Hypothermia in Lambs
I am not a veterinarian, I'm a farmer. The advice offered here is based on my own experiences and what I have learned from veterinarians in the past. If you have a veterinarian, consult them.
If you have an animal that you believe to be unwell, and you have access to a veterinarian, contact them immediately. If you don't have a veterinarian, you may consult my advice and make decisions based on your best judgment.
I know the feeling of searching the internet for answers to health problems that arise in livestock, and how frustrating it can be to find what you need or to find articles that disseminate information well. It's with that in mind that I write this with immediacy, as opposed to the personable style of many of my other articles.
Identifying the Lamb's Condition
Time is not on the shepherd's side when cold, chill, or hypothermia are suspected in newborn or young lambs under one week of age. Determining which condition your lamb is suffering from is critical in choosing how to treat the lamb.
Diagnosing hypothermia, which is the life-threatening condition in which an animal's body temperature becomes dangerously low, is most easily done using a rectal thermometer. If the lamb's temperature is below 99 degrees Fahrenheit, the lamb may have hypothermia and will need to be assessed to determine if immediate rescue care is needed; ignoring the lamb's condition will result in coma and death.
But what if you don't have a thermometer? How will you know what's wrong and what to do?
Let's jump right into symptoms that can be readily observed, and their potential causes and treatments.
Cold Lamb—Shivering, but Able to Walk and Stand
Your lamb does not likely have hypothermia, but it is certainly cold, and it may be chilled.
- If the lamb can stand and/or walk, bring her to the ewe's teat and help her get a drink. Feel the inside of the lamb's mouth to make sure it is not cold to the touch, and to test the suckle reflex. A lamb that is still able to stand and walk around is likely going to be able to suck from the ewe on her own, but may need your help getting there and restraining the ewe. After the lamb has had a good drink, you may dry her off with a clean towel if she's still wet from birthing.
- If the lamb is hunched, with a curved spine like she is trying to curl in on herself, then she is probably going to need to be brought somewhere warm. I have seen this happen more frequently to lambs who are already a day or two old, no longer wet or damp from the lambing process, and have already had adequate colostrum and milk. A sudden environmental change such as a draft in the barn or shed that wasn't there before can bring on this state. If the lamb is so cold as to be hunched over, you can try bringing her to the teat to see if she will drink, but likely she will not, and she needs to be brought inside or put somewhere warm. You'll know when she is feeling better—it should be rather quickly—she'll begin to cry out, squirm if you hold her, and generally resume being an active little lamb.
With newborns and cold lambs that you found hunched over you must check the lamb frequently, every 20 minutes or so, to ensure that she is warming up from feeding and not getting any colder, especially after you intervene. If the lamb goes down, you are dealing with a lamb that is more than just cold. Keep reading for advice on saving a chilled lamb.
Chilled Lamb—Shivering and Cold but Unable to Walk or Stand
A lamb that is shivering and cannot walk or stand, especially one that is laying on her side, is a chilled lamb. This lamb is heading towards hypothermia fast, and you must act quickly.
- Wrap the lamb in a towel or blanket to protect it from the elements while you move it, and bring the lamb inside your home or into another warm environment. I recommend bringing a chilled lamb into an area that is at least 70 degrees.
- The lamb will lay on her side and continue to shiver as she warms up.
- Test the lamb's suckle reflex—she isn't likely to exhibit one at this point, but keep checking. Once she is able to eat, it will be important to get food into her, whether via her mother or with an artificial or homemade milk replacer or colostrum.
- A chilled lamb is ready to be placed in a pen with her mother after she is warmed sufficiently to be able to stand and walk. She will also likely start calling out.
It's very important to make sure that the cause of the lamb becoming chilled isn't starvation. Starvation and low body temperature go hand in hand. Once the lamb is recovered from being chilled, bring the lamb back to her mother. If you haven't already, now is a good time to pen the lamb and the ewe together separately from the other sheep in an enclosed structure that is out of the wind and free of drafts.
It's crucial to make sure the lamb is able to suckle from the dam at this time.
- Place the lamb directly at the teat if you have to.
- Make sure the ewe will allow her to suck and has not rejected her.
- Make sure the lamb is able to suck. You may have to put the teat in her mouth, move her mouth directly over the teat, draw some milk onto your finger, and stick it in her mouth to get her started suckling again; you can attempt any number of tricks that'll help you troubleshoot this.
- Make sure the ewe has milk in both teats by milking some out. If the discharge is dark, smelly, or bloody, you will likely need to treat the ewe for mastitis. In this case, I would recommend removing the lamb (and other lambs as well, in the case of twins or multiples) until you can determine the cause of the ewe's illness. Feed the lamb a colostrum replacer of your choosing if it is within 24 hours of birth. After the 24 hour mark, you may feed a milk replacer (but remember, never give a lamb commercially produced cow's milk replacer—you would be better off with whole cow's milk purchased from the grocery store).
- If the lamb is able to feed from the ewe, you can leave them together and check on the lamb every 30 minutes or so, for as long as is feasible for you, until you feel sure she is not becoming chilled again.
If the cause of the lamb becoming chilled is not starvation, it is almost certainly environmental. Stoop down on the floor of the barn or shed where you are penning your lambs and feel for drafts. You need to investigate the environment that they are living in to see where the issue is. Hang blankets over windows or north-or-east-facing doors if there are strong winds creating drafts. Simple steps like that can save lambs' lives.
Hypothermia—Cold, Unable to Walk or Stand, and Not Shivering
A lamb that is cold to the touch, especially inside the mouth and just inside the ears and is not shivering, is almost certainly suffering from hypothermia. Take a deep breath and get yourself calm—you can still save this lamb.
Keep two important points in mind: you must not warm this lamb up too quickly, and low body temperature is probably not what's going to kill the lamb at this point—low blood sugar will. Here's what you need to do:
- Bring the lamb into a warm environment, preferably inside your house. You can lay the lamb in front of your wood-burning stove or a space heater if available. Protect the lamb from the chill of your floors with a thick blanket or several towels.
- Do not vigorously rub the lamb, especially in the legs. Warming a lamb with hypothermia too quickly can cause death by shock or cardiac failure. Don't use a blow dryer or a heat lamp. Let the lamb warm up slowly.
- Do not submerge the lamb in warm water. I've seen this recommended, and perhaps you could get away with it in a lamb that is only chilled and not fully hypothermic, but it is dangerous to raise the body temperature so quickly; the lamb may die from your efforts. Aside from this, the smell on the newborn lamb that the ewe will need in order to recognize her could be washed away, leading to the ewe rejecting her later.
- Do not give a lamb with hypothermia any colostrum or milk. With her body temp this low, she cannot digest it; even if she can, she will give up precious body heat in doing so.
Treat the hypoglycemia: Your lamb is likely to have dangerously low blood sugar if her body temperature has dropped so low that she has actually stopped shivering. Hypoglycemia will lead to coma and death if not arrested and reversed. Use one or more of the following methods to save your lamb.
- If you are properly trained, administer sterile dextrose via an intra-peritoneal (IP) injection (calculate the proper dose based on body weight). If you are not trained on giving an IP injection, I would not recommend doing so for the first time when a lamb is crashing; you need the assistance of an experienced person or veterinary professional. Do not wait for someone to come to your rescue. Remember that hypoglycemia is fatal if left untreated, and it is not enough to just warm the hypothermic lamb at this point—you must provide her with energy so that she can start producing body heat again.
- Put a small amount of honey or maple syrup on your finger and rub it under the lamb's tongue and on the gums. The goal is to get glucose or some type of sugar into her body. Even using sugary corn syrup would be better than nothing. Do this four or five times, and watch the lamb's behavior.
- Using a small oral syringe or a regular syringe with the needle removed, give the lamb 3-6 cc (milliliters) of an oral rehydration product. You can use a sugary sports drink in a pinch, but the commercially produced powdered products designed for lambs, calves, and goat kids have always worked well for me. When I've used a product like Re-Sorb for this purpose, I disregarded the mixing instructions and made the solution thicker.
After giving the lamb sugar, watch the lamb carefully. As the hypoglycemia is reversed and the lamb begins to warm up, she should start to shiver. Where this was a warning sign before, it's a good sign now. Her body temp is rising, and she's on the road to recovery.
As before, check the lamb for a suck reflex periodically. If she'll suckle, it's a good idea to get some colostrum or milk (whichever is appropriate for her age) into her so that her energy will not run out again, leading to another crash.
If the lamb is very weak or "floppy," which could very well be the case at this point, you may not be able to bottle-feed her or bring her to her mother to nurse. One option in this situation is to use a stomach tube to feed her, but again, if you aren't experienced with that particular procedure, I would not recommend doing it, as you can accidentally pass the tube into the lamb's lung and essentially drown her or perforate surrounding tissues.
Instead, you can use a syringe without a needle to orally feed the lamb very small amounts at a time, only a few cc's. Be careful not to squirt the liquid right down the lamb's throat, or she might aspirate; instead, squirt small amounts at a time into the lamb's mouth and let her swallow it on her own. Many people claim this is a pointless process, providing too little feed for your efforts, implying that the lamb will starve anyway. In my experience, that's entirely false, and I've saved several lambs and a goat kid from starvation using the slow and steady syringe method. It can be very time-consuming—you may need to sit with the lamb for an hour or more doing this until the lamb is strong and warm enough to suckle either her mother's teat or a bottle. (In other words, if you can't tube feed you're kind of stuck with the oral syringe, and if you find that's a drain on your time, you should get someone to teach you to tube feed for future emergencies.)
