A Comprehensive Guide to Caring For Orphaned Lambs

A comprehensive guide to caring for rescued winter lambs.

A Comprehensive Guide to Caring For Orphaned Lambs

A comprehensive guide to caring for rescued winter lambs.

In Australia, sheep are raised for their meat, milk, wool and skins. In the southern Australian states, farmers practise Winter lambing in order to produce the highest number of lambs.

They do so by impregnating their ewes so that they give birth between May and July. The pastures are most fertile in Autumn, while the ewes are pregnant and require richer feed, and in Spring when the lambs are weaned. This means that lambs will grow fatter and more quickly and reduces the need for supplementary feeding.

In most cases sheep and their babies are not provided sufficient shelter from the wind, rain and frost, or protection from predators, resulting in a high mortality rate. Mothers with multiple births suffer from increased stress levels

It is estimated by the industry that between 10 and 15 million lambs die within the first 48 hours of life in Australia annually. The two main causes of death are hypothermia and starvation.

Lambs weighing under 4kg at birth are much more likely to die, as they do not have the fat or energy reserves required to withstand the harsh wind, rain and frost, as well as to stand and drink from their mothers.

The longer it takes a lamb to stand, the less likely they will receive the critical colostrum they require in order to gain essential fats, energy and immunoglobulins, to fight infections. Weaker lambs (most of them twins or triplets) usually starve or freeze to death.

Less common causes of death are linked to congenital deformities, injury during birth, infection and predation.

Lamb rescue information

We do not suggest rescuing your own lamb and encourage you to contact us if you wish to care for a lamb. The following information is provided for use in an emergency situation.

If you ever come across an individual lamb laying down, separate from the flock, it is likely something is wrong.

Call out to lambs from the fence-line to identify whether they are alert and can get up. If they do not move, it is time to intervene. It may be helpful to have a pair of binoculars and a camera.

If there is a house on the property, speak to the owner about your concerns in a polite manner, suggesting you would be more than happy to take care of any unwanted orphaned lambs.

If the property is unattended, approach the lamb slowly and call out to them. This will ensure you do not startle a potentially unaware lamb.

Do not touch a lamb unless they are completely alone, visibly injured or very weak.

If you are not an experienced carer or rescuer, please phone ALV immediately for advice in a difficult situation. We do not want to remove any lambs from their mothers, only assist and provide care where the lamb would otherwise die and has been orphaned.

After locating a hypothermic or dying lamb

The first thing you should do is get an orphaned lamb dry and warm immediately.

The best way to do this is to dry them off with a towel and to place them in front of a heater (which you can do immediately in your car). Rub the lamb with a blanket or item of clothing to stimulate heat and consciousness. It is important that a lamb is not fed before they are warmed sufficiently (this takes at least 30 minutes), as their body will not be able to digest any fluid. If you suspect the lamb has any injuries, take them to the vet immediately. If you are uneasy about any further steps or the lamb is unresponsive, keep them warm and contact someone who can help.

Once you get the lamb home, ensure they are kept warm at all times, and away from drafts. Be careful not to overheat them, normal temperature is 38.5C – 39.5C. A lamb is considered hypothermic when their body temperature drops below 37.5C.

Colostrum

Colostrum, the first milk mammals produce, is extremely important for the health of their newborns. It provides them with disease-fighting antibodies, as well as essential nutrients. It is critical that lambs receive colostrum in the first 24 hours of life to give them the best chance at survival. Colostrum can still be beneficial up until the lamb reaches 48 hours old, beyond that the window of benefits closes.

There are good commercial brands of colostrum available We recommend using Wombaroo ‘Impact’, which is suitable for most mammals, including lambs. Follow directions on the package as to dilution and quantity.

If the lamb has come into your care and (1) more than 48 hours have passed since they were born and (2) they have not received colostrum, we suggest an injection of a broad spectrum antibiotic like Oxytet and a dose of injectable complex vitamins, which can be done at your local vet. Follow this up with Protexin and Nutrigel over the next few days. This may give them a head start on fighting anything that might be in their system already.

Feeding

Generally, lambs do not know when to stop drinking and drink too quickly, therefore consuming more than their stomachs can handle. This can cause bloat, scours (diarrhoea) or aspiration (inhaling liquid). These conditions are extremely serious and can kill a lamb very quickly, which is why correct feeding is so important.

