Friday, February 6, 2009

Jump-starting a lamb: On intubation and related matters

Jewel with lambs last spring in the lambing jug

This is a supplement to the previous post, in which I mentioned having an intubation kit handy in case you would need it, but failed to mention when or why or how to use it.

Intubation int his context is "tube-feeding" or force feeding a new-born lamb who is failing to thrive.

Newborns have wet coats, from the amniotic fluid. They need to dry their coats to stay warm, especially if they are born in a Maine winter. If they don't dry their coats, and the weather is even slightly cold, they will die very easily of hypothermia. You can lose a significant number of your newborns this way. This is why we put so much emphasis on ram separation in the fall of the year -- that's the way you delay parturition, by delaying breeding or "tupping." And it's also why we think early lambing in Maine, even to make sheep shows and sales, or Easter lambs, is bad practice: bad for the animals, that is.

When you get a cold newborn lamb, there's a sequence of increasingly drastic actions. What the lamb needs is warmth and food, and you have to make sure it is getting both.

First, check for a suckling response. Stick your (hopefully clean) finger in the lamb's mouth. If the mouth is warm and the lamb suckles strongly, it can likely feed if you just get it to the nipple. The ewe likely has plenty of milk, so milk some directly into the lamb's mouth. Hopefully your aim is good. Or stuff the nipple into the lamb's mouth and then strip some milk. If the lamb swallows the milk, and if you get enough in, and if you have a heat lamp providing adequate warmth, that may be all you need to do. If the lamb can't find the nipple, or suckle, on its own the next time it needs to feed, in an hour or so, repeat the process. Eventually it should get stronger and find the nipple on its own.

Lambs are equipped with a built-in shepherd's feeding alarm called a tail. If the tail is wagging, the lamb is feeding and all is well!

If there's no response, and the inside of the mouth is cold, make sure the animal is breathing and the respiration rate has not already dropped so low that it is beyond saving. I can't tell you where to draw the line, but a lamb making only a handful of weak, shallow breaths a minute, that is cold to the touch, and cold in the mouth, is likely not going to make it.

Hopefully you catch your lamb before it gets to this stage. As soon as we find a cold lamb that has a cold mouth and a weak or non-existent sucking response, we know we have to bring it in to the house. We start by putting the lamb under the wood stove where the temperature is 80-90 degrees F, for a few minutes. Then, keeping close to the stove for continued warmth, we try to bottle-feed some colostrum replacer, pre-warmed, just like a baby's bottle. We use a soda bottle with a big lamb nipple on. If the lamb has only a weak suckling response, we squirt some slowly down the throat, making sure not to choke the lamb. If it suckles and feeds, however inexpertly, all will be well soon. A couple of ounces of warm colostrum replacer and another twenty minutes under the stove to dry off and warm up, is all the lamb needs. The lamb will usually perk up and look around, and can soon go back with mother, with you taking care to check the heat lamp is providing warmth.

If you can't get milk in the lamb with a bottle, if the lamb is breathing but cold and limp, that's when you intubate. You get the intubation kit from outlets like Sheepman's Supply. We use our butcher block table to do the deed comfortably.

The intubation kit consists of a smooth tube with a funnel-like apparatus. First, unless it's brand new and still in a sterile wrapper, sterilize the tube and funnel by heating in a pot of water to 160 degrees, and airdrying. Do this ahead of time, putting the equipment in a new Ziploc bag for storage.

The tube is slid down the oesophagus, and milk is funneled into the lamb. To make it work, and not kill the lamb, the tube has to be in the stomach, not the lungs.

First, lubricate the tube with a little clean warm water.

Then, "adopt the position."

The way you get the tube into the stomach first time, every time, is to stretch out the lamb's neck and head so it's a straight shot. Slide the tube carefully and slowly into the lamb's mouth as far as it will go without any restrictions. Never force the tube in. It should slip in gently. For medium-sized breeds like our Corriedale crosses, it's about a six-inch trip down there for the tube. Any choking reflex means you pull out quickly and start over. Generally, if the tube is six inches or more into the lamb, and the lamb is breathing but not choking, you have probably hit the stomach.

Once the tube is in, and the lamb stable, attach the funnel and gently, slowly, pour in a couple ounces of warm (around 95 degrees F), fairly dilute, colostrum replacer. You can lift up the lamb's head and neck a bit to let gravity help. If you get any choking or overflow, you have put in too much, so stop.

As soon as you have got some milk in the lamb, you can slide out the tube, and put the lamb back in that nice warm spot, which for us is under the woodstove. The glucose in the colostrum replacer will start hitting the lamb's bloodstream almost immediately. After five or ten minutes, the lamb should start to fidget, and then start looking around.

