dairy goats got it, and mentioned she’d heard of Bova Sera as a possible preventative. But I can’t find information on exactly what is in the product. Anyone else have experience with it?

So! Onward, there is still much to do, breeding season is upon us and winter prep is here. It’s sad to lose a lamb, but there are a few dozen future lambs and their healthy mommas to think about now!

7 thoughts on “Sheep “Shipping Fever” – No Good End

  1. Wardeh @ GNOWFGLINS says:

    My goodness! I’m sorry you lost your lamb. Where did you get your B vitamin injections? Regarding our goat who seemed to get this, she is still not well. We are probably going to put her down soon. We (being new to the whole thing) didn’t recognize it for what it was and she developed quite a bad case of pneumonia. We treated the pneumonia but can’t do anything now about the lung damage. She hacks and coughs all the time. It is sad. I never found out what is in Bovi Sera exactly – but I think it is along the lines of a vaccination, providing antibodies. The stress on the animal causes the bacteria (always present) to proliferate – and the Bovi Sera provides the antibodies against that. I just read something that says it comes with Thimerosal (mercury). Ick.

  2. workingcollies says:

    Our local farm supply carries vitamin B injections in vial form, in the fridge where all the vaccines are. My understanding is that many distress kinds of things can cause sheep (and I imagine goats too?) to be deficient in thiamine, so boosting their vitamin B is a can’t-hurt thing to do when they are ill. Our vet had injections of just thiamine for that.

    Sorry to hear your girl still isn’t well, I was wondering how that turned out! I think the frustrating thing with all this is that becuase small ruminants are sort of low-value animals, there just aren’t many resources or studies to tell us what to do with them when they get these things, since historically, farmers just put them down if they got anything very bad. And they do seem to have a fragile side to them, where though they are generally hardy animals, certain aspects of them are quite vulnerable. I think rumens are an intricate mechanism that is easily disrupted, and hard to get back on track once they are upset.

    I have been grasping for more natural/nutritional remedy information, but the only thing I have so far is Pat Coleby’s book; and I haven’t yet mastered the whole mineral supplement thing, but that’s next on my list!

    Instinct tells me that the body has such regenerative powers, if only we could find out what they need, that they could probably demonstrate fairly miraculous recoveries from these chronic conditions. Maybe try some homeopathy to see if she an find a path to recovery on her own? That’s always the thing I turn to when I’m out of other options! There is something comforting to me to leaf through books and choose the seemingly perfect-sounding remedy for the individual and the problem set they have!

  3. bruce king says:

    It’s always hard to lose a young animal.

    I’ve gone through this 30 or 40 times, and finally decided that as a policy I’ll never take a production animal to the vet. Now I’m working on what stage to decide they’re done and put them down. I’m always a softy about it. “maybe she’ll recover”, but looking at my notes, there’s a clear stage where they just don’t recover, and I’m working on recognizing it earlier and taking the appropriate, humane action.

    If you put them down on the farm they’re not all loaded up with antibiotics and stuff, and you might get some other use out of them. Dog food, compost, whatever.

  4. workingcollies says:

    Bruce, you are absolutely right, and if it had just been one of my regular ewes, I definitely wouldn’t have gone to the vet. I even waffled on this one, but I really wanted those genetics, and kind of like a “bad stock”- since I was already into it for some amount of money to get her this far, I thought I might as well dump some more money in and see if the stock would recover (no pun intended!).

    And, I’m a softy too-I feel like you always want to make sure you’ve given them a fair chance at life, especially if they appear to be fighting for it. I had that sewn-up duck survive and thrive, against all odds, so it does happen.

    I did lament that by the time she died, I didn’t want to even feed her to my dogs because of all the drugs in her (and she was also pretty skinny). I wanted her necropsied so I could let the breeder know the root cause, so really didn’t want her back after all that! 🙂 There is nothing like the smell a rumen that’s been sitting around for a while… So then I paid a “disposal fee” of course! Arg!

    The good news is, the breeder has kindly offered to replace her with another ewe, which I would expect any good breeder to do. It may be a while before I can hitch a ride with somebody for the new one from Montana, but that softens the blow a bit at least, and I’m happy that I can still access those genetics to my herd sometime in the future.

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