Nobody ever plans for medical emergencies, they just happen. Usually when you are not expecting them and almost always at an inopportune time. That is what happened to us last week.
My beloved Katherine came down with the same symptoms as the ewe that died. I. Was. Devastated.
Before we go any further, let me say Katherine recovered fully and we learned a lot about basic biology and even more about cause and effect of both friendships and vitamins. I’m not an expert or a scientist but let me explain as best I can.
When we dropped our beautiful black ewe’s carcass off at the state vet he did a necropsy, the animal version of an autopsy, to determine the cause of death. His response to us afterwards was she died from an infection caused by eating some bad hay. I was crushed to think I was not careful enough to prevent this tragic loss and I promised myself I would do better. And then Katherine staggered.
Let me back up a little. When sheep eat they have lots of hungry bacteria hanging out in their gut that helps to breakdown and digest their food. If the bacteria are used to eating hay and you give the sheep a big helping of grain the bacteria can’t handle the change so they all die. The dead bacteria become toxic and begin poisoning the sheep. One of the symptoms of this bacterial poisoning is staggering, like a drunken sailor.
This type of mass bacterial expiration can be caused by switching quality of feeds faster than the bacteria can adapt, adding large quantities of grains they are not used to, or even feeding just a bite of tainted hay. The delicate balance, once upset, can be a death sentence. The bacteria evolve to match the diet and any sudden or significant change is deadly to them. It’s like giving a person who eats only a low carb diet a box full of doughnuts. The human in question will get hyper, possibly angry or anxious, and will likely crash as the sugar wears off. The bacteria do the same except the crash is fatal. What happens to things that die? They begin to decompose.
We don’t know exactly what the sheep got into. We bought 6 round bales of hay last fall, from a reputable farm that sells good quality hay without pesticides or weedkillers, and we stored all 6 the same way. We had just opened the 6th bale and were beginning to feed from it when all this started. Our vet has looked at the hay bale in question and said she doesn’t see anything wrong with it, it looks like good hay.
We had been feeding the sheep on the ground, like most sheep farmers do, and the weather has been running hot and cold, creating a situation where the ground is frozen but the air is warm. The top layer of ice and snow melts but cannot sink into the ground because the underlying earth is frozen solid. The water puddles and pools creating a kind of poop soup. It’s possible that the sheep drank, or dropped their hay in, the poop soup. Sheep sometimes walk around with their mouths full and they don’t really understand the 5-second rule. If they drop some hay they snatch it right back up regardless of where it lands.
Either way, the sheep ingested something that didn’t agree with their gut bacteria. Pregnant ewes tend to give all their health to their babies first. Their systems feed and protect the fetus and then and only then if there is anything left over, the moms needs are met. Survival of the fittest and all that. Anywho, the mass expiration of all the gut bacteria became poisonous and symptoms started appearing.
Luckily Katherine was not as far gone as Nevea had been. We started the medical protocol and then I posted on Facebook and started getting help and advice from others. I believe it was this other help and advice that saved my stubborn girl, that and the tough constitution of this particularly argumentative sheep. In the wee hours of the night I started getting messages from someone who lives clear across the valley, messages that made me get out of my nice warm bed and run back out in the single digit weather to minister my dear Katie.
We gave her Cod Liver oil for vitamins A & D, a B Complex capsule, Tums for the tummy, and some molasses water. As fast as I could text we were passing messages about symptoms and solutions. I followed directions almost blindly, partly because I trust and respect my friend and partly because there really wasn’t much to lose at this point.
At 6 am two other friends were on my Facebook messages offering options and assistance. By 7 am we were huddling around Katherine in the cold and dark of pre-dawn adding more vitamins, some IV fluids and some anti-toxins.
By 10 am Katherine was perking up, by noon she was stomping at the dog! Poor Katherine has always had a love hate relationship with the Maremmas who guard her. She only seems to stamp and snort when she’s mad about something else but I was elated to see this display. She must be feeling better if she can lift her foot enough to stomp and not fall over in the process.
The vet showed up a couple hours later, she checked the sheep and tried to help me determine the cause. Unfortunately, since it wasn’t anything specific like disease or illness, the possibilities are endless. It could have been a bad spot in the bale. It could have been something she dug out of the compost. It could have been eating off the muddy ground. It could have been…. Just about anything. The only thing we know for sure, it’s not contagious because most of the flock would have gotten sick if it were.
When treating her we used the shotgun approach, threw everything we had at the infection until she was out of the woods. It’s hard to tell what worked but I can say with certainty that the vitamin B injections were invaluable. And hydration. Once we got her hydrated and supported with adequate vitamins she quickly regained her vigor as well as her appetite.
I’m not sure what all this will mean for her unborn lamb but that is something only time will tell. In the meantime, I am so very thankful for all my friends who supported us, in person and by phone. I’ve learned a lot, gotten a new book, and ordered enough meds and supplies to replace all that was donated.
Most importantly, I still have my favorite girl. And she’s still as pushy and demanding as ever.