Pleasant Valley Farm

  (Tionesta, Pennsylvania)
Real Family Farming in Tionesta, PA
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The Hard Part

When I was five years old, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian. I believe that was my first serious thought about what I wanted to do when I grew up. I had an idea that playing with puppies & kitties all day would be the best job ever. As I got a bit older, I realized that vets deal far more often with sick animals, involving blood & guts & surgery and that not every animal was going to get better; some would die. That seemed too much to bear, so I moved onto something else (at 6 I wanted to be a paleontologist, since by definition studying dinosaurs meant they couldn't die on you!) It's a bit ironic now that I do spend a good bit of time as an amateur veterinarian, now that I am a “grown up.”

I have immense respect for vets, but find that we do most of our own care here. The nearest office is 20 or so miles away, and farm calls are not cheap, so it's pretty much a financial necessity to have the knowledge to be able to do your own worming, vaccinations, foot care and other routine stuff. The supplies for all this kind of medical care and more is available at our local farm supply stores. It's harder when it comes to animals actually getting sick, but again, if you can pinpoint the cause, you can generally get the products to do the care yourself.  

A few days ago, Dan noticed a sheep all by itself in the pasture. He went to check on it, thinking maybe it had somehow got tangled in the fence or something, but it was just standing there. He chased her (very slowly) back to the rest of the flock in the barnyard. When I went to do evening chores, I looked for her and found her by the creek, staring off into space and not really responding to anything going on, even me approaching her. She's normally shy and flighty, so this was a sure sign that something was very wrong. After finishing up the birds' care for the evening, I went inside and consulted the various veterinary manuals- all seemed to point to the same thing, ketosis, or twin-lamb disease. This happens when a ewe is carrying twins or triplets and doesn't get enough carbs in her diet to support her rapidly growing babies and her own body. We feed a bit of grain to the sheep this time of year for that reason, but the sick one is shy and easily chased off by some of the older ewes. This is her second pregnancy, and although she had a single lamb last year it's very possible she's carrying two for the first time. This disorder also seems to be set off in some instances by changes in feeding schedule (nope) moving the flock (nope), or sudden changes in weather (a big yes- the day she got sick was COLD, with highs only in the teens and a sub-zero wind chill. It would drop to -18 that night.) Although I would have had a hard time describing her symptoms, descriptive words from the manuals included “dopey” and “generally slow” which pretty much hit the nail on the head. Symptoms can quickly proceed to blindness, paralysis, coma and death. As many as 80% of affected animals don't survive, according to one of the books.

Dan and I moved her into the small pen in the barn. Although she might not make it, leaving her outside would surely mean death. Since I didn't have any propylene glycol, the recommended treatment, I used the old-time trick of feeding her molasses. I also made sure to try and get her to drink, since dehydration will worsen the situation. Not being one of the tame favorites of the flock, she didn't have a name, so I started greeting her as "Sheepie" when I entered the pen.  In the morning I found a store carrying the glycol, got it, and began her on the dosage proscribed in the book.  Since then, she's been pretty touch and go. I still am not confidant she'll live, which is the hardest part. (I've debated for days about blogging this, as it's so likely to have an unhappy ending.) I make Dan go into the barn in the morning and then tell me that she's alive before I go inside with fresh water and her medicine- in these kind of situations they always seem to lose their fight during the night. When she seems to be going downhill, it can be hard for me not to cry while I'm trying to get some nourishment into her. When she seems marginally better, it's hard not to get my hopes up too high. I'm never sure what is harder, losing something you've been nursing for days or a week, or finding something happened suddenly, like when raccoons get into the coop and kill most of your favorite hens in one night. I tend to take it all personally, as though I am solely responsible for the outcome, even when it's something I couldn't have prevented or the advice I find states that treatment is frequently unsuccessful even under the best of circumstances. Dan reminds me that their lives are ultimately out of our hands, and all we can do is our best.



** It took me a couple of days to publish this, so I thought I'd include an update on Sheepie.  She's still alive and in the pen in the barn.  She's more active every day, including running from me this morning.  (She never was very tame, and now she associates me with an unpleasant attempt to tube feed her.  I doubt she'll be eating snacks from my hand any time soon.)  She's eating hay and drinking water and appears to be regaining strength rapidly at this point.  She does still have some wobbliness; it remains to be seen if this too will disappear or if it's some sort of permanent nerve damage.  Also up in the air is the fate of the lambs.  Will she end up aborting?  Stillborns? Will they be alive, but somehow damaged?  Or happy, healthy lambs?  Only time will tell.  I'm also watching the rest of the ewes like a hawk, I don't want to go through this again. 

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