While every carer has their preferred formula, we recommend using ‘Profelac Shepherd’. If you don’t have access to Profelac, Divetilact is a good milk replacer and is usually available to buy at vet clinics or pet shops and makes a good emergency milk, as does goat’s milk which is readily available in the supermarket dairy section. We recommended transitioning to Profelac Shepherd when you can get some, as it is more suitable. Wombaroo is also a good species specific formula that we recommend.

It can be quite difficult to get a lamb to suckle from an artificial teat, especially if they are weak. From experience, the best teats to use are the Prichard or Bainbridge teats (red and yellow valve teats). They allow good airflow while feeding and they screw on to normal plastic water or soft drink bottles. To make sure your lamb isn’t drinking too quickly, have short 5 second breaks.

MILK

Generally animals need 10-20% of their body weight in food every 24hrs, in 30-50ml/per kilogram feeding ratios. You can always visit your local vet clinic to get an accurate weight of your animal. It is better to underfeed, than to over feed.

Mix up milk according to manufacturer’s quantities. For at least the first week of life, lambs should be fed milk warmed to body temperature. If you are unsure, colder milk is preferable to overheated milk.

Most sources recommend 3-4 feeds a day, however we have found smaller, more frequent feeds are better for critical newborn lambs, as this is how they feed from their mother. Newborn lambs need to be fed every 2-3 hours for the first two weeks of life (the night feeds can be stretched to 4 or 5 hours) and then every 4 hours for the next few weeks, depending on how well they are doing. Divide up the total recommended milk amount per day and aim to match your feeds to this total.

To begin feeding, first check whether the lamb has a sucking reflex by putting your (washed) finger in their mouth. Their tongue should be warm and they may begin to suck. If their mouth is cold, make sure they are still nice and warm. Feed with care if they are struggling to suck on the teat to avoid complications. Do not attempt to feed if they cannot swallow or are unresponsive. Force feeding could cause liquid to drip down into their lungs. This can cause infection, pneumonia or cause pulmonary aspiration, which can ultimately lead to the lamb dying.

If at any stage liquid does get into the windpipe, the lamb will generally cough or produce a crackling sound when breathing. Gently tap both sides of the ribs repeatedly in order to help remove any fluid from the lungs. If this happens please contact us for advice.

We also suggest adding Protexin into their milk. This may help to enhance their immune and digestive systems, especially after times of stress after antibiotics, during relocation periods or when they first come into care.

Hard food and weaning

Hard food such as grass hay can be introduced as early as two days old, while they will still be too young for this food, they will be curious and start to mouth the food. At around a week or two they should start to eat small quantities of grass hay. Foods like chaff and pellets should be introduced in small amounts only after around 3 weeks of age. Hard food is a necessity as it is very important for rumen development.

While you can technically wean a healthy lamb at 6 weeks of age, we suggest weaning at around 10-12 weeks of age.

Before you start to wean your lamb, they should be at least 3 times their birth weight (no less than 10kg), and be eating and drinking water themselves. At weaning milk should be gradually reduced over a few weeks, and then stopped altogether. A slow weaning is less stressful on the lamb.

Hygiene and sterility

Hygiene is of the utmost importance. After feeding, sterilize all equipment. You can do this by using boiling water or you can use a baby bottle sterilizer if you have access to one. If using the former method, wash thoroughly, then place bottles and teats in a clean pot of boiling water for around 10 minutes. Allow bottles to air upside-down to prevent bacteria building inside.

Check there is no residual milk left on the bottles, teats, or other mixing utensils, also make sure the lamb is cleaned of any spilt milk. Bacteria breeds very quickly in milk and can cause digestive issues.

Place any unused milk in the fridge immediately. Milk must NEVER be left out. If you do accidentally leave your milk out you must throw it out.

Make sure your lamb’s bum and genitals (as well as the rest of their body) are clean and dry. It may be necessary to give them a quick spot wash in some warm, soapy water. Ensure they are properly dried afterward and not left wet or damp.

The use of nappies is a great way to ensure your lambs stay clean (as well as your house). They usually begin in the size up from newborn nappies. Either cut holes and pull tails through, or pull the tail to the side to hang outside the nappy. This ensures their tails do not become soiled. Lambs have a tendency to kick their nappies off, to prevent this you can try cutting up a pair of old stockings and use them as little pants on your lamb to hold their nappy.

