Diagnosing lameness in Soay sheep

Yesterday one of our neighbors knocked on our door, distressed that a pregnant Suffolk ewe on his nearby farm had become lame about four days earlier and, instead of getting better, she has declined to the point of not eating.  The neighbor was hoping our experience with Soay sheep would carry over into helping him diagnose his sick ewe.  We did the best we could to help him narrow the possible causes and evaluate whether to send for the vet.  I share this with you because we would use the same thought process were the sheep a Soay ewe rather than a big hulking Suffolk.

Symptoms:  pregnant, lame in front right and back right legs, ate and drank adequately for the first three days of lameness but then stopped eating and drinking water.

Steve and the neighbor talked through all of the following:

1.  The ewe did not show signs of scours or other intestinal issues (no yucky stools dribbling down her back end, to be precise), so no need for ProBios.
2.  The neighbor vaccinates his ewes annually for tetanus so that’s not it.

3.  The fact that the two right-side legs were lame seemed to rule out a rock-in-hoof cause and also probably ruled out spinal injuries.  We have had two Soay sheep who bashed so hard into fences or gates in unavoidable fright that they apparently did injure their spinal cords, but the symptoms in both cases were a single dragging rear foot that eventually healed just fine.

4.  There has been no change in feed source (grass, hay, and grain) for the last several weeks.

5.  Probably not an internal infection because no sign of fever or generalized overheating, no panting, no flailing.

6.  But … our neighbor is not diligent about putting mineral out for the sheep, so the ewes are either getting no selenium, or they are pilfering mineral from the black angus who share the pasture.  If they are getting no selenium, that’s a good bet for a diagnosis, especially in pregnant ewes.  Our ewes gobble down their mineral in the weeks before lambing.  If the neighbor’s sheep are eating the cattle’s mineral, they almost certainly are getting copper, which is in virtually all cattle mineral and which is highly toxic to sheep.

This particular ewe regularly delivers two big healthy lambs destined for market, so we’re guessing the neighbor will spring for a visit to the vet for a professional diagnosis.  Given the dangers of selenium deficiency and copper poisoning, we sure are hoping the vet finds something else, less serious, that is causing the ewe to decline so alarmingly.

Reminder to Soay breeders, especially in the weeks before lambing:  be sure your animals have round-the-clock access to mineral specifically designed for sheep.

For now . . .