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The Best Way to Take Care of a Rejected Lamb

Titia has been raising sheep for over 30 years. Her articles often focus on animal care.

How to take care of a rejected lamb

How to take care of a rejected lamb

Taking Care of Newborn Lambs

I have bred sheep for over 30 years. I raise a very old and rare Dutch variety called Drenthe Heath Sheep, or Drents Heideschaap in Dutch. This breed still stands very close to nature and natural behavior. The ewes take very good care of their own lambs. Yet sometimes I do have to step in when, for some reason, the ewe won't or can't feed her lambs by herself.

Not all breeders will take care of a rejected or abandoned lamb. Some say that if a ewe rejects her lamb there must be something wrong and they get rid of both. I don't do that, because there are so many (sometimes external) reasons why ewes won't take care of their lambs. I always give a ewe a second chance to prove that they can be a good mom. If she rejects her lambs a second time the next year, then I know she's not a good mom and I don't breed the ewe again.

Baby Lamb

I noticed that quite often people refer to a lamb as "baby lamb," but "baby lamb" is a misnomer. It's a double referring to the same thing so to speak. A lamb is the baby of a sheep. Like a puppy is the baby of a dog and a kitten is the baby of a cat.

How Do Ewes and Lambs Recognize Each Other?

When a ewe is giving birth, she makes these special noises that sound a bit like snoring. She is talking to her offspring inside. Once the lamb is born, they both make noises. The lamb and the ewe have their own specific noise or voice. That's how a ewe and her lamb will recognize each other in the midst of a big herd. They also recognize each other's smell. Put another lamb in front of a ewe and she will push it away, in not a friendly way. Our ewes have no pardon for lambs of other ewes and will even take it up in their horns and swing it in the air.

Within a few hours, the lambs learn to stay with their moms and keep out of the other ewes' way. In our breed, it is almost impossible to let a ewe raise a lamb that's not her own. In some other breeds, this is often done and then one doesn't have to bottle-feed an abandoned lamb. But our ewes are very ruthless and will injure or kill a strange lamb if it's getting too close to them.

Some Reasons a Ewe Might Reject Her Lambs

  • The ewe has no maternal instinct. It sometimes happens and when it happens the ewe can be very, very nasty to her lambs. She won't have them near her. In such a case I won't breed with her again.
  • Delivery is causing the ewe a lot of pain. A young ewe often connects birth pain with the lamb and doesn't want it near her afterwards. I had this happen once. The young ewe acted very rude towards her lamb and even took it on her horns. I decided to not breed again with this ewe.
  • The ewe is too young. If the ewe is too young, she might not know yet what to do with a lamb. This can happen when breeding with ewes in the same year they have been born. The Drenthe Heath Sheep mature very slow, like the animals in the wild. I never breed with ewes in the same year they have been born.
  • The lamb is sick or weak. There can be something wrong with the lamb. Most ewes sense that and don't bother anymore. Of course, you can try to keep the lamb alive, but I don't do that. If the lamb is not good, I'll put it down, because I don't want to breed with weak animals.
  • Something is wrong with the lamb's teeth. This causes pain when it's nursing. Lambs are born with teeth in the lower jaw. To avoid hurting mom's teats while drinking, the lamb's teeth are covered with a soft layer of skin. Sometimes this skin does not cover all the teeth and then it hurts while the lamb sucks the teat.
  • The ewe can be sick. Sometimes ewes can suffer from different things. Like inflammation of the udder or they have a bad udder. It also happens that the afterbirth won't come out and becomes infected. In any of these cases, you should call your vet because the ewe could die a painful death.
  • The lamb got touched by strangers. Never let family or friends pick up a newborn lamb. Picking up a lamb too soon can change its smell and cause the mom to not recognize her own lamb anymore. Even if you're the owner/breeder, be careful not to pet your dog before you pick up a lamb.
  • Something scared the hell out of mom. Take precautions that no dogs can scare the mom while giving birth to her lambs. Once, at a friend's place, a ewe had given birth quite close to the fence. The neighbor's dog came running and barking. The ewe was so scared that she didn't dare come close to her lamb anymore.
Drenthe Heath Sheep Lamb

Drenthe Heath Sheep Lamb

Sometimes Ewes Steal Lambs From Other Ewes

If you breed lambs, you may encounter this strange situation. Here is what happened on my farm. This story could help to prevent you from losing a lamb.