Congratulations! You just jump-started a lamb! You are now officially a shepherd, having passed the most basic life-or-death test of shepherd skill and lore.

Especially enjoy that lamb when you see it play. It nearly died, poor bugger.

And next year, keep that ram away from the ewes a few more weeks into fall. If you really want to eat lamb at Easter, use your damn freezer and eat your fall lamb!

If you really want to win a sheep show prize, well, don't. Grow up. Animals are not made for you to build up your weak ego. Try a sport, or take out a lottery ticket, or some other prize-winning activity instead.

Extra bit of advice from a guest, Colour it Green diary:

we went on a lambing course prior to our first experience and the vet told us to have a go at tubing - afterall, once things are that bad for the lamb what else do you have to lose. we got to practise on dead lambs, which was very useful. when our ewe had triplets last year, we did end up tubing the youngest and the changearound was like a miracle.

One thing we did learn that was useful was to estimate the length of tube from mouth to stomach outside of the lamb before passing the tube in, so you know how much to expect to feed in.


  1. we went on a lambing course prior to our first experience and the vet told us to have a go at tubing - afterall, once things are that bad for the lamb what else do you have to lose. we got to practise on dead lambs, which was very useful. when our ewe had triplets last year, we did end up tubing the youngest and the changearound was like a miracle.

    One thing we did learn that was useful was to estimate the length of tube from mouth to stomach outside of the lamb before passing the tube in, so you know how much to expect to feed in.
    really hoping not to need to practise it again this year...

  2. Mick, that was incredibly interesting. I never knew.

  3. Thanks for the good extra bit of advice. I put it on the end of the main post so folks can find it easily.

    Jim, thanks, and thanks for checking in

  4. Hello, I have a 3-day old bottle ram. His mother rejected him for his 10-lb twin. I fed commercial colostrum for the first day, then commercial sheep milk replacement. He sleeps most of time, I can only get about 1/2 oz into him at a time. Is it time to intubate? I will have to do it myself (husband is no help at all), so have not wanted to try this the first time by myself... thanks

  5. If he's three days old, no. He must be getting enough food to have lived that long. He doesn't sound cold, either. Is he cold? Stick your finger in his mouth and see if he suckles and if it's warm in there. If not, bring him the house to get him warm before bottle feeding him again. Put him somewhere really warm to warm up, a nice hot spot, like right by the stove at around 80-85 degrees.

    Once he's warm, and you're sure he's warm, you should be able to get more milk into him than 1/2 ounce at a time, as long as he's suckling.

    I find the holes in the standard 50 cent black lamb and kid nipples generally too small, compared to the jet of milk that comes from a ewe. I'm assuming you're using the same nipples. Get a needle or knife and make the hole quite a bit bigger, then put the nipple on an old, clean pop bottle that can be squeezed a little. Not too hard. If you squeeze too hard, the lamb can drown. But enough that you have a solid jet of milk. That should speed up the flow.

    If he can suckle, he just needs a bottle, not a tube feeding. It's when they are cold and don't have the suckle reflex that you intubate. Good luck! Hope you read this in time.

  6. Thanks for answering, Mick! He has been inside since his first night. Not cold. He even walked around the room tonight and had two poops! Then I took him outside and he seemed to enjoy that, he walked around and even gummed some grass. I'm using a bottle and Pritchard nipple I got from Premier. Is that what you mean? Yes, it seems nothing much comes out of that hole. I'll make it bigger, he just woke up again. Thank you so much.

  7. Good. Let us know what happens. Eventually you can feed him with a bucket with a nipple on it -- a lot easier. Hopefully he'll get stronger and can be weaned early.

  8. Update. I just learned a new trick from the TV, from Adam of "Adam's Farm" on BBC Countryfile. Using the intubation funnel or syringe as a kind of stethoscope to make sure you hit the stomach. Listen, and if you hear gurgling, you're in the stomach. If you hear hissing and wheezing, that's the lungs!

  9. Hi your post has been so helpful!
    I feel i am in a little strife with my lamb she is 3days old today and was standing strong to feed this morning i was so happy. She is in a room at a constant 25degrees. I left her for 4hrs to go to town, got back to her and her mouth is freezing and she has no energy to do anything...what should i do. I dont want her to die.

  10. Hi mick please help!
    My lamb is 3days old today and fed standing this morning she was great! I have the room at a constant 25degrees and she has blankets etc...
    I went shopping and returned to find her limp and very weak with a freezing cold mouth!
    She hasnt the energy to stand or move much at all i am worried!
    Please help ☺


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