After you have reversed the hypoglycemia, warmed the lamb past the point of shivering, and gotten some food in the lamb's belly, you should return her to her mother. If the mother rejects the lamb after repeated attempts to bond them back together, then congratulations, you now have a bottle-baby. Only return the lamb to her previous environment if you can be sure she will not be in direct wind or drafts (again) and will not get wet. If you can't be sure of this, or, like me, you experience sub-freezing or even sub-zero temperatures during lambing season, it's a better idea to just keep the lamb inside your house for at least 24 hours to make sure she is stable, staying warm, and getting enough to eat.
Starvation and Hypothermia—Understanding the Vicious Cycle
Now that you've saved the cold, chilled, or hypothermic lamb, it's a good time to learn about the starvation-hypothermia cycle if you don't know about it already.
Starvation leads to low body temperatures in newborn and young lambs, as a result of the lambs lacking the energy to adequately warm themselves. Low body temp makes it harder for the lambs to move around to nurse, furthering hunger and starvation. Shivering, one of the early warning signs of impending hypothermia, steals energy from the already-hungry lamb. The lamb is too cold to move, she can't nurse, she has no energy, and so she gets even colder. This is the starvation-hypothermia cycle, and as I noted before, they go hand in hand. You'll rarely treat one without at least ruling out the other.
Lambs are born with enough energy to get them through a few hours on their own, even in relatively chilly environments. The colder the ambient temperature, the faster this clock of self-sufficiency ticks. If you add elements like strong wind gusts on pasture, exposure to rain, or bad drafts in your barn, the lambs are likely going to be in trouble.
Getting colostrum from their mother within the first hour after birth is extremely important. Without it, the lamb is likely to enter into the starvation-hypothermia cycle. Even if it's sixty-five and sunny, a lamb that lives for more than a few hours and doesn't nurse will begin to show signs of starvation and chilling. This is why early intervention is so important, and the first thing you can do to arrest the cycle is to ensure that the lamb can nurse.
Do everything you can and need to do to help the lamb get started nursing after the mother has cleaned the lamb. Some lambs get right to it without any help - they won't need anything from you except visual checks to make sure they're still thriving. Other lambs (and ewes) will need you to literally put the lamb to the teat, and in some cases even squirt milk into the lamb's mouth to show her where it comes from.
It's a good idea to get into the habit of stripping the teats, that is, removing the waxy plug by milking out the teats (once the ewe is done lambing, and you can do so without disturbing the early bonding process). Remember always that preventing hunger and starvation is the best way to prevent chill and hypothermia.
Demonstration of IP injection
Symptoms in Review
Lamb with hypothermia
can stand but probably hunched
cannot stand or walk
laying down on belly or side
may or may not suckle
cannot stand up or nurse
A Last Word on Caring for Newborn Lambs
Observation will be your best tool in the early hours of a lamb's life. Your instincts are likely to be your second best tool. Taking into account your experience and best judgment, your instinct usually follows that if something seems wrong, it is wrong.
I would offer one final piece of personal advice, if I may. I have a saying that runs in my head when emergencies with my animals occur, and I find myself pumped with adrenaline and on the verge of rushing around madly (or maybe even panicking, if you can imagine): "The faster you go, the more behind you get." Remember to take a deep breath, move quickly but carefully and with purpose, and trust your instincts and best judgment; you can save otherwise healthy newborn animals from a variety of problems that may befall them if you can match symptoms to their underlying causes, and intervene at the correct times and with the correct measures.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
My two-week-old lamb has been laying flat on his side. He is very stiff to the touch, his breathing is very fast and deep, and he seems to be having fits. What's wrong with him?
Contact your vet! That sounds very serious, and it will likely be fatal if not treated.Helpful 8
I have newborn twin lambs. One is fine; the other was discovered lying on her side, wet, uncontrollable shivering, with a low body temperature and unable to stand. I milked the Mom, and the lamb will suckle a bottle. It has been three days, and the second lamb still won't stand. It will stand and try to walk with assistance, then falls forward, spraddle-legged. It trembles uncontrollably when it asserts any effort or is moved. It suckles from the bottle, defecates, and urinates with no problem. It is also holding a normal temperature. Do you have any advice?
It sounds like naval ill. Administer penicillin to treat it. It could also be mineral or vitamin deficiency. Administer selenium and a vitamin supplement just in case.Helpful 6
I saved a lamb, and now it is having trouble pooing. What should I do?
You'll have to be more specific about the pooping problem, but when in doubt, please contact a vet!Helpful 5
© 2016 Rachel Koski Nielsen