Ensure a lamb’s navel is not red or swollen and is kept dry and clean. Lambs are susceptible to infection in the navel, which quickly spreads through their bodies. If it is wet or dirty you can clean the lamb’s navel with some diluted Betadine to kill any bacteria and to aid healing.

Scour and bloat

Scours (diarrhoea) can be caused by contaminated (unhygienic) feeding equipment or be linked to other illness or disease. Try to determine the source of your lamb’s sickness. If you are caring for multiple lambs, isolate the sick lamb from the rest. They will need to have a period of at least 2-3 hours without any liquid, then they will need to be placed on electrolyte bottle feeds for at least the next two feeds.

Alternatively you can alternate electrolyte and milk feeds, making sure not to mix electrolytes and milk together in one feed, or feeds too close together (at least 1 hour apart), as it can delay nutrient absorption and make the sickness worse.

If your lamb has scours, please contact us and we will talk you through what to do.

Electrolytes help to fight dehydration (caused by diarrhoea) and help replace lost nutrients. Sachets of Vytrate or Lectade are available from the vet or farm stores and are essential to have on hand. Mix according to the packet instructions and feed at body temperature in the same quantities as milk.

Try to also acquire some scour treatment, such as Scourban, to prevent further dehydration.

To further ensure the health of your lambs and to prevent intestinal upsets, mix in a probiotic such as Protexin (helps maintain gut flora balance). If a lamb is lethargic or unwell, mixing in some Nutrigel will help provide energy to encourage them to suckle, as well as essential nutrients. If scouring doesn’t subside please contact us immediately and seek veterinary help.

Scourban, Protexin and Nutrigel can be found at some feed/pet stores, online or at some vet clinics.

Bloat can be caused by improper feeding techniques such as milk that is given too quickly, in too large a quantity, or that is too hot. This causes a gas producing bacteria that bloats the stomach. Signs of bloat include a distended belly, dullness and loss of appetite. If you think your lamb has bloat, take away all food sources and do not feed milk for 2-3 hours. If they do not recover in this time do not give them any more milk. Bloat is very serious in young lambs and you must act immediately to provide them with veterinary help.

Signs of ill-health

Lambs can get sick very suddenly and if no action is taken, they can die quickly. Here are some signs to look out for:

  • Bloating
  • Lethargy, loss of appetite
  • Quick/Heavy breathing Resting breath should be between 16-34 breaths/minute)
  • Groaning
  • Grinding of teeth
  • Diarrhoea/Scours
  • Straining to poop
  • Laying out on side with legs out
  • Kicking legs violently and/or restlessness when trying to settle
  • Cold mouth
  • Pale gums
  • Throwing head back
  • Gasping
  • Coughing
  • Swelling or redness of the navel
  • Temperature (normal temp should be between 38.5C – 39.5C in lambs. If their temp is below 37.7C the lamb is classified as hypothermic)

If you notice any of these signs, you should call a vet or an experienced carer immediately (If fostering through ALV, let us know as soon as possible) and seek advice. In the interim, do not continue to feed milk to your lamb.

Vaccines, worming and castration

Just like we do with our domestic household animals, we need to make sure our lambs receive a vaccine, are wormed and castrated.

We suggest “5 in 1” vaccine or getting advice from your local vet as to which vaccine is best for the area you live in. They will need one vaccine at around 6-8 weeks of age, or when the lamb is around 10kg, and a follow up booster around 4 weeks later. Castration should happen around 2 weeks after vaccination.

We recommend worming happen at the same time as vaccination (roughly 10kg weight), and this will need to be done annually. Commercial wormers are fine to use, we do however suggest rotating the type of wormer you use to avoid any resistance building up.

Castration for males needs to be done as soon as their testicles descend, this is as early as 6 weeks of age. Avoid letting their testicles grow too big as it means it will be a bigger surgery with more risks.

Castration should be performed with anesthetic and pain relief, by a veterinarian.

Steff Campbell, author of the Winter Lambing Care Guide

This document is intended as a guide only. It is based upon extensive hands-on experience of rescuing and raising orphaned lambs. However, it was not written by a veterinarian and should you be concerned at any stage about the health of a lamb, please seek veterinary advice.