I once had a ewe that used to steal lambs from other ewes, long before she was due to deliver her own. The first time it happened, I thought she had given birth overnight. But then later that day I heard the lamb bleating very loud, and discovered the "mom" didn't even had an udder yet. I took both ewe and lamb home and started to bottle-feed the lamb (artificial colostrum first).

Two months later I was doing my daily inspection tour when I discovered a tiny little lamb in the grass. I thought, 'That can not be, all the ewes have given birth.' Then this same ewe came to the lamb, and I saw that she had a big, swollen udder. Then I realized that the lamb I was still bottle feeding was not her own at all. That she had stolen this lamb from a young ewe who gave birth to twins that night.

I had noticed that this young ewe was very restless and nervous. I paid no further attention to it because this often happens with ewes giving birth for the first time.

A year later this ewe stole one of the twins that already were about two weeks old. She wouldn't let it go and was fighting off the lamb's true mom. It took me quite a while and a lot of running around before I could catch her. I had to take her away from the other ewes and kept her in the barn until she delivered her own babies three weeks later.

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Sick Ewe and Triplet Lambs on the Bottle

A Story of Triplet Rejected Lambs

In 2015 I had a ewe that was carrying a heavy load. I reckoned she had twins inside. The last week of her pregnancy she could hardly stand up, she tripped a lot over her own feet, but she still ate well.

The birth went quickly and very well, but she didn't react at all to the screaming triplets that had come out. She didn't reject them either, but she turned away when the lambs tried to find her nipples. So I checked if everything down there was in order. What I discovered was that this ewe had a very small udder with hardly any milk in it. Last year there had been no problem at all with this ewe.

I called the vet to find out what could be the matter. He told me that ewes who carry triplets, don't have much space in their belly. The lambs take all the space and are pressing against all organs. The stomach can't contain a lot of the necessary food anymore. In fact, this ewe had been starving herself to death, giving all she got to her triplets inside. After the birth, she was weak and needed all her strength to keep herself going. Giving her extra nutritious food and a few vitamin B12 shots helped her to recover again.

This was the first time I have encountered this in 30 years of breeding.

A lamb and its mother.

A lamb and its mother.

Triplet lambs.

Triplet lambs.

Don't Disturb the Bonding Process Between Ewe and Her Lamb

You have to be careful to not disturb the bonding between the ewe and her newborn lamb. The ewe might not object to her normal caretaker (the breeder) touching her lamb. Yet she might object to strangers who have a scent she doesn't recognize. If a stranger picks up the lamb and holds it for a while, the lamb may take on their scent. The ewe might not recognize her lamb anymore and will reject it. Sometimes I let friends watch a birth, but always from a distance.

It is essential to give the mom and child the time to bond. When they're giving birth out in the field, a ewe will always find a place away from the other sheep, somewhere in a corner of the meadow. She will stay there sometimes for several days until she thinks it's time to introduce her lambs to the other sheep. Some ewes are so protective that they will attack a ewe or lamb that comes too close. This year even I got a head bang from a ewe when I tried to see if her lamb was a boy or a girl. "Hands off!' she said. "It's mine."

Give the Lamb Colostrum Within 24 Hours of Birth

Lambs must drink a certain amount of colostrum within 24 hours after birth. If they don't, they will be vulnerable to diseases and won't survive.

The colostrum contains all kinds of stuff to protect the lamb from getting sick. You can get colostrum either by milking the ewe or if that doesn't work you can use colostrum from cows or goats. You can do that beforehand and keep it in the freezer in small cubes so it will take not too long to melt.

Nowadays you can also buy artificial colostrum. To be on the safe side, a breeder should have at least 2 packs on hand when the lambing season starts. Ewes often give birth at night. If you don't have colostrum, another possibility is the following recipe.

