On Wednesday, February 14, I wrote about my sheep friend Molly, who had a difficult delivery of twins, both of whom died in the process. She was in very rough shape afterwards, and I had no idea how much worse it would become. The two of us have survived a life-and-death roller coaster and have finally come out the other side — but it has been a long haul.
It isn’t often that I learn something totally new. Limited space here won’t allow all the details, but I can share the highlights. Molly’s initial issues were all the result of that traumatic delivery of twins, where she pushed for a very long time without dilation. When the vet and I finally got her dilated, the vet pulled her lambs out. Because they had not been in the correct birth position, he had to get into the uterus and turn the lambs, which caused bruising to Molly’s internal organs. Because all of the afterbirth didn’t come out, infection set in.
There were encouraging times, when she stood on her own, drinking water and nibbling hay, and there were bad days when I dreaded going into the barn. The bad days soon began to outnumber the good, and I had the sinking feeling we were going to lose her. Little did I know that it would get much worse before it got better! It soon became obvious that this was way beyond my vet’s ability to manage — they do a lot of work with cattle but not much with sheep. As I explored possible treatments in the days after Molly’s delivery, I got in touch with a friend and fellow shepherdess from another state who happens to be a vet there.
As Molly’s infection raged and her temperature spiked to dangerous levels, we switched her antibiotics three times, eventually finding a combination of two drugs that brought the infection under control. Yet the cure created its own problems. Sheep require bacteria to digest their food — much more than we humans do. Those many extended treatments of antibiotics killed off not only the infectious bacteria but also the good bacteria that she needed to live.
In reality, it isn’t the sheep itself that digests the grass or hay. Those foodstuffs enter a large fermentation vat in the sheep’s digestive system called the rumen. Sheep depend upon the rumen’s bacteria, protozoa, and fungi to actually break down the food, and the sheep’s digestive system then absorbs the byproducts of the microbes’ work. Without those microbes, sheep cannot digest food — they literally starve to death even if their rumen is full of grass or hay.
After so many antibiotics and high fevers, Molly no longer had the necessary rumen microbes to digest solid food. I knew her digestion had shut down when one day she was eating next to nothing and was no longer chewing her cud. When sheep are not cudding, they are not digesting. Knowing that she wasn’t eating enough to keep herself going, I had been giving liquid supplements in addition to her daily hay and grain ration — but I knew we couldn’t do that for long. Under normal circumstances, it takes about six weeks for sheep to develop the microbes for digestion their food, and I knew Molly didn’t have that long. We needed a quick fix — but I didn’t know what that might be. I texted my vet friend to see if it was time to let Molly go. And that’s when I learned about sheep transfaunation.
When my friend explained it to me, I honestly thought there was no way I’d be able to do it. The idea is to capture some of the rumen microbes from healthy flock members and keep the microbes alive long enough to transfer them into the sick sheep. My friend explained that there are multiple ways to collect the microbes, and some methods are better than others. You can 1) collect the wad of cud from a sheep who’s cudding (the best option) or 2) rinse the mouth of a sheep who just swallowed a wad of cud, catching the warm rinse water and, hopefully, a collection of unswallowed microbes (second-best) or 3) rinse the mouth of noncudding sheep, hoping there are enough lingering microbes (the least helpful, but better than nothing at all).
Rick and I went out with very low expectations, but I knew we’d lose Molly if we didn’t try. The rinse water had to be sheep body temperature (about 102 degrees) or a bit higher — microbes cannot survive temperatures that are too much higher or lower — so we took warm water outside with us and chose our victims. Qash was cudding and lying with eyes half closed, so I quickly hopped on her back and grabbed at the wad of cud she was chewing. I was shocked when I got it! We quickly rinsed her mouth with warm water (which we caught in a pan containing the wad), mixed it all up (breaking the wad apart into a more liquid state) and poured the entire mess into a pop bottle using a funnel. I then hopped into Molly’s pen and shoved the open bottle into the gap between her front and back teeth. As I inverted the bottle, Molly gulped down the warm liquid.
After that first success, we picked our next victim: Grace, an old gal who is now missing quite a few teeth. I figured she might be more likely to have bits of food caught in her mouth due to those gaps — and hopefully plenty of microbes too. We grabbed Grace and squirted warm water into her mouth at a rate faster than she could swallow, angling her head so the extra water would run out rather than back. We caught it in the pan that Rick held under her chin, and when we poured the rinse water into the pop bottle, I was amazed at both how greenish it was and how thick — it was more like a light syrup than water. We had obviously caught something more than grassy bits! We rinsed one more ewe, but I don’t even know who it was. We were told to collect from “at least two,” so we did the transfaunation from three ewes that night — and then we waited and hoped it would work.
Within three hours of the transfaunation, Molly began to nibble at hay and chew her cud. It was truly amazing — literally a life-saver. I have no idea why I had never heard of this over the nearly eighteen years I’ve been shepherding. If you are a shepherd, it may very well save one of your sheep too. Molly is now back with the flock, eating, drinking, and doing well. She will likely breed again next year.