Monday, March 30, 2009

Ewe Turn

Warning: This story contains graphic details about NEEDLES. Read at your own risk if you are squeamish about shots. But it has a happy ending.

On Friday night, when a nasty winter storm was coming in, I tucked all the ewes into the barn for the night and threw them a bunch of hay (bravo for my apprentice E. for thinking to haul a bunch over from the other barn before the storm!). More hay, water, etc. on Sat. as I dashed off to work in the freezing rain, and again when I got home Sat. night after driving the bus for 8 hours in every nuance and shade of "wintery mix" (as the NOAA weather website so aptly calls it).

The barn is really the snuggest and driest it's ever been right now. It's wonderful. The roof shed nearly all the ice that accummulated, rather than ponding and pulling at the tarps and threatening the whole structure as it has in the past.

And with the ewes all shorn, there's plenty of room for them to spare. Which is good, because in a couple weeks there will be a LOT more sheep here as our twins, triplets, etc. arrive.

Everything was going so smoothly. Too smoothly, I guess.

When I went out Sunday morning to feed, the silvery grey Lincoln cross ewe I call Taylor (a.k.a. Tailor; we've never regularized the spelling of the spoken name. The point is, she has a long tail) was lying down. And she didn't stand up when I grabbed a bale of alfalfa. She didn't even stand when the other sheep ran over her to get to the hay.

She just lay there, looking dully off into space. The word "moribund" came to mind: on the road to death.

A "down" ewe is a serious situation. Sheep aren't designed, internally, to lay down for long stretches of time. They just don't do it, unless something is wrong. If they do it for very long, just being down can kill them.

I hurried into the pen and examined her quickly. No particular sign of anything amiss--no blood, no tangled twine, no swelling (other than her belly, distended with probably twins or triplets). But she didn't even try to stand when I pulled and pushed. On her brisket, head erect, staring into space. Not rigid, not limp. Ears pleasantly, normally cool (hot ears indicates probably fever and therefore infection). Not interested in food, not even alfalfa pellets. Not interested in water when I brought her some. Not dried molasses, not mineral. Nothing.

I gave her a dose of Nutri-Drench, which provides quick energy and vitamins and minerals. She reluctantly swallowed it, but didn't try to lick the extra off her lips. It's sweet, so they usually like it. Nothing.

I went in and read the books. Two possibilities stood out--two situations I've dealt with before, long ago: ketosis (pregnancy toxemia) and hypocalcemia (milk fever). They are not easy to diagnose, can resemble each other, and may occur together or sequentially.

For better or for worse, I decided to just continue on my way to church, and see what things looked like in a couple hours. Maybe it would be more clear, or maybe she would just magically recover.

When I checked her later, her hind legs were pushed out behind her somewhat...a classic sign of hypocalcemia. And with her freshly shorn wool, I could see the tiny quiverings of the muscles of her rump. She was visibly much worse, declining before my very eyes. Our previous hypocalcemia case had't been this bad...and I'd relied on the vet to sort it out and treat it.

But today was Sunday, the most expensive day for a farm visit. And this time I actually had the treatment on hand--calcium gluconate solution. I called the vet to get the directions and dosage for her, and he actually called back in less than 5 minutes (my REGULAR vet, one reason why he's my regular vet).

He didn't argue with my diagnosis. That both made me feel good (that he trusted me, and that I'd read the symptoms correctly) and scared me (she really WAS going to die without treatment). He prescribed 150-200 cc of the solution, intraperitoneally.

ACK! I've only done sub-cutaneous and intramuscular injections. This had to go right into her abdomen, with a 2 inch needle. Which I didn't have. "Push hard on the 1 1/2" one, dimple it right into her hide, and it should be ok," he said. And he told me where to make the injection, in her left flank.

And then I was on my own, to stab this long needle right into the vicinity of guts and lambs and everything else in there, and hope it went in the right place and didn't kill her. And of course with her laying down (and liable to stay that way until she decided otherwise...she weighs 200 lbs.), her abdomen bulged large on both sides, obscuring the hollow that would be easy to find if she were standing.

Well, she was already dying--worse even while I was on the phone--so at least it was a chance.

The worst thing was that the largest syringe I had that would take a needle (the others were catheter tip lamb tubing syringes, and the one with a special metal nozzle for drenching with wormers) was only 12 cc. So I had to inject her not just once but 14 or 15 times to deliver the full dose. (Shopping list: 2" needles; big syringes with Luer lock tips; new bottle of calcium gluconate).

Then all there was to do was wait and see what happened. If my diagnosis was correct, and I got the injections in the right place, she would revive quickly. If not, she would continue on her moribund path.

I checked and gardened, gardened and checked. And little by little she did improve. She nosed at her hay. She licked her lips. She looked at me, instead of off into space. More waiting, not getting much done in the garden because for once it really IS too muddy to work, even though the ice has entirely thawed and it's a gorgeous spring day.

By late afternoon, she was up on her feet again. Letting the other two ewes that were in another pen in the barn go outside was the final motivator. Often when nothing else will get a sheep to move, the sight of all flockmates going around the corner will do the job. She clumsily thrust herself to her feet and staggered a bit, unsteady. She took a few wobbly steps, and I thought she would fall, but she regained her balance. She squatted and peed! Within a few minutes, she was eating hay and moving around the pen normally.

Her condition continues to improve, and she's clearly made a U-turn and is going the "wrong way" on the road to death. (Sorry, I just couldn't resist the sheep pun!)

So why the sudden bout of hypocalcemia? When it happens pre-lambing, it's often because of sudden weather changes or other stress. We certainly had the weather changes, but then there was also the dog harrassment episode a couple weeks ago, then shearing, then moving into the barn, the awful noise the storm must have created on the tarp-and-plastic roof, the change in hay quality, the friend's dog that's visiting for a week...many little stresses. And we won't know until she lambs how many she's carrying--more than twins would put an extra stress on her body. If I recall correctly, she was a triplet or possibly quadruplet (she's from the cohort that the tenants made choices about when I went to Canada).

No comments: