The 8 Most Common Lamb Nursing Problems – and How to Address Them

sheep nursing problems

A lamb nursing from her mother is one of the most natural things in the world, right? 

Unfortunately, ewes can and will refuse to nurse their young – or have underlying health issues that make feeding their little ones more challenging.

Until last year, I was a firm believer that intervention was not necessary when it came to the initial establishment of the lamb-ewe relationship. And to be fair, that relationship is one that doesn’t typically need to be messed with – mama and baby can handle things just fine, and human intervention can often create a mess of the fragile bond as it’s first being formed.

However, there are some circumstances in which it is not only prudent – but instead absolutely necessary – that you get involved. 

For instance, last year, we had one or two lambs die because they could not nurse from their mothers, who had malformed teats that made it impossible for the lambs to get the right angle to suckle. We had to bottle feed for a few days to make sure the lambs got the colostrum they needed. 

In other cases, infection or other illnesses may make it difficult for your ewes to care for their young. There are easy solutions to address these, so it’s important to be on top of any potential issues.

Here are some of the most common problems related to lamb nursing – and what you can do to help.

sheep nursing problems

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The 8 Most Common Lamb Nursing Problems – and How to Address Them

sheep nursing problems
Photo: Pexels

1. Poor Ewe Condition

One of the most common reasons why an ewe will fail to nurse her young, primarily immediately after lambing, is that she is in poor body condition.

There are several factors that make an ewe more likely to fall into this category, such as being very old or very young, very underweight or very overweight. Similarly, ewes who birthed multiple lambs might not feel up to nursing or might simply not have enough milk to feed multiples.

Ewes that fall into one of these categories may also be more likely to suffer from various diseases, like scours or pneumonia, upon lambing. Sheep that experienced traumatic labors (such as those that were prolonged or required some sort of intervention, like pulling a lamb) might also have trouble nursing.

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This is why it’s so important that you avoid intervening in the birthing process whenever it’s not absolutely necessary – but continue to monitor your lambs and ewes for the first 48 hours especially after lambing. Check at least twice a day and make sure everybody is in good health – and that the lambs are nursing successfully. 

Leading up to lambing, make sure your ewes are in the best possible health. You will want to increase your feed rations but not so much that your ewes are overfat at lambing. Keep the lambing quarters clean and make sure all ewes have a private place to go (like a lambing jug) when it comes time to give birth. 

2. Caesarean Section

If you require a Caesarean section to deliver her lamb(s), chances are, she’s not going to be up to nursing for quite some time. You will need to bottle feed your lambs until mama is feeling up to it – make sure they get colostrum during this fragile window, too. If possible, keep the lambs near their mother until she’s made a full recovery so that they can still bond. 

I like this milk replacer, colostrum supplement, and bottle design but you can really use any that your local feed store might have in stock. Make sure you are using lamb-specific milk replacer and colostrum.

3. Mastitis

Mastitis doesn’t appear right away in most cases, but it can. It may rear its ugly head a time from birth until the lamb is ready to be weaned – so just because your lambs are a few weeks old, don’t think you’re in the clear! 

Mastitis can happen to all lactating mammals and it happens when the udder becomes infected or inflamed. It will become hard and painful and can lead to a secondary, more dangerous infection as well. 

Usually, mastitis is the result of bacteria getting into the mammary gland, which is why it’s so important to make sure your lambing area is as clean and pristine as can be. 

You’ll know it’s mastitis when you find that the udder has undergone the physical changes mentioned above. It’s usually pretty obvious that it’s mastitis and not something else. A sick ewe may also have a fever and she might push her lamb away from the udder or hold her leg up so he can’t get in – mama is in pain! 

Fortunately, a quick dose of antibiotics is all it needs to clear the infection, but the real problem here is in feeding the lamb. Not only will the pain from the infection make her more likely to push him away, but it’s not usually recommended that you allow a lamb to suckle from a milk supply tainted with antibiotics. You will need to either bottle feed him or wean him early (but wait until he’s at least one month old). 

There is another form of mastitis to be aware of, too, and that’s bluebag. Bluebag is a very severe form of the disease and can impact blood flow to the udder – this is where the name comes in, as the udder will be discolored blue and can even succumb to gangrene. 

Treating mastitis early, with antibiotics, is key to warding off bluebag. Some shepherds have noticed that bluebag is more common in flocks where lambs “bum milk” from other ewes besides their mothers – this allows infection to spread to multiple ewes.

