One of the most important skills to develop when running livestock, is the ability to spot a potential health issue early on. This is a HUGE topic, that I couldn’t possibly adequately cover in one article, let alone a blog post. Realistically this skill can take years to learn, and even experienced farmers can miss the subtle signs of something amiss. My objective for this post is just to provide a crash course of some of the more basic symptoms of something being off.

Hunched posture, drooped ears – Animals that don’t feel well will tend to stand with their back hunched, and head down. This can be indicative of pain in the abdomen, or generally feeling crappy from any sort of infection. Hunch-y animals should be brought in out of the weather, have their temp taken, and be thoroughly examined and watched. I like to give these animals a dose of nutridrench or similar product to give them a boost, and possibly a shot of b-vitamins or other species appropriate vitamin or mineral supplement. Sometimes all they may need is to get some shelter from the cold while their system works out a digestive issue or small infection, but bringing them in will allow you to continue to monitor the situation and treat as things develop.

At the time that this photo was taken nothing was particularly ‘wrong’ with this goat othe than being underweight and needing deworming, though if he had been holding this posture in real life I might have suspected worse. (It is hard to find photos of sick animals, I am usually focused on treating them not snapping a pic)

Swelling – Swelling is an obvious sign that something is up. Especially with goats and sheep, it is important to observe the animal’s jaw area, for swelling. A puffy jaw indicates acute anemia, which causes the body to retain fluid which collects around the heart and lungs until it begins creeping up under the jaw when the animal puts its head down. This is a severe (yet not uncommon) health issue that needs to be addressed immediately. It is usually caused by Haemonchus contortus, commonly known as barber pole worm, which feeds directly on the host’s blood. This condition must be treated immediately and aggressively, or you risk losing the animal. Treatment consists of a regionally appropriate dewormer (seek advice of a vet for what wormer works in your area) and I like to give them nutridrench and an iron supplement. Just be sure that whatever you give to sheep is absolutely free of copper.

Other causes of swelling can be abscesses, traumatic injury resulting in a hematoma, or a hernia. In the case of a hematoma, there isn’t really anything to be done on the part of the farmer, it is just something that will take time to dissipate. An abscess will likely require draining, which may be done by the farmer, or may require the help of a vet depending on the size of the infection, whether or not antibiotics will be required, and of course what you as the owner are comfortable doing. A hernia is not likely something that will resolve itself, and unless the animal is very valuable is not worth operating on. As long as an animal is not inhibited by a hernia, you could theoretically keep them around a little while until they are close to butchering size and then put them down. I definitely would not breed animals that exhibit a hernia, as it would put a lot of pressure on the damaged abdominal wall which could cause the animal a great deal of pain. It could also be a genetic weakness that you don’t want to pass down.

This poor ewe got poked by a cow’s horn resulting in a large hernia. It never seemed to cause her any pain after the initial injury but rendered her un-breedable.

Another area to watch closely for swelling is in your animal’s udder. Swelling and redness, particularly but not necessarily one sided, are a sure sign of a problem. Sometimes a fresh mama will have one side or quarter of her udder come up swollen shortly after giving birth, and it MAY just be that their babies are not nursing the affected teat. Sometimes if there is a great deal of swelling the calf/lamb/kid can struggle to latch to the teat and therefore favors the small side. In this case all you will need to do is thoroughly milk out that side and try to encourage the babies to eat from it. If there is heat and redness I would suspect mastitis, but you can confirm this with a CMT, which I recommend every farm have on hand. Whether it be oversupply or infection, milking the udder out completely is the first step in treatment, and the consistency of the milk may help you identify the problem. Depending on severity of infection mastitis will likely require antibiotic treatment.

Coming up at the back of the herd or not at all – If an animal is usually with the herd but comes in last this is an early indication that something is off. They may be feeling down and need observation and extra TLC, they may be experiencing lameness, or if they are pregnant they may be getting ready to birth. Sometimes animals will hide impending illness due to the fact that in nature obvious signs of illness would make them a target, so occasionally you may not spot a poorly animal until they simply don’t come up with the herd. Noticing an individual is missing is a very strong indication that something is amiss, and should not be ignored.You may get lucky and they are just off browsing a particularly good area of the pasture, or you may find them hiding out, trying to die on you. Another life threatening scenario that is all too common is entanglement, or being bogged near a water feature. If you don’t find an entangled or bogged animal it can be a matter of hours before serious bodily harm is done, or stress or lack of circulation/water/shade can kill them.

Lameness – limping is an obvious sign that something is up. Most common are overgrown hooves, hoof rot, penetration of a foreign object, or mud scald. Other possibilities include traumatic injury, arthritis, and abscesses. If an animal’s head is dipping every few steps there is likely an issue with a hind limb, and if their head is bobbing up this indicates a front food issue. A quick inspection of the affected limb will most often reveal what is going on. Check for overgrowth, for a bad smell indicating rot or infection, and for swelling. Many lameness issues can become very severe and effect the long term viability of the animal if they are not address, however most lameness issues are easily treated on your own with consistent care. Good trimming is always the first step, followed by removing foreign debris, cleaning, and topical treatment. In some cases antibiotics may be necessary. I like to keep Schreiner’s Herbal Solution on hand for treating rot and mud scald, though it requires keeping the foot clean and dry, and treating for multiple days.

Rough coat, weight loss – both of these symptoms can indicate parasitism, but may also indicate poor diet, or digestive blockage. A common culprit is bailing twine or thin plastic membrane, so always be meticulous in your pasture clean up.

This photo of mama is a prime example of underweight, and had it been late spring instead of winter you could classify this as a rough coat. We had just gotten her in this photo and she was not able to compete for feed with the beef herd at her previous home. weaning her calf and giving her some groceries was all she needed.

not standing up when approached – Occasionally very tame animals will let you approach them while lying down, but the majority of prey animals will stand up if they see you coming. An animal that stays down with a glazed look in their eyes is showing severe weakness and lack of will to live. There are potentially hundreds of reasons why this could occur, so you will have to trouble shoot each situation, but it is important to know that this behavior is not normal.

Whew that was a lot. I still have barely scratched the surface, but I can’t go too in depth in one post, especially where medical advice is concerned. In all of these cases the inexperienced herdsman should consult their vet for advice to be sure to pinpoint what is going on and the appropriate treatment. In many of these examples having the vet out in person may also be necessary. I hope I have shared at least a couple of tips that can help you better care for your flocks and herds, and I hope I didn’t miss too much! What are some subtle signs that have clued you in that something is amiss? Comment below!



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