In four years of sheep farming, I’ve not encountered much sickness in our small flock apart from some body condition issues due to an early education on the importance of deworming and feed quality provision. Farmers, like all animals lovers, develop bonds with their animals. There is a fine line between pet and farm animal for some of us. Every now and again and animal comes along that we bond with and say, “This one will live out their days on the farm.” It’s inevitable. Dealing with sick animals is also inevitable, no matter your animal husbandry skills. The first time you lose an animal to sickness, old age, or injury can leave a very unsettling feeling in the stomach. I didn’t want to experience that feeling with our stud ram, so when he became sick I did like many of us do, I called the vet and did some online research.
Something Wasn’t Right
Our stud ram, newly acquired from another Canadian farm in the Spring of 2019, was introduced to his ladies in the beginning of November for a little over a month to hopefully catch the ewes in one of two oestrus cycles, which last for approximately 16 days. The ram was quite vigorous and active for the better part of the breeding period but as Christmas drew near he began to separate from his flock of ewes. He appeared tired but sturdy on his feet, but I made a note of it. A few days later, while still in the pen with the 7 ewes, he had difficulty moving around the pen with the ewes and was nearly trampled. His condition had changed and it was clear that something wasn’t right. Normally, I’d administer some Nutri-drench as a first line treatment with a sick animal showing symptoms of malabsorption of nutrients, but with none on hand, I had to consider other options.
I like to check the body condition of as many animals as I can from late Summer until early Spring as Shetland fleece’s can grow quite large and poor body condition can be hidden under the fleece. Upon manual massage, he felt under condition, which I attributed to the work of managing 7 ewes. Body condition of a ewe or ram can be done by doing the following:
- Touching the spinal area between the hip and last rib of the animal.
- Gently massaging the animal to feel for the sharpness of the spine just beneath the wool.
- Gently feeling the transverse processes to the left and right of the spine.
- Checking the musculature of the hip.
- Checking the musculature of the shoulder.
Make use of your local veterinary services
Shortly before Christmas, the ram had become listless and weak, showing difficulty getting around the pen and holding his weight. With the office not opening until after Christmas day, I set to work with supportive care for the ram, giving him free choice hay, some oats, and fresh warm water to drink.. With him separated in his own pen away from the bumps and thumps of the ewes, he was able to rest. We blanketed him with a large-sized calf blanket and he appeared to be somewhat comfortable but tough days were still ahead, while we waited for the vet to come to the farm.
When the vet arrived, his behavior and posture had changed to a point that we suspected a high worm load and possible listeriosis, commonly known as circling disease. He wasn’t circling but he demonstrated leaning against the wall for support, which is commented on in the Merck Veterinary manual as a behavior to observe. She gave him a shot of selenium (due in large part to our selenium deficient soils in Northern New Brunswick), some painkiller (Metacam), some antibiotic (5 mL of Duplocillin), and assessed his condition.
Many years ago, I read the book, “All Creatures Great and Small”, by James Herriot. This novel established my expectation bar for any all vets or animal care givers. I was very pleased with the vet’s thorough assessment of the ram and I gleaned some knowledge to carry forward with the care of my sheep. Side note: Deworming regimen. At the end of the call, the vet advised me to continue supportive care and gave him a 10% chance of recovery, given his loss of condition. The outlook on the horizon was dreary.
The Scientific Method – How to heal an ailing ram?
I’ve never been one to back away from a challenge, no matter the size or complexity. I don’t like the feeling of helplessness. Armed with a trusty lap top computer, I spent the evening at home researching the rams symptoms and possible solutions to his ailment. As a school teacher who teaches science, I thought i’d put the steps of the scientific method into action in hopes of getting answers. He had received all but one dose of his 5 day run of duplocillin but I felt I had to do more.
- Ask a Question? How do I heal a ram who is thin, unstable on his feet, has a sore neck, has a high wormload, and presents with possible neurological symptoms?
- Research – Read the Merck Veterinary Manual on symptomology of Listeriosis. Google how to heal a ram with the above presentation of Symptoms. Reach out to other local ruminant farmers for possible solutions (Vitamin B injections?)
- Construct an Hypothesis – In this case I constructed the hypothesis that the ram would show improvements in levels of B vitamin, digestion, and hydration with administration of a dark Porter microbrew from a nearby micro-brewery.
- Test with an experiment – I had no intentions of making my ram a lab rat, but I knew small doses of microbrew (125 mL per day) would hydrate him and hopefully stimulate his digestive system as well as give him some much needed B vitamins.
- Procedure – After three days of beer administration by syringe, with the first two days showing a mild aversion to the tastse, the ram chugged the dosage on day 3, 4, and 5 showing a marked improvement in gait, response, and finally appetite. The fifth day was a hallelujah day. He was eating and drinking again.
- Analyze Data and Draw Conclusions – I noted behavioral observations throughout the whole 5 days of beer administration noting improvements in feces, gait, vocalization, reduction in teeth grinding, appetite, stability, and strength.
- Communicate the Results – I can assuredly say that the beer helped to hydrate the ram and improve his appetite. With no idea of his B vitamin levels other than knowing that with a high wormload they would be reduced, I can only surmise that the dark beer improved his B vitamin levels.
Whatever it takes
With the ram now eating comfortably, moving around his pen with much of his strength returned I can focus on getting his condition back to where it once was. I am thankful that through veterinary care, prayer, and with the help of medicinal Porter beer our little Shetland ram is returning to health. This experience has served a lesson for me as a farmer, never give up on your animals and do whatever it takes, even if the idea might not work. Sometimes a willingness to think outside of the box pays off. Please, feel free to comment or ask questions in the comment box below.