The last week has been a rough one for us. The temps in the days before had hit the 80’s – quite warm for mid-April in Iowa – but then late last week, the highs each day struggled to hit the 40’s. It seems like the entire past week has been one never-ending rain shower, although I’m sure we had some breaks in there at some point. Yet the combination of hot humid weather so early in the year, followed by such wet cold, is the perfect set-up for pneumonia in our lambs – and I honestly came out to the flock each day with fear and trepidation. Pneumonia can be a killer, and you never know which sheep it will strike.
Each day, I spent extra time with the flock, looking them all over and listening carefully. Pneumonia in lambs can have a variety of symptoms, and they aren’t always very obvious. Most times, lambs with pneumonia will cough, giving me a clue that all is not right. They usually don’t run as quickly in following their friends, and stop running much sooner than a healthy lamb. Once I have them in my arms, they feel exceptionally warm to the touch. A sheep’s normal body temperature (taken rectally) should run between 102 and 103, but we’ve caught lambs with pneumonia as high as just shy of 107. The fever is one of the deciding factors that something is indeed wrong, since not all lambs with pneumonia will cough – and if they do, they will not always do so when the shepherd is present. Over the years, we’ve had a form of pneumonia with which the lambs didn’t cough at all until the antibiotic began to kick in – it seems that the medicine helped to loosen the congestion so that the lambs could cough it out. This silent killer brought high temperatures and dead lambs, and unless I noticed that one particular lamb was moving slowly, it was very hard to find in time.
After so many years, I know the weather conditions that can bring on pneumonia, so during those times, I pay special attention. I watch for lambs who are not playing with others. I listen for coughing. When I feed, I look to see whether there are any lambs not joining in with the rest of the flock as they run to me. Anything out of the ordinary is good enough reason to check a temp. I cannot let this silent killer meander among my flock.
Walking among the sheep during these times is not the bucolic activity of poetry; I will admit that I feel the pressure to root out the threat. It is my responsibility to care for the health of the flock, and if I don’t catch a case of pneumonia early enough, it can be a death sentence for that lamb. In fact, even when I do catch it, that doesn’t necessarily mean a happy ending. When Peigi and Pegeen both came down with pneumonia within two days of each other about two weeks ago, I treated aggressively (it is not uncommon for siblings to share it with each other if they are still nursing – I assume that they pass it in the saliva on the teats of the ewe). Each of the girls got one antibiotic after another, along with shots of cortisone to reduce inflammation, and then an aspirin equivalent for fever and pain relief. I caught and treated them every day or two (depending on the drug of previous treatment) with all that we could offer, yet even so, we lost Peigi on Sunday morning. It was crushing.
This past weekend was exceptionally cold for May in Iowa. The rain poured non-stop on Saturday, as the high barely made it to 40, but Sunday was a bit better: the high climbed into the low 40’s and the rain was more intermittent. Yet when I fed the flock, I stood out there in the rain listening. Did I hear coughing? Could I see any sick lambs? Had I missed anyone at death’s door? Over the course of the week, we ended up with about ten percent of the lamb flock hit by pneumonia – not bad, but not good, either. Thankfully, it seems like – so far – we are winning the battle with the rest of them.
Finally, yesterday was a lovely spring day here. The sun shone and the air was warm – but thankfully not hot and humid. Our fields began to dry up and the flock no longer looked soggy and wet. I spent extra time with the flock yesterday – simply to make sure they were all well. I watched the lambs play in the sun and lifted my face to the gentle breeze. After such a long period of cold rain, it was a wonderful change! Even better, once the sheep were fed their daily ration of grain, the flock was silent – no coughing to be heard. The lambs played as their mothers ripped grass to fill their bellies. As the shepherdess, I stood among my friends, thankful for the quiet peace that has descended – and mourning the one we lost. I hope it will be the last loss of the year – but as I tell our young helpers, all life will ultimately end in death – this we know. The only part we don’t know is when. I hope that, for the remaining sheep in our flock and their lambs, that when is a long way off.