Get In Tune with Your Livestock’s Health

Prepare yourself now for how to spot symptoms of illness in your farm animals so that you can get them help before it’s too late.

by Dani Yokhna
Get to know the behaviors and habits of your livestock early on, so later you can detect when they are ill. Photo courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock (
Courtesy iStockphoto/Thinkstock
Get to know the behaviors and habits of your livestock early on, so later you can detect when they are ill.

Wouldn’t it be nice if our animals could communicate with us more clearly? After years of working with exotic and domestic animals in zoos and on my small farm, I can understand some basic “animal-speak.” I know my sheep flock’s incessant baaing means they want dinner now. I understand my mare is snapping, “Get that away from me!” when she pins her ears and jerks back from the deworming syringe. But I want to know more!

Unlike humans, who often have no qualms about making their illness symptoms known to others, livestock have a tendency to hide sickness or injury so they don’t get attacked, eaten or bullied. Signs and symptoms of illness can be subtle, particularly early on. A horse with mild colic, for example, might just seem sleepier than usual or yawn more often, while obvious signs like kicking at the belly and frequent rolling accompany more severe colic. A goat with caprine arthritis encephalitis might show only slight swelling in the knees at first; increased swelling and wasting occur as the disease progresses.

It would be so much easier if livestock could just say, “Hey, you know, I think I’m starting to come down with something …,” but instead the burden falls on us to recognize the warning signs of sickness and injury so we can take swift action.

Why is it so critical for livestock owners to stay alert for early signs of illness?

For one, if a contagious disease is detected promptly, you might be able to prevent its spread to the rest of your herd or flock by isolating or culling the infected animal. Also, a number of dangerous diseases, like rabies, salmonella and anthrax, can be transmitted from animals to humans.

Of course, preventing disease in the first place should be a priority, but it’s important to remain vigilant in light of recent animal health scares, like mad cow, foot and mouth disease, and avian influenza. Early detection and reporting of unusual disease outbreaks is critical for our own health and the health of our country’s livestock industry.

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“Oftentimes, if disease can be dealt with during the early stages, the affected animal will stand a much better chance of recovery,” says Dr. Jeremy Powell, DVM, an extension veterinarian at the University of Arkansas who teaches about diseases of livestock. “Colic is a disease that requires treatment to be initiated as quickly as possible. Respiratory disease in cattle is another ailment that requires early detection. If left untreated, severe lung damage can occur, which could be irreversible.”

As I’ve learned the hard way, staying alert for signs of sickness and then acting quickly can mean the difference between life and death. During our first year raising Jacob sheep, I was shocked and saddened one morning to discover an apparently healthy lamb had died. A necropsy indicated starvation; somehow I’d missed the signs that he wasn’t getting enough milk from his mother.

Fast forward three years: One Sunday after showing our sheep at the fair, I went to feed them breakfast as usual. Idly, I watched the sheep dig in with enthusiasm—all but Lily, an energetic bottle lamb. She hung back, disinterested, and a warning bell tinkled in my head. I could have chalked up Lily’s behavior to an off-day and headed inside for more coffee. Instead, I lingered, observing her listlessness and half-closed eyes with growing concern.

After running for my husband and a thermometer, I easily caught her and we took her temperature, which was sky high—a symptom of pneumonia. Thanks to an experienced breeder’s speedy advice (our vet’s office was closed) and a course of penicillin, this story has a happy ending: Lily bounced back to her perky, gluttonous self in no time.

“The sooner a correct diagnosis is reached, the more likely the animal is to survive,” explains Ingrid Painter, a long-time Jacob and Navajo-Churro sheep raiser at Puddleduck Farm in Brownsville, Ore., and the author of Jacob Sheep in America. “An illness like pneumonia is fatal if undetected. Often there are no signs like a cough or runny nose—the animal just seems listless and non-caring, maybe even separating from the flock.”

Know Your Animals Well
This might sound a bit obvious, but it’s important to know how your animals normally look, move and behave before you can spot any abnormalities. In my case, I realized something was wrong when Lily didn’t race over to eat with the others. By that time, I’d come to know my flock’s typical feeding behavior pretty well: They ate like pigs.

Knowing what’s normal, however, isn’t always easy—especially if you’ve just acquired a species you’ve never kept before. Ideally, you should do your research ahead of time:

  • surf the web
  • milk experienced raisers for advice
  • head to the library or bookstore to bone up on livestock health

“Go to 4-H meetings, talk to veterinarians and read books on the type of livestock you have,” adds Doug Foote, who has operated D&J Enterprises Pet and Livestock Sitting with his wife, Janis, in Eagle, Idaho, for 12 years. Conducting their business successfully means knowing what’s normal and abnormal for animals, ranging from potbellied pigs and emu to bison and horses. The Footes keep an extensive library of animal books and always schedule a pre-farm-sitting visit to become acquainted with their livestock clients’ normal appearance and behavior.

Spot Signs and Symptoms of Illness
Once you’ve researched your livestock breed, bought tons of feed and created a home for your new animals, it’s time to develop your observation skills. As you get to know your own animals, keep an eye open for breed, male-female and individual differences, along with seasonal changes in behavior.

Not only do my five Jacobs behave differently from other sheep breeds (they’re more active than Cotswolds, for instance), they also differ from each other.

  • Honeybun baas louder than the rest put together.
  • Shamrock is wary.
  • Friendly Maia loves a good head rub.
  • Lily is curious.
  • Marigold, at the bottom of the hierarchy, often grazes away from the flock. This behavior could be interpreted as a sign of sickness in another sheep, but for Marigold it’s normal.

I keep their personalities and individual quirks in mind while looking them over each morning and evening for signs of sickness and injury.

Zookeepers, who generally care for large numbers of animals during the course of a day, will quickly make the rounds of their exhibits first thing in the morning to check on all their charges before opening time. Farm sitters, too, must learn to make quick, efficient observations during their visits.

“The first thing you should do is a head count—is everyone accounted for?