Colostrum Replacement Recipe

  • One quart fresh raw cow or goat milk (use good quality pasteurized cow's milk if raw is not available).
  • Two egg yolks.
  • Two teaspoons of glucose or lactose (if unavailable, use sugar).
  • One teaspoon cod liver oil.
  • Mix well and give to the lamb in small portions.

This formula doesn't contain any of the antibodies that lambs need. Lambs don't get immunity via the placenta before birth. They have to ingest it through colostrum. This formula might keep the lamb alive until you can get colostrum from elsewhere.

You can feed the colostrum if the expiring date has passed not too long ago. You can't feed it anymore if it's from last year though. It could well be that the working elements don't work anymore and then the lamb may die. Yet in case of a real emergency, it's better than nothing.

Bottle-feeding a lamb.

Bottle-feeding a lamb.

Coaxing Another Ewe to Adopt a Rejected Lamb

Most ewes won't accept the lamb of another ewe, but sometimes you're lucky. It can only succeed if you have two or more ewes delivering lambs at about the same time.

Getting another ewe to adopt a lamb that is not their own is very difficult. There are several methods you can try. You have to be very careful because you could end up with another lamb you have to bottle-feed. If the ewe you have in mind gets too stressed, she might reject her own lamb too, and that is not what you want.

Different Methods to Get a Lamb Adopted

  • Smear the rejected lamb in with the birth fluid of the other ewe and put it in front of her. She might think she delivered twins. There is a small chance you can deceive the ewe. It has never worked for me though.
  • Some breeders who have a stillborn lamb remove that lamb's skin and put the skin over the rejected lamb. Put the lamb in front of the ewe who lost her lamb. I have never tried this.
  • There are so-called "adoption sprays". You use them on both lambs, the rejected and not rejected one to deceive the mom. This has never worked for me though.

Sometimes you might get lucky when a ewe has overwhelming maternal instincts. She might react very strongly to the sound of a distressed, rejected lamb. This happens sometimes with ewes who had lambs before and it happened only once o one of mine at the right time. The ewe adopted a rejected lamb at the moment she was in labor with her own lambs. I was so happy; I could have kissed her for taking the upcoming bottle-feeding load off my shoulders.

Ewe with adopted lamb

Ewe with adopted lamb

If You Have to Bottle-Feed the Lamb

The bottle-feeding must continue for at least two months, but preferable a bit longer. It is time-consuming. I only do it if I think the lamb has a fair chance of growing into a healthy sheep. To raise a weak lamb at all costs is not good for you, the lamb. It sure is not good for your herd if you want to keep the breed healthy and strong.

Newborn lambs drink little amounts, but often, so as a start you have to feed them every two hours. You can either use a beer bottle with a rubber teat or you can buy a special lamb feeding bottle. I've used both during the past years, but lately, I prefer the feeding bottles. They have a graduation scale printed on them, so you know exactly the amount each lamb is drinking.

Most of the time you don't need to feed a healthy lamb during the night. It will survive the night without and is all the more willing to drink early in the morning when it's hungry. If you have a very weak lamb, then you must feed it at night too. For the first days, it can be a bit difficult to get the lamb to drink from the bottle. You have to keep trying over and over until he or she grasps it.

Lamb Feeding Schedule for the First Week

(Every two hours from early morning to late evening.)

  • 8:00 a.m.
  • 10:00 a.m.
  • 12:00 p.m.
  • 2:00 p.m.
  • 4:00 p.m.
  • 6:00 p.m.
  • 8:00 p.m.
  • 10:00 p.m.

If you go to bed late, then give the last feeding at midnight.

Feeding After the First Week

  • After the first two weeks, you reduce the feedings to every three hours. Don't forget to increase the amount of milk too..
  • In the second month, the lambs will increase their portions but drink less often. The same way human babies do. Follow the instructions on the powder milk package and be a bit creative. If a lamb keeps bleating all the time, it's not getting enough milk.

