I promised this post awhile back. Then the rest of spring and summer happened, which means busy times on the homestead. I've picked it up again because I'm working on my next book, Critter Tales. Like 5 Acres & A Dream The Book, I not only want to tell an interesting story, but I want to weave in useful information as well. Surprise's near death experience and what I learned from it is something I want to include. Here it is as a blog post, preliminary to being included in the book.Last spring I had a frightening experience with Surprise, one of my pregnant Nubian does. It started with her being picky with her feed and losing interest. She soon became weak and disoriented. She went down and I could not get her up. With the help of the internet I figured out some things and managed to save both her and her twins. At the time I had to sift through a lot of information, which I had difficulty sorting out in my emergency state of mind. It's taken some study to clarify and understand what happened. This post is my attempt to write out and restate what I've learned.
Pregnancy toxemia (also called ketosis or twin lamb disease) and hypocalcemia (milk fever), are life threatening conditions which must be addressed immediately or the doe (or ewe) will die. Neither are diseases, but rather metabolic conditions which are primarily feed related.
The symptoms are nearly identical:
- loss of appetite
- goes down and can't get up
The cause and treatment are different. The response to treatment determines diagnosis, but since hypocalcemia can lead to ketosis, treating for both is a good idea anyway.
Pregnancy toxemia occurs when the body's demand for energy (carbohydrates in the form of glucose) exceed what the diet provides. It usually happens late in pregnancy, when the kid or kids are rapidly growing. If the dam isn't consuming enough carbohydrates to meet the need, her body begins to metabolize fat for energy. Ketones are the byproduct of fat metabolism. As they accumulate, the system becomes increasingly acidic to the point where it is fatal. (This can happen to people too, when they do not have sufficient insulin to metabolize their intake of carbohydrates. This is referred to as diabetic ketosis.)
Treatment requires immediately supplying energy until she begins eating on her own:
- 1 part molasses / 2 parts corn syrup - 20 cc orally every couple of hours
- or Nutridrench (or Goatdrench) - 1 ounce (30 cc) per 100 lbs body weight by mouth every 8 hours
- or Propylene Glycol - 2 - 3 ounces, 2 - 3 times a day
If you're like me, then you have negative feelings about utilizing Propylene Glycol. It's the "anitfreeze" used in most commercial ice creams. Ordinarily I would avoid it, but in an emergency it's better than losing the doe and her kids. It's used because it is easily assimilated by the body, immediately providing much needed energy. It is also the primary ingredient of Nutridrench, which also contains molasses, calcium, vitamins A, D, and E plus selenium.
- B vitamin injections to stimulate appetite
- Probiotics, yogurt, or kefir to reestablish digestive flora in the rumen
- Water, drench if necessary. She needs water to begin flushing the ketones out of her system
Initially this is what I thought was Surprise's problem. But I also noted that Molly at Fias Co Farm said that she found treating as for milk fever helped. Because of that, I also gave Calcium Gluconate injections. In an attempt to find anything for her to eat, I offered dried comfrey leaves. Comfrey is rich in calcium and because it was the only thing she was interested in (devoured it, in fact) this is the clue that helped me later figure out Surprise's actual problem.
Hypocalcemia occurs when the doe's diet contains an improper calcium/phosphorous ratio. Grain is usually the culprit here, because it is high in phosphorous but low in calcium. The pregnant doe needs at least twice the calcium in her diet, i.e. 2 parts calcium to 1 part phosphorous, especially during the end of her pregnancy, when the kids are needing calcium for bone development, or immediately after kidding when her body begins to produce milk. If she can't supply calcium through her diet, her body will begin to deplete her own resources. Besides bones and teeth, calcium is also necessary for proper muscle function (skeletal, heart, digestive, uterine). With a calcium shortage, muscles become weak so that the doe becomes weak: she can no longer stand, digestion slows, uterine contractions will be weak, and eventually her heart will give out if the problem isn't corrected immediately.
- 40 - 50 cc Calcium Gluconate injections subcutaneously. Because of the volume this must be divided into 4, 10 cc doses and injected slowly in 4 different spots.
- Repeat in one hour
- Repeat in one hour
- Continue treatment several times a day for several more days. She'll fight like crazy but she needs it. Watch her closely after that and give more if needed.
- Also, treat for ketosis. Since she's stopped eating, this will be a secondary problem anyway, so treat for it.
Sue Reith recommends a CMPK (calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, potassium) supplement, either injectable or oral. She gives a homemade recipe here.
Prevention: It's all about diet. Some commercial feeds and mineral supplements already have the correct calcium:phosphorous ratio. If a doe is getting grain instead of commercial feed, however, she needs twice that in a source of calcium. Usually alfalfa is used, but this is where we got into problems. I learned that my alfalfa source had started using GMO'd alfalfa. I freaked out and stopped buying it. This was my near fatal mistake, because I did not have a sufficient calcium replacement.
Pat Colby (Natural Goat Care) gives dolomite instead of alfalfa. Also comfrey is rich in calcium, although I confess our hot, dry spells cause my comfrey to do poorly. Another possibility is Chaffhaye, for those for whom it is locally available (or can afford to it shipped). Alternatively, don't feed grain. This is more difficult with the high yield dairy breeds like Nubians, but hardier breeds like Kinders can do well and maintain good weight on a forage and hay diet.
I am fortunate that things worked out well. Losing animals is always difficult, making victories all the sweeter. Needless to say, Calcium Gluconate and Nutridrench are now standard items in my birthing kit.
What is interesting is that my other does were the same diet but not have the same problem. I don't have an answer for that, other than goats are individuals, and respond differently to different things. Not that I would risk a repeat, but I'm thankful they did better than Surprise.
For more information and further reading:
Dairy Goat Care & Management: Ketosis - What Is It?
Dairy Goat Care & Management, Hypocalcemia, Ca & Ph in the Diet
Dairy Goat Care & Management, Hypocalcemia Feed for Prevention
Fias Co Farm, Ketosis and Pregnancy Toxemia
Fias Co Farm, Milk Fever (Hypocalcemia)
Goatworld, More Feedback on Hypocalcemia in Goats
Goatworld, Pregnancy Toxemia and Ketosis, Part 1
Goatworld, Pregnancy Toxemia and Ketosis, Part 2
Merck's Online Veterinary Manual: Nutritional Diseases
Natural Goat Care by Pat Coleby
Alfalfa For Goats: Looking For Alternatives