News & Advice

Common emergencies in paddock pets

Sep 6, 2016 | Lifestyle Farmers

Hanneke Officer, Veterinarian, Anexa Vets Gordonton
As a former lifestyle block owner, I have experienced emergencies in a range of different species. One would think, given the fact I am an experienced large animal Veterinarian, I would know what to do to prevent emergencies from happening. I do, however animals are unpredictable and even with the best of intentions you cannot watch over your charges 24/7.
It is therefore to understand the most common emergencies that can occur in cattle and sheep and how you can be prepared to deal with them.


Most of you will be familiar with an upside-down sheep or the cast sheep. Because of the shape of their body and the size of their rumen (stomach), it is difficult for a sheep to get up once they are in this position and, it’s life-threatening. The pressure from the rumen on a sheep’s lungs can mean they can suffocate in this position and it doesn’t take long for this to happen. Hence it is an emergency! If you see a sheep in this position, turn them over. The safest way to do this if you don’t know which side it has fallen over, is to roll the sheep over their backside.

Bearing is the layman’s term for the prolapse of the uterus or part thereof. It looks like a bright red balloon protruding from the back end and mostly occurs in late pregnancy. It is a condition that happens in ewes carrying multiple lambs, especially fat ewes. Having hills in your sheep paddocks is an additional risk factor. A bearing should be corrected immediately; you can do this yourself. Ensure that the uterus is clean and undamaged and always secure it in place afterwards using a special device called a bearing retainer. If you are not confident correcting this condition, ring your Vet.

Down sheep are a cause for concern. There are multiple causes for a sheep being unable to get up and none of them should be treated lightly:

Sleepy sickness – so called because affected sheep look and act ‘sleepy’. It is caused by an energy deficiency, most common in pregnant ewes close to lambing. Treatment consists of energy supplementation (a product called Ketol) and possibly Calcium supplementation as this condition can be complicated or go hand-in-hand with milk fever (Calcium deficiency). It is an emergency, because sleepy sickness can quickly worsen and once an animal is down with it, the prognosis becomes grim.

Worm burden – a complicated issue to be discussed at another time. However, the main thing to understand is that worms (and their eggs) are everywhere. Once inside an animal, they cause significant damage to their intestines, and result in discomfort and energy deficiency. If severe, the animal will go down, and while down they will create energy by breaking down the muscle tissue. This is very detrimental to affected animals. At this stage, a drench is not going to be a sufficient treatment; tender loving care is necessary for down sheep. The best way to avoid this condition is to have a drench programme in place for your property. Your Vet can help you with this. It doesn’t have to cost a lot and will save you and your animals a lot of grief.

Bloat – an animal with bloat looks like it has been blown up like a balloon. There are multiple causes, and if severe, you will need to get your Vet to treat your animal.

Trauma – involves anything from bruising to bleeding or broken legs. An indication of severity will be the level of distress of the animal. In any case, any animals that are limping, bleeding or down should be examined. You can do this yourself initially to assess the situation or call for help straight away.

Lambing – if you have breeding stock, it is important to familiarise yourself with the stages of a normal lambing. It starts with restlessness and isolation, through to straining and a water bag appearing at the back end. Once the bag appears, a lamb should be born in around two hours. Peace and quiet are essential so be aware of this timeframe. Reasons for intervention are excessive bleeding, rotten lamb(s), lack of progress (greater than two hours) or if the animal is in distress.

Flystrike means the invasion of flies. The flies lay eggs around moist, warm backsides (or other areas) and when maggots hatch they eat their way into the skin causing severe lesions and pain. Flyblown sheep need urgent attention. Flystrike can be prevented through dipping and shearing (though even shorn sheep have been known to be affected).


A cow that can’t get up will always need your help. If you are experienced with milk fever symptoms you might attempt treatment yourself, however there are multiple other causes for a cow to be down (see under ‘Sheep’, though cows don’t get sleepy sickness as such but they do get something similar called Ketosis). A visit will be necessary to find the cause and start treatment.

A calving cow needs space, peace and time. Ensure you are equipped with the knowledge of what a normal calving looks like so you can identify problems early. Once the water bag appears, a calf should appear within two hours (it may be a bit longer in heifers). Call your Vet immediately if there is an abnormal presentation (normal presentation is two front legs with a head), a prolapse, bleeding, a rotten calf, lack of progress or if the animal is in distress.

Trauma or misadventures can occur anywhere and anytime, because animals will be animals. Mild trauma can result in bruising and just needs time. However, if an animal is in distress, it is time to have a closer look.

Bloat looks like an animal has swallowed a big balloon. Bloat can quickly become severe enough that it is life-threatening and is always an emergency.

Cows can dislocate their hip by (repeated) jumping of a heavy/aggressive animal or sometimes following a fall. This always requires a Vet visit as soon as possible to increase the chance of success (repositioning the hip).

If you are rearing calves in the pre-weaning stage (less than three months old), you need to be able to treat calf diarrhoea (calf scour). There are multiple causes, either nutritional or infectious. Calf scours can be lethal and affect a high number of calves in a short period of time so make sure you are prepared to deal with this if it happens. There are several methods to help prevent the most serious of causes, so have a chat with your Vet about this before you start calf rearing.

As mentioned previously, emergencies happen. Another phrase I have come across a lot on farm is “if you have live stock, you have dead stock”. Not a pleasant end to this article, but it is realistic and fortunately there are a lot of things that can be done to prevent most emergencies or at least ensure you are equipped to deal with them should they occur. Talk to your Vet about getting an ‘emergency kit’ in your shed.

As always, arm yourself with knowledge and you’ll be twice as ready to deal with anything.

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