What you don’t know about your pregnant sheep may kill it

Twin Lamb Disease

Last night one of our sheep refused to stand up.  This is a big deal with sheep and indicates something is very wrong.  Worse, the saying that a sick sheep is a dead sheep is very true.  A quick look told us this was one of our very pregnant ewes and a quick feel told us that she had lost significant weight recently.  Unlike the other livestock, it is too easy for a sheep to lose weight without any notice.  Their puffy wool makes even the skinniest animal look fat and without feeling through the wool, you can be fooled.

Twin Lamb Disease

We knew right way that a skinny, pregnant ewe that isn’t standing up has Twin Lamb Disease.  There could be other things that cause it such as sheep polio or even an injury, but when it is a ewe in her last weeks of pregnancy it’s safe to assume Twin Lamb Disease.  Like it’s name, this disease is most commonly caused caused by the mother being pregnant with multiples.  It can also be caused by the pregnant ewe being older or even very overweight.  A growing lamb fetus gently sucks up mom’s nutrients until the last few weeks when it begins to guzzle to the point were twin lambs can double mom’s nutrient requirements.  This means that while you may think you are feeding your ewe well, she may actually be starving to death.

We learned this the hard way the first year we raised sheep. Our feeding regimen was based on some very poor advice and we were feeding much less than we should have. By the time lambing season came along, we had ewe after ewe go down with Twin Lamb Disease. Once a ewe shows symptoms of this, her chances of survival is less than 40%. We lost six that year and most of the lambs along with them. Thankfully this year, we have only had one ewe with Twin Lamb Disease and her twins were born healthy and are currently yelling their heads off in my bathtub (where else would you keep newborn lambs?).

What is it exactly?

This disease is more properly called Pregnancy Toxemia. During the last four weeks of pregnancy, the liver increases the production of glucose, called gluconeogenesis, in order to increase glucose available to the babies. Each lamb requires 30 to 40 grams of glucose each day and that is a lot of sugar. Because moms always put their babies first, the ewe’s glucose is sent to the babies before she gets any. On top of all of this, mothers of twins just seem to have a harder time producing glucose than mothers of single lambs.

If the liver is having a tough time producing enough glucose for both mom and babies, fat cells start to be used for energy. As good as this sounds, it is problematic because in a starvation situation so much fat is being used so fast that the liver gets overwhelmed, develops hepatic lipidosis or “fatty liver,” and begins to shut down.

This is the best price for lamb milk formula I’ve found online

How do I know if my ewe has it?

An observant shepherd can usually tell if their sheep has Twin Lamb Disease and a good sheep owner is definitely observant. Dr. Lenhart from the Apple Valley Equine Hospital, a local sheep expert as well as horse vet, says that it is always a good practice to have a cup of coffee by the sheep pen after you have fed. Often, he says, sheep will run up to food and act like they are going to eat, but will lose interest if they’re not feeling well. Feeding time is probably the best test of your sheep’s health.

A sheep with Twin Lamb disease will obviously be a ewe and a pregnant one. A ram with similar symptoms should be suspected of a different illness. The sick ewe will not want to eat or may just pick. She often seems lethargic and doesn’t want to be around the rest of the flock. I have also noticed that ewes with this disease early on only want to eat alfalfa and will refuse bermuda (we feed 50/50). If you catch the ewe at this stage, you have a very good prognosis.

The late stage of pregnancy toxemia has symptoms of extreme weakness and lethargy, eventually becoming comatose and then dying. If you catch the disease when the sheep can no longer stand, she has a very poor chance of survival.

Basic treatment

In its most basic sense, Twin Lamb Disease is serious hypoglycemia. Therefore treatment revolves around getting the ewe’s glucose levels up. The official treatment is IV drip of Dextrose or oral Propylene Glycol. If you don’t have that product on hand, every store in most countries sells corn syrup and that works just as good. Simply take a syringe with 60 ml of corn syrup and squirt it down her throat as many times as you can get it, alternating with water if she isn’t drinking. Provide free choice alfalfa, but don’t give her grain as that increases her body’s acidity which is only adding to the problem.

Additionally, it may be helpful to give shots of Vitamin B complex and B-1 in addition to the complex as thiamine deficiencies are very common in sheep. Hypocalcemia (low calcium), hypomagnesemia (low magnesium), hypokalemia (potassium) and low electrolytes often go along with this toxemia- Molasses will provide good levels of magnesium and potassium. Adding potassium and insulin (if your vet will give it to you) has been shown to increase survival rates. Probiotics and Penicillin should be given as supportive therapy.

How we treat it

Early signs:

  • Mixture of 1 part molasses, 2 parts Karo corn syrup, 1 part corn oil (molasses or corn syrup is fine alone if other ingredients aren’t available) 60cc at least 4x daily but as often as possible, alternate with a pint of water

If ewe isn’t eating or drinking:

  • 50%dextrose/water solution 4 oz every hour until she’s standing, drinking and urinating
  • Mixture of 1 part molasses, 2 parts Karo corn syrup, 1 part corn oil (molasses or corn syrup is fine alone if other ingredients aren’t available) 60cc at least 4x daily but as often as possible, alternate with a pint of water
  • Do not give electrolytes more than a couple times as the ewe needs to urinate and the sodium is an antidiuretic.  Mix cranberry juice with water if ewe isn’t urinating.
  • 3cc B Complex 2x per day
  • 500mg B1 2x per day
  • 50cc calcium glutamate
  • Probiotics at least daily
  • Penicillin Large initial dose followed by substantial doses for 5 days

If ewe is responding to treatment, drop treatment to four times per day

If ewe is eating well, give molasses mixture 2-3x daily

If ewe scours, give pepto-bismal or kaopectate, this will clear up as soon as she is on her normal diet

Ounce of Prevention

As with all things, prevention is the key. With sheep however, prevention is everything. Don’t be afraid to overfeed your ewes during the last month or so of their pregnancy. There’s very little chance you’d make them fat when they need so much nutrition! During the rest of the year, feed what it takes to keep their back bones and hip bones from sticking out. As L day (lambing day) approaches, begin increasing what they eat until they are eating about double their normal intake. If they begin to gain too much weight, you’ll know they aren’t pregnant with twins! If they seem to have even a bit of the symptoms of Twin Lamb Disease, get them separated so they don’t have competition. Twin Lamb Disease is so easy to prevent, but I was up all night every half hour trying to cure it with my poor ewe and we still lost her.  We were fortunate enough though that she left us with two healthy little girls.

orphan lambs






    • They’re Navajo Churro sheep. They do keep the dark color in their undercoat, but this breed grows a double coat. They have more of a grey coat that grows longer than the black so it makes them look overall lighter.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Care of sheep in winter

2015 Cotton Patch goslings are here!