Milk fever, Tums, and sick sheep

I got a call the other day from a good friend and fellow shepherdess who had a ewe who recently delivered a large lamb and, soon after, became weak and disoriented, just lying in the straw and showing little interest in her lamb. My friend had recognized the symptoms as those of “milk fever,” more technically known as hypocalcemia — a not-uncommon calcium deficiency in sheep, which tends to happen during late gestation or early lactation.

This problem is situational: at the end of gestation, the lambs grow very quickly and calcium is drawn from the ewe for rapid bone growth. At the same time, the ewe is filling her udder with calcium-rich colostrum, which will be needed once the lambs are born. As her calcium levels plummet, symptoms develop: drooping head, slower movements than the rest of the flock, muscle tremors (especially in the shoulders), aimless walking or lying in one place with head outstretched. As things progress, the ewe goes down and can no longer get up. At that point, the illness progresses very quickly and can end in death in as little as 6 to 24 hours.

My friend had treated her ewe with calcium injections, the usual treatment for milk fever. These injections are painful, and although they were keeping the ewe alive, she was beginning to act as if she no longer wanted to survive because of the shots. Once a sheep decides that it would rather die, it’s hard to keep them alive. My friend had called to see whether I had ever had this situation, and as it turns out, I had.

Many years ago I was in the lambing barn with a ewe who, although she was in labor, was not dilating. I sought to help her by massaging the cervix to open things up for delivery of her lambs. It was after midnight when my cell phone rang — a local shepherdess who explained that the vet had just left her place. She had a ewe down with milk fever, and the vet had told her that the ewe was “too far gone” and the shepherdess “ought to start digging a hole to bury her.” The friend was in tears and calling to see whether there was anything I could think of to help. I felt terrible. I knew I couldn’t leave my laboring ewe and go there to help her, but I also knew the feeling of being left alone with a dying sheep and no idea what to do.

As I massaged, my mind went into troubleshooting mode and I had an idea — perhaps a bit “out there,” but after all, the ewe was dying! I explained to my friend that since we knew the diagnosis was milk fever (according to the vet), then the solution was to provide calcium — a lot of it. When I was pregnant with our daughter, my OB suggested that I eat a few Tums each day as a calcium supplement. It worked for me, so I suggested the friend get some Tums, make a paste out of it, and start feeding it to her ewe. As I saw it, she had nothing to lose (the ewe was dying) and much to gain if it worked. She tried it and — believe it or not — the ewe quickly recovered! It was honestly pretty impressive how quickly the ewe was up, and we learned something interesting: in at least some cases, Tums can treat milk fever!

I’ve used this trick over the years and have suggested it to many others. In every case, the sick sheep has come out of the milk fever and survived — even thrived. I’m always asked how many Tums to give, and I honestly have no idea. I know it’s a lot, though, probably because of the way that sheep digest their food. It takes a while for anything to actually make it through the entire digestive system, so a heavy starting dose of Tums is critical. I usually suggest that they grind up at least six or eight as a first dose, then follow up every couple of hours or so with more ground up Tums until things return to normal. We usually make a paste with the powdered Tums and a bit of water (or Nutridrench, a nutritional supplement for sheep) and then slather the paste onto the back of their tongue using fingers or a drencher. Some of the paste will come out, but a lot goes in. I just keep giving more Tums until we see improvement — and then I continue to dose the ewe for an additional two days after she seems normal. Too much calcium over an extended period can cause urinary stones or constipation, but I’ve never seen these problems since we never treat for that long.

My friend called back this morning. They’ve been treating their ewe for three or four days now, and she has recovered. She is standing, eating, and mothering her lamb. This is a success story that I sorely needed. With Molly still hovering between life and death (see the blog dated Wednesday, February 14th, 2018), every success story brings me hope that she, too, will recover.

Our 2018 Winter Shearing fleeces will be posted to our notification list this Thursday afternoon. It is my goal to get it out between 4 and 5 p.m. CST, but this will be very dependent on what happens out in the lambing barn that day. If we have lambs delivering at that time, I will get the emails out as soon as possible after I return to the computer.

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