A mysterious illness

I am going to confess something here that most shepherds would be loath to admit: much of our lamb flock is currently sick. Saying this here, in front of the world, makes me want to run and hide. Admitting such a thing can put the future of our flock at risk, since many people don’t want to buy sheep from sick flocks. I’m hoping that those people will hear me out and will learn a bit in the process. As this illness has progressed and I have come to finally understand the enemy I face, my eyes have been opened. I have learned things I never knew — and in the process, my flock will be all the healthier because of it.

In 2008, my flock was hit by a disease called sore mouth. It is a highly contagious illness related to the chicken-pox virus, and it appears around the mouths and hooves of infected sheep. In our case, the shearer brought the virus into our flock when we sheared the ewes before lambing. Two weeks later, the first lambs arrived and the first blisters appeared on our very vulnerable flock’s mouths. The mothers licked their lambs after birth and spread it to their newborn lambs, who broke out about two weeks after birth. Being so young, their mouths blistered and cracked and many of them couldn’t suckle. Those that could, spread it to their mother’s teats, and the mothers got mastitis as a result. We lost lambs. We lost ewes. We lost bags on wonderful ewes who then had to be culled. It was a terrible heartache that we learned a lot from. When it had finally run through the entire flock, it burned itself out. We triple disinfected every bucket, every feeder, every pen and barn to get rid of it — and we did. It never came back — not for years.

Then in June two years ago, a number of lambs broke out with blisters around their mouths. In my panic of deja vu, I assumed it was the same thing. We quarantined the flock and didn’t allow any animals on or off the acreage. Not all of the sheep got it — not even all of the lambs got it. This didn’t really make sense to me since I knew sore mouth is very contagious, but I figured there was some element at play that I simply didn’t understand. I also remember that it hit in late June and the lambs who got it were all in the same field — the East Pasture. I assumed that our vet had brought it in when he came to treat some sick lambs. In any case, it burned itself out and was eventually gone. The whole thing lasted for about four weeks, into about mid July, and I was happy when it was over. We disinfected again and hoped for the best.

Then the next year (last year) we got it again! Once again, it came in late June; and as I thought about it, it didn’t make sense. The lambs had been in that pasture for a while already — why didn’t they get it earlier? Besides, there were adults who had never had this highly contagious disease, and they didn’t get it. I started looking at the blisters and wondered: could this be something else, something we didn’t know about? But everything I read said that sore mouth was very hard to get rid of — and there was no mention of blisters with any other common illness. We waited until it burned itself out once again and then triple disinfected all of the areas. I was determined to get rid of this!

Summer is lamb time at our farm, which means that people come and go. Healthy lambs depart for their new homes all through the warmer weather. Having the lambs in quarantine not only hurts business, but it hurts our relationship with the public. I want to be able to bring visitors to see our sheep — and when the lambs are sick, it is no good for anyone, especially the lambs!

Moorit ram lamb with blistered mouth

Moorit ram lamb with blistered mouth

So when the blisters broke out again this year (left), I took a good, hard, analytical look. It sure didn’t look like sore mouth to me. Yes, the mouth was raw and blistered, but we also had raw, oozing skin around the eyes on several lambs. Nowhere in the literature does it mention eyes being affected. In the early stages, the skin looked more rashy than blistered. The blisters seemed to follow the rash in the worst areas, and there seemed to be some  photosensitivity too. Once again, the lambs didn’t break out during their first stint in the East Pasture — they broke out the second time they were housed there. And it was bad. I had two lambs who could hardly see, and there was blood dripping down the side of their faces from the broken blisters around their eyes. What the heck was this?

Another lamb with blisters on his mouth and nose

Another lamb with blisters on his mouth and nose

I called my vet and asked him to come. I showed him the eyes, the mouths, the noses. He looked, and I waited for his diagnosis and prognosis. I prayed he would see what I saw, and that he wouldn’t fall back on the easy answer (sore mouth), unless that’s what it really was. He looked me straight in the face and said, “Heck, Dee, I don’t know that I’ve ever seen this before! I’m not sure what this is, but it isn’t sore mouth. We’re going to have to figure this thing out. I’ll get the vet school at Iowa State University involved and we’ll see what they say.” I’ve never in my life been made so happy or so afraid by one short statement.

Find out the rest of the story in Friday’s blog. It looks like we’ve got it figured out, and it isn’t at all what I expected!


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  • Jane says:

    Reading this blog is like having an addictive, comic tragedy mystery mixed with animal kingdom. You should have run a contest today with guesses.

    Poison sumac? Hand foot mouth disease? Pinkeye? I know I made them all up….

    Cannot wait!

  • twinsetellen says:

    What blooms or fruits in late June? It reminds me of citrus rashes that some people get if they suck on lemons.

    I’m glad you know the answer!

  • Jane says:

    Honestly I know you post in the evening but I have already checked the blog twice!

    • Dee says:

      I actually usually post in the morning unless I have a very busy day. It should have posted about 11 a.m., but you can try to hit the “reload current page” button on your browser to make sure that you aren’t looking at the page that was loaded to your computer earlier in the day. Hope you find it!

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