February 12, 2019

I've been hesitating to post this until I had answers. Today I got them. We have only sent an animal to CSU for Necropsy 3 times. One was a calf that died of Tetanus (Ferdinand), but some symptoms presented similarly to rabies, so a necropsy was recommended, because if he had rabies, my daughter and I would have been required to go through fabulous rounds of stomach injections.


Willow with Mama Mara


That was the only easy necropsy of the the three.


The second was also a calf (Blutarski), who died suddenly. It took CSU a very long time to finally find a rare and odd infection in a lymph node. There were no outward symptoms, and they really spent a lot of time looking. I think it took them over 3 weeks to find it! Without any outward symptoms, it was not suggested that we would have been able to find and treat this before it took his life.


Blutarski with Shannon


The good news with both of those untimely deaths was that it was not infectious, or contagious. As for tetanus, we now vaccinate everyone who comes to the farm, even if you told me you did, I vaccinate anyway, because we believed Ferdinand to be vaccinated, and he died anyhow. Sorry, everyone gets the tetanus jab at our farm.


Willow went to CSU several weeks ago, with symptoms that just would not quit. Upon an initial visual exam, and my list of symptoms, it seemed that he was going downhill rather quickly due to anemia from a heavy worm load . My treatments were not helping, and the only option was a full blood transfusion. 


 Willow and Shannon at CSU


Fun fact: If you need a blood transfusion in a sheep at CSU, you need to bring the donor sheep yourself!


Kidding aside, that really wasn't an option anyway, as the cost was well beyond necessary. He was suffering, and I did not believe there would be a way to save him. We took him to CSU for fear that it was something else, and I wanted to understand if there was risk to the rest of my flock.


The good news is that NO, there is no risk to the rest of my flock. Willow was unlucky. Like Bluto. 


The initial symptom was bottle jaw, a common symptom of haemonchus contortus, or barber pole worms. These are relatively common in sheep, and I always have the medicine on hand to treat this. To prevent resistance to the meds, I only treat when symptoms are present. Usually, once treatment is completed, the sheep is fine and goes back to normal.


Willow got better, then the bottle jaw would return. I would treat. Lather, rinse, repeat. I treated twice with my standard med (Ivermectin). Then I went and picked up something different (fenbendazole).  So I tried a different med. Twice. It kept coming back. I also ordered Cydectin (which I will now keep on hand on my vet's advice. I lost a brand new, very large bottle of this to the house fire, they don't stock it at my local feed store)


 He would go back and forth with wanting to eat voraciously, to sitting all day. He was losing weight. On his last day, he could no longer stand, the weight loss and anemia had drained all his energy. I was tube feeding him raw milk and vitamins, just to keep him alive until the vet could come. After Dr. Flinchum said he didn't have the means to help, Shannon and I loaded him into the Volkswagen and took him to CSU.


They were very kind and stayed with us and Willow while they ran fecal tests and blood tests and did ultrasounds of his internals. His digestive tract was all inflamed. No worms in his poop, and his protein levels were so low, they had never seen them this low on a living sheep before. Sigh. 


The necropsy finally found several things. His abomasum (the final chamber in the ruminent, called the "true stomach") had dead worms in it (so he did have worms, and my treatment worked!).  But he had fungal abomasitis - aka, a fungal infection in his abomasum. He couldn't digest any food. He couldn't digest the dead worms, which is gross. No nutrients were being digested at all. This would cause the weight loss, and the anemia that I diagnosed as recurrence of worms. 


They said there is no way to diagnose this on a live animal and no way to treat it. Willow had no chance to live. This is so rare and so abnormal that it took CSU a long time to come to this conclusion. It is so rare and so abnormal, they also think the risk is very low that any other sheep in our flock will get it. It's not contagious, it's not from something he ate. He was just unlucky. Poor bud. 


So the good news is that it's not contagious, systemic, infectious or anything.  However, I was secretly hoping for something that was systemic but also easily treatable. He isn't the first lamb we have lost this year. 


The obvious answer (chronic weight loss with high appetite) would have been Johne's. OH GOSH NO! Super glad it is not that, and if it were, I'd have other sick sheep, not just lambs.


But I did talk to my vet when he was on the farm, and he said my theory seemed sound. OK, I am saying this out loud and it's really hard for me. Including Willow, we have lost 13 lambs on the farm since Willow was born. He was born last May, and was actually the first lamb born after the grain incident, and he was also the last one we lost. 


Willow and mama Mara the day after he was born 


Prior to the grain incident, we've maybe lost 13 lambs total in the previous 11 years, and that includes the year we had 7 stillbirths on the farm (never did figure out why, but that's never happened again).


 Freyja and her twins, both died several weeks after birth


I really thought something big had changed on the farm causing so many baby losses. With the grain incident, we lost 3 pregnant ewes. Mara was the first sheep to make it through lambing without getting sick and dying herself.


But after Mara, 12 other lambs passed away. Dr. Flinchum agrees that many of them would have died from Copper Toxicity that they picked up from their mothers while in the womb. All of their moms were pregnant and had eaten extensive amounts of chicken grain during the "incident".  Each lamb presented differently - some stopped eating, lost weight and died, even when given milk from a bottle. Most of them bloated quickly, sometimes faster than we could even respond to. Some got sick, and had symptoms of pneumonia. One seemed to have symptoms of tetanus. Each one seemed to have some sort of answer, so we didn't send off for a necropsy, thinking of them all as individual, rare and unique cases.  So when Willow got sick, I thought it was time to find out. And of course, his case is unique and rare and individual and provides no answers for the other 12.   Some of those 12 were also bottle lambs that came from off farm, and if they never got proper colostrum, they were at high risk of mortality and I knew this. But that was only 3 of the entire batch. 


So hopefully now, we are well past any ewes that were pregnant at the time of the grain exposure. So what have we done differently?


  • We have wrapped the grain bin bases with fencing, so the sheep, if out front, can't get under the bins to open them, and expose themselves to grain. 

  • We have added a pneumonia vaccine to our standard vaccine schedule, hoping this may help with what appears to be increasing occurrences of pneumonia.

  • We have moved up our vaccine schedule for lambs from 8 weeks and 12 weeks, to 4 weeks and 8 weeks, giving them protection from tetanus, clostridium, pneumonia and caseous lymphadenitis earlier in their lives. Many of these lost lambs were very very young.

  • I also found a loose salt mix that has added Molybdenum, which binds to copper to help remove it from their system. I am not sure if this is too late, but might be a future protection for my flock to ensure that copper gets removed, instead of piling up in their system.


Will this fix everything? I don't know. But the above 4 steps cause no harm, and hopefully will improve things on the farm.  Lamb losses are the worst thing that happens on this farm. It's just heartbreaking and always full of what-ifs. At least we know we did everything we could for Willow, and he was able to be put to sleep peacefully and in our arms at the vet. Goodbye, little dude. I am so sorry that luck was not on your side. Thank for you being such a sweetie from day one until the last. And thank you for teaching me something new. 


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