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Pets Large & Small

Lambing season

Dr. Kimberly Brokaw, DVM

(7/2013) Most horse people (racing thoroughbreds not included) like to time breeding their horses so that the foals are born late enough into the spring that the weather is warm and pleasant for all. The goal with thoroughbred horses is for an earlier foal out day in order to get a competitive advantage in racing that comes with an extra month's growth. Sheep are usually born earlier in the year by design so that they can be larger when taken to market. So while they have more time to grow before the spring sales, it makes for cold days during lambing time of year. Sheep farmers expect to be out in the barn on cold and rainy nights in early spring. Veterinarians hope to sleep on those night, knowing that full nights of sleep will be scarce once foaling season begins.

It was five o'clock in the morning when the pager went off. Having been up late the night before with a colic, it was even harder to pull myself out of the warm bed. However, this client was experienced with sheep and lambing. While she had originally acquired the sheep to be part of her children's 4-H projects, as she had continued breeding for the county fairs, and shows, she had come to enjoy sheep farming. Her sheep are well tended and carefully monitored during lambing. When she said she needed help getting the lamb out, I knew she really did and wasn't just over-reacting.

Being a cold March morning, I put on long underwear, and ski pants. I knew that I'd have to take my coat off and would be working in short sleeves in order to be able to get my arms in the sheep to try and deliver the lamb.

When I pulled up the farm, my client had fresh towels and a nice bucket of warm water waiting for me. The sheep was in the barn in a stall deeply bedded with clean straw. My client said she thought the sheep might have actually gone into labor last night but hadn't thought she'd seen real contractions until an hour or so ago. If the sheep had been in labor all night, I wasn't too hopeful that the lamb would be alive. I was grateful that the owner had observed her sheep carefully most of the night. Even if the lamb was dead, the mother would probably survive due to the owner's attentiveness. If a sheep is in labor for many hours without intervention, the sheep and her lambs often do not survive.

I stuck my gloved and lubed arm in and felt a lamb. Its legs were bent backwards, blocking it from being able to get out through the birth canal. The lamb wasn't moving so I was doubtful that it was still living. The nice thing about sheep as opposed to cows, is that even though they push against me when I'm working in them, they lack the strength a cow has. Also my small wrists and lack of forearm muscles are an attribute when working on sheep as I can reach and manipulate the lambs. When working on cows who are having difficulty birthing, I almost always have to involve the farmer and have him use his physical strength to help me get the calf out. Lambs tend to be much easier for me, as my small wrists become an advantage.

It didn't take much time until I had pushed the lambs head back inside the sheep, grabbed the front legs, lifted them up into the birth canal, and pulled the lamb out, allowing it to flop into the hay. To my surprise the lamb started to breathe. As the owner was toweling off the lamb I reached back in the sheep to check for twins or triplets. A twin was present but also easy to position and pull out.

While no one wants to get out of bed on an early and cold morning, it's always pleasant to see two freshly born lambs, up and nursing. I washed my hands and as I got back in the work truck, I thought about the ease with which I assisted in the delivery. I again found myself saying how much I prefer my middle of the night calls that involve working on well handled sheep inside of a nice family barn, as opposed to middle of the night, infrequently handled, cows in a muddy field. So many of my middle of the night bad birthing calls begin with animals in extreme conditions, do not end well. The ones that end well remind me of the many reasons I enjoy veterinary medicine.

Read other articles by Dr. Kim Brokaw