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Silent messages

Dec 15, 2017 | Lifestyle Farmers

How to tell when an animal is sick or injured

To be able to realise an animal is sick or injured, it’s important to be familiar with normal behaviour. Unfortunately Vets often encounter animals that have been unwell for a while, but it hasn’t been spotted by its owner. If a problem is noticed early on, treatment is often much more straightforward and rewarding.
Whenever you have time, observe your stock during their daily routine, whether this is walking, grazing or just resting. You will learn to recognise differences in individuals and therefore notice when something is ‘off’. As Vets, we often get phone calls from clients telling us their animal is ‘not itself’, an instinctive feeling only the owner can get.

Normal behaviour will include (but not be limited to) the following:

  • Bright and alert – head upright, bright eyes, responsive to changes in its environment, ears pricked up.
  • Energetic – have the energy to do what it should do, graze/drink/rest
  • Healthy appetite or full abdomen – appetite is one of the first things to disappear when an animal is sick. Ruminants should ruminate.
  • Shiny coat and clean – no discharge from eyes/ears/nose/back end and a healthy glow to the coat
  • Normal gait – putting equal pressure on all four limbs
  • Solid faeces (bear in mind – this might vary with water content of the grass)

There are several sign that might indicate something is not right. First off, there are signs of discomfort – not necessarily indicating disease, but either slight pain (think cramp for example) or something that makes them feel uncomfortable:

  • Feeling cold – hunched, huddled together, seeking shelter, shivering
  • Overheating – panting, elbows in wide stance away from chest, open-mouth breathing
  • Hungry – pica (eating unusual objects), vocalisation (especially in young animals), lethargic, weight loss, getting cold (not enough energy to maintain body temperature)
  • Behaviour indicative of the affected area (for example kicking at belly with cramp or scratching repeatedly)

Then there are signs of disease, though there might be some overlap between discomfort and disease as some causes for the symptoms are linked:

  • Inappetence or anorexia (‘tucked up’) – reduced to no appetite
  • Lethargy – no energy for the daily routine tasks
  • Quiet behaviour or isolation – keeping away from herd mates, mind you this can also happen at the start of parturition
  • Down – an animal that can’t get up is per definition an emergency
  • Droopy ears – sign an animal is not feeling well
  • Abnormalities in shape or form: bloat, swelling (for example abscess or inflammation), fracture, scouring (diarrhoea), discharge (pus, blood)

Finally, there’s the need to mention signs of pain. Naturally these could coincide with signs mentioned before, but these symptoms indicate pain in an animal:

  • Grinding teeth
  • Favouring a limb (lame)
  • Vocalisation (not specific)
  • Kicking at belly
  • Rapid breathing (horse, not specific)
  • Rolling (colic in horses)
  • Looking or biting at the flank (horse)

The above lists are not complete; there will be other symptoms that can indicate discomfort, disease or pain. Also, symptoms can coincide. These lists are meant to give an idea of the most common indicators that something is not right with an animal. KNOW THE NORMAL and you will quickly be able to pick up on anything unusual.

So, you’ve established something is wrong – WHAT NOW? First, when dealing with disease or injury (injury can include wounds/blood, misadventure, limping, bruising), you need to isolate the animal and address discomfort initially. This means providing warmth (cover, shed, hay as bedding) and supplying fresh food and water. Then you can take stock to assess the severity of the situation. Most of this will come down to common sense – emergencies are often easy to recognise. As an example: heavy bleeding, fractures, bloat, down animal and animals taking a long time birthing all require veterinary attention.


There are several things you can do to prevent adversity and these come down to basic animal care. Provide fresh water and adequate food: enough food to meet maintenance requirements plus additional energy if necessary (pregnancy, lactation, recovery).
Familiarise yourself with the most common health care needs of your stock, especially drenching requirements and vaccination plans. Drenching and vaccination play a big role in preventing the most common diseases we see in livestock. The cost is often relatively low and it will prevent a lot of heartache, animal suffering and even loss.
Finally, check your property for objects that might be ingested (plastic, wire, rubbish as well as lead paint on buildings) and for poisonous plants.


There are a number of health conditions that can be treated by you:

  • Scours
  • Worms – anthelmintic treatment
  • Young animals – your vet will be able to advise you on treatment regimes for your calf/lamb/kid/foal/piglet/cria etc
  • Lameness – especially foot rot is easy enough to treat by yourself
  • Flystrike – when detected early it’s a simple case of clip, clean and treat
  • Mud fever – if seen early, also clip, clean and treat
  • External parasites – lice, mites etc can be easily dealt with using a pour-on application

    As always, if you have any doubts, follow your instincts. Ring your vet to discuss the problem and get some advice.

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