A few weeks ago, I received an email from a concerned shepherd asking why his lamb was dying.
Some investigation was done to get to the root cause.
She said her lambs were fine when they were initially born – but then became hard as a board and completely lifeless within a few days.
When I asked if he had vaccinated his sheep with the CDT vaccine, he wasn’t sure what I meant—and then I knew we had stumbled upon the culprit.
Tetanus is a common – and usually fatal – disease in sheep that is caused by Clostridium tetani Bacteria. We can also get a tetanus infection – that’s why we get tetanus shots.
The good news is that tetanus is preventable even in newborn lambs. Here’s what you need to know.
- 1 Signs and symptoms of tetanus infection
- 2 What causes tetanus infection in lamb?
- 3 How to prevent and treat tetanus in lamb
- 4 Can Tetanus Infection Be Cured?
Signs and symptoms of tetanus infection
You will see many signs and symptoms in a lamb infected with tetanus.
The biggest challenge in dealing with this disease is that many of the symptoms mimic those associated with other diseases.
These include white muscle disease, erysipelas, polyarthritis and other diseases.
The most common early signs of tetanus infection are over-excitability and muscle spasms.
After a while, you may notice that your animal’s jaw hardens – so much so that it becomes difficult for your lamb to open its mouth.
Back and neck muscles can make the neck appear longer. The hind legs will also become stiff and spread outwards.
Tripping and falling have also become common. When startled, muscle cramps can become even more severe.
Other symptoms include:
- clenching of teeth
- ears up
- dilated nostrils
- prolapse of the third eyelid
- mild swelling
Sometimes, a tetanus infection can cause your lamb to have a fever, although this is not always the case. In most cases, tetanus is found in animals with sores or scabs.
What causes tetanus infection in lamb?
Tetanus is a disease commonly found in soil. For whatever reason, it is more common in farms where horses have been raised in the past.
These spores can stay in the soil for quite a long time, causing problem after problem for shepherds.
The disease can infect a sheep through a wound (even a small cut from a shear), umbilical cord, or through routine herd maintenance practices such as castration, docking, ear tagging, and more.
It can also be introduced into the herd by humans who assist the lambs while they are lambs.
These bacteria can spread through even the smallest of wounds.
More often than not, it will be difficult – if not impossible – for you to even tell how your animal was infected in the first place.
However, once the bacteria make their way into an animal’s body, they rapidly multiply and produce additional neurotoxins.
Tetanus infection is more common in some parts of the world than others, although it is considered a global disease. In the northern Rocky Mountains, however, the creatures are rarely found in soil.
How to prevent and treat tetanus in lamb
Veterinarians rely on certain treatments to treat tetanus, but in young lambs, it is almost always fatal. About 80% of lambs infected with tetanus infection will die.
Therefore, vaccination with CDT vaccine is by far the best way to present the disease.
However, it is helpful if the lamb can continue to feed while the disease is being treated. You can use slings for animals that are having trouble standing. Cleaning the wound to allow bacteria to enter the animal’s bloodstream is also helpful. Iodine can help kill the spores.
Antibiotics and anti-serum can help lambs recover from tetanus. However, these treatments are rarely effective. Most drugs only reduce symptoms, at best, and do not completely get rid of the disease.
When it comes to preventing tetanus in lambs, the most reliable (and important) thing you can do is to vaccinate them and their mothers with CDT.
There are countless diseases that can affect lambs when they are born and while they are still actively nursing. Enterotoxemia, also known as overeating disease, is a disease caused by a bacterium called Clostridium perfringens.
The CDT vaccine prevents infection with this disease – both types C and D. clostridium perfringens are kept at bay. The “T” in CDT refers to tetanus, or Clostridium tetani, which is the third disease that this vaccine can prevent.
Since lambs should not be vaccinated immediately after birth, you should instead vaccinate your sheep about four weeks before lambing. This will transfer some of the temporary immunity to the lambs via colostrum.
Once the lamb is about six weeks old, however, you will need to give it another shot. Don’t do this when your lamb is eight weeks old, then give them a booster until four weeks later.
The vaccine provides protection against soil-borne clostridial diseases.
While there is some level of herd immunity – meaning that the more animals that are vaccinated or immune to these clostridial diseases, the better – antitoxins can be beneficial for other reasons as well.
When the CDT vaccine is applied at the time of castration, ear tagging, disbudding, or docking, it may also provide some level of protection against tetanus infection.
Therefore, the vaccine should be administered during the times listed above, as well as when you perform any type of maintenance work that has the potential to spread infection.
You can immunize your sheep by giving them two shots spaced one to two months apart, as well as an annual booster during lambing season.
maintain good agricultural hygiene
In addition to being cautious about administering CDT vaccines – and keeping good records! It is also important to maintain sanitary conditions for your sheep.
Moving your pastures can help, as can wearing gloves and other protective clothing whenever you need to work with your animals.
There are many reasons to allow lambs to labor on their own at lambing time.
For one, they will almost always be able to deliver healthy lambs on their own, without any intervention on your part.
In addition, the more you interfere with lambing, the more likely you are to transmit diseases and pathogens to your flock.
Unless you absolutely need to intervene, try to avoid it to prevent tetanus infections as well as others.
clip and dip
One of the most common ways in which lambs are infected with tetanus is through their umbilical cord. When a lamb is born, it will still have an umbilical cord attached to its abdomen. The cords vary in their length between different lambs, but they all — no matter the length — can be an entry point for tetanus bacteria.
Therefore, it is important to use a pair of sterile scissors to clip the placenta as soon as possible after the lamb is born.
Wear a pair of gloves to do this so you don’t put your scent on the lamb and confuse its mother. Clip the cord to an inch or two in length, then treat the navel with iodine to prevent infection. This is commonly referred to as a ‘dip’, hence the saying ‘clip and dip’ to remember!
Keep an eye on the area for a few days after the lamb is born to make sure it doesn’t become infected.
Can Tetanus Infection Be Cured?
Unfortunately, once a lamb gets tetanus, it probably isn’t going to get rid of it.
Certain species of animals, such as dogs, cats, and even humans, are generally able to avoid tetanus infection. However, this is not usually the case with sheep.
Almost all grazing animals are at risk of tetanus, especially when wounds result from standard management practices such as castration and ear tagging. Infection can occur even after an accident.
Even if you don’t shear, tag, or spay your sheep, they still run the risk of getting tetanus – they can step on a piece of loose fence or a nail by their skin.
Therefore, it is always a good idea to give the CDT vaccine – and to take other steps that will ensure the health of your sheep for many years to come.
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