Keep the Rejected Lamb Warm and in Company With Other Sheep

Some breeders separate an abandoned lamb from the other sheep. They put it in a small box under a hanging heating lamp. I never do that, because then the lamb gets isolated. When the lamb only sees humans who feed him, there's a possibility that the lamb forgets it's a sheep. The lamb will associate itself with its caretaker.

Back in 2001, when the foot and mouth disease exploded over Europe, I had an abandoned lamb. We were not allowed to move any sheep, but instead of letting it die in the meadow, I took it home to bottle-feed it. As I was almost the first person it saw, the lamb thought I was her mom and she followed me everywhere. It was of course very cute to see. After two months I brought it back to the meadow. I have never seen a lamb running so fast away from the other sheep, bleating and screaming. They were aliens to her and they scared the hell out of her.

She ran to people passing by the meadow, screaming her lungs out. She followed them to the end of the meadow. It took her several weeks to learn how to be a sheep again. Yet she never stopped seeing me as her mom. Every time I stepped into the meadow she would get under my feet. In the end, I had to sell her because I kept falling over her.

From then on, I have kept abandoned lambs in the company of other sheep. For the first week, I keep them in the barn until the lamb knows that her food is coming from me. They learn fast and within a day or two, they will come running over when you call them.

Rejected lamb

Rejected lamb

Using Powdered Milk

There is special powder milk for lambs. It contains all the minerals and vitamins that lambs need. Be sure to buy the right one, not milk for calves, and never use cow's milk that humans drink.

Shops that sell farm animal food supplies will have this milk replacer available. Buy big bags right away because you will need more than one until the end of bottle-feeding.

The bags include directions for how to dilute the formula with water. Follow those directions, or your lamb will get sick. The first poop the lamb makes should be black. After that the color will be bright yellow and it can be very sticky stuff. It may stick to the lamb's tail and legs. Watch out that the tail doesn't get "glued" to its behind, or the lamb won't be able to get its poop out. You can clean its behind with a cloth and warm water.

A Baby Bottle Nipple Is Not Suitable for Lambs

The bags include directions for how to dilute the formula with water. Follow those directions, or your lamb will get sick. The first poop the lamb makes should be black. After that the color will be bright yellow and it can be very sticky stuff. It may stick to the lamb's tail and legs. Watch out that the tail doesn't get "glued" to its behind, or the lamb won't be able to get its poop out. You can clean its behind with a cloth and warm water. So, why can't you feed a lamb with a baby bottle? Well, the difference lies in the length of the nipples. Women have short nipples and ewes have long teats. Using a nipple made for a human baby, the lamb won't be able to get a good grip. You can try it if nothing else is available, but it won't be easy for the lamb to drink enough milk. Farm supply stores will sell special lamb bottles with the right size nipples.

How to Bottle Feed a Lamb

Put the lamb in such a position that its head is away from you. Make sure the lamb can't back up. At first you have to open its mouth and put the nipple in. Squeeze it a bit so the lamb will taste some milk and as the lamb is hungry it starts sucking.

Sometimes you need to use some pressure (open the mouth) to get the nipple in. Holding the head under the chin keeps the head in the right position. Make sure the lamb won't suck air.

After a day or two they know who's feeding them and when they get stronger you can change position.

After one or two weeks I teach them to drink from the milk bar and when they know where to find it, they all move to the meadow. Then you only have to fill the tank two or three times a day and they can drink whenever they want.

Lambs Must Be Bottle-Fed for at Least Two Months

If you want the lambs to grow up healthy, you need to bottle feed them at least until they are about two or two and a half months old. By that time, I myself give them one or two bottles a day (or fill the milk bar once a day) until they are three months old, but that's because our breed is a slowly growing breed.

At the age of about two weeks, the lamb starts to nibble on grass or hay. When they grow older you will notice that they start chewing their cut too, but they still need their milk.

Ewes feeding their lamb(s) get less and less patient when the lamb(s) want to drink. They too decrease their feeding times until they refuse to let them drink at all. Lambs of two months old still need some extra food and you can give that in the form of lamb concentrates.