4. Poor Mothering

Very rarely, the issue may be that your ewe is a poor mother. She might reject him entirely upon giving birth and will not recognize him as her own. This is rare and is often caused by one of the situations mentioned above.

If you are unlucky enough to have this happen, you have two options.

The first is the most challenging but, if successful, will be the best situation for you and for the lamb. It’s called grafting. Grafting is when you bond the baby to another ewe who recently gave birth (perhaps one who lost her baby or just had a single lamb). You will need to apply the scent of the foster mother’s lamb onto the adoptive lamb so that she believes it is also her baby. 

Again, this can be very difficult to do. Most people just go the route of bottle-feeding the lamb until it’s ready to be weaned. This is time-consuming, though – you’ll need to bottle feed at least three times per day. 

5. Hardbag

A lesser-known issue that can prevent lambs from nursing is something known as hardbag. Hardbag happens when a buildup of fibrous tissue in the udder affects the development of milk-producing tissues. If left unaddressed, it can cause a lamb to starve to death without milk.

Hard Bags are caused by many issues, with viruses being first and foremost. You’ll know it’s a hardbag when the udder appears to be full and shaped well with on signs of infection but has next to no milk for the lambs. It can occur at any time in the lambing process or even in the months prior to lambing. 

6. White Muscle Disease

White muscle disease isn’t necessarily a nursing problem per se, but it’s a health issue that will make it more difficult for your lambs to nurse.

This disease is caused by a deficiency in selenium and occasionally, vitamin E. It’s usually seen in newborn lambs and can affect the heart and skeletal muscles of the lambs. You will notice that your lambs have a stiff gait and hunched appearance. They may refuse to eat as well, as they will be incredibly weak.

Fortunately, white muscle disease can be treated with an injection of vitamin E and selenium and you can prevent it by supplementing with your feed and mineral. 

7. Pendulous Udders or Malformed Teat Anatomy

Pendulous udders are talked about often with dairy cows but less often with sheep and goats. However, any dairy animal can suffer from this condition. 

Basically, an udder should be held high and tight to the belly wall so that it’s above the level of the hocks during lactation. Pendulous udders, on the other hand, hang oddly so that it’s more difficult for lambs to nurse. These udders are also more likely to develop mastitis or become damaged because of their positioning. 

Udders can also be asymmetrical or uneven, causing uneven milk production. This isn’t an issue with a singleton birth, generally, but can be problematic in twinning or tripling ewes.

The same goes for the teats. Some ewes have abnormal teats or have extra teats that can cause issues with nursing.

If these are issues with your sheep, you may have to guide the lambs and teach them how to nurse. Bottle feeding is often necessary. Avoid purchasing ewes with these characteristics and considering culling them from your flock, too.

8. Udder Edema

Last but not least is udder edema. This condition will present as mammary gland swelling and fortunately, is usually nothing to worry about – it will resolve itself as the lambs begin to nurse.

However, it can be somewhat serious if the udder is so swollen that the lambs can’t nurse. Often, it’s called by internal parasitism so it’s best to stay on top of parasites in your flock before any issues can arise.

In most cases, udder edema can be resolved by stripping the wax plug before you allow lambs to nurse (they may have a harder time stripping it on their own  – we always strip the plug just as a general precaution) and milking a bit of the extra milk out before letting lambs nurse. 

In general, you don’t need to worry about sheep nursing problems as long as the lambs seem to be warm, alert, and nursing normally. If they are gaining weight appropriate and not in any distress, chances are, the nursing relationship is going just fine. 

However if your lambs appear weak – or if they are constantly trying to nurse but are becoming cold, lethargic, weak, dehydrated, or in poor body condition – you may need to intervene. 

Generally, you can avoid most of these problems by making sure your nutrition in the flock is up to snuff with high-quality forage and fresh water need to be available 24/7, with protein at 16-18%). Prevent parasites, as anemia can reduce milk production, and make sure acidosis is also controlled so that your ewes have healthy rumens. 

Lastly, ensure that you raise a healthy flock with good genetics by culling ewes as needed to make way for healthier individuals. It can be tough to give up a favorite sheep, but if you want to keep future lambs healthy, it’s often the only way to do so. 

Good luck – and happy lambing!

What kinds of issues have you dealt with as they pertain to your sheep? Any particularly related to lambing? Let me know in the comments! 

Want to learn more about farming? Be sure to take a look at these other articles.

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Author: Rebekah PierceI'm a writer and small farm owner, and lover of everything outdoors. I'm hoping to share my passion for farming, gardening, and homesteading with you on my blogging journey.

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