Be aware that some sheep breeds need copper in their minerals and some breeds don't. For most sheep breeds, developped for meat production, copper is poison. For most primeval breeds copper is essential to survive. If they don't get enough copper the sheep will get sick and can die. Every meadow is different in how many natural minerals and vitamins it contains. Providing minerals as an extra to the sheep is a must. They won't overeat themselves, they only take what they need. Some years they don't empty one bucket, other years they can't get enough and eat three of them. One never can tell.

Make sure to inquire when you buy sheep if the breed needs copper or not.

What if There Are More Lambs to Feed?

In case you have more than one lamb to bottle-feed, look for multi-teat milk bar feeders. You can teach many lambs to drink from these feeders. It takes some time, because some lambs are smart and some are not or are very stubborn.

The down side of milk bar feeders is that you don't have any control about the amount of milk each lamb drinks. The strong lambs will take the biggest portions and the weak lambs often get not enough. I thus replaced my multi-teat milk bar feeder with a multi bottle milk bar feeder. It gives you exact control over how much every lamb gets.

In 2015 due to circumstances, I had to bottle-feed 8 lambs at the same time. In the video below you can see how I managed that.

multi-teat milk bars

multi-teat milk bars

Sometimes You Can Use Surrogate Moms

A friend of mine has donkeys and breed them too. Sometimes she had a chance to use those donkeys as a surrogate mom for her rejected lambs.

A donkey feeding a lamb.

A donkey feeding a lamb.

Feeding Supplemental Mix

Sheep mix is supplemental food for pregnant ewes. They need extra nutrition to carry out their pregnancy and to produce more milk. You can feed lambs a special supplemental mix from the age of three to four weeks.

Sheep mix consists of grained dried nutrition including all the minerals they need. It helps the lambs to prepare for winter. Lambs born in late summer especially benefit from sheep mix. By the time they start eating grass, the grass is low in vitamins.

The length of time you have to feed sheep mix depends on the condition of ewes and lambs. I stop feeding sheep mix when the grass is growing again in spring and the sheep and lambs can eat the new grass.

Lambs like to climb, either on their mom or on something else.

Lambs like to climb, either on their mom or on something else.

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

Question: We have a baby lamb that we were given and he doesn't have any other company but us. No other lambs. I think he is lonely and won't stop crying. What do I do? How do I calm him?

Answer: When someone gives you a rejected lamb, always check if it has been given colostrum within 24 hours of its birth. If it has not have colostrum, it's a lost case and the lamb will die eventually. When you raise a rejected lamb, you must keep in mind that a sheep is a gregarious animal. Taken away from the herd will make it nervous and it will start to see the people who care for him/her as 'his own' sort. So in other words: you are the members of his herd. Raising a lamb is a lot of work for at least three months and the problem is that it will get so attached to you that it will be scared to death if it's been put back to other sheep. It will not know it's a sheep. It will take weeks/months before he/she's back to normal again.

Besides that, if it's a ram lamb, you will encounter another problem when this lamb will grow into adulthood. Rams are quite different from ewes as it comes to natural behaviour. He will start to defend 'his' territory and he will turn against you at one time or other. That's something to seriously think about.

What you should do in the above described case is play with the lamb, give him attention, walk around the garden or meadow if you have one. The lamb will follow you just like he would follow his mom. Give him his milk reguarly. Something that can help is puting a ticking clock under a cushion of under straw in his quarters, it might give him a sense of the ticking heart of his mom in the womb.

Question: I have a 3-day old bottle lamb that's not pooping on her own. I have given 3 enemas which get out hard cold poop but she doesn’t seem to pass any by herself. She is running around and wants the bottle but how can I get her going herself again?

Answer: In this case my advice is to contact a vetenarion to see what's wrong with the lamb.

Question: How much penicillin should I give a 1 week and 3 days baby lamb?

Answer: Why on earth would you want to give a lamb penicillin? If the lamb is sick, take it to a vet. Never mess around unauthorized with medicins.

Question: My newborn orphan lamb's poop is light yellow, but running, not sticky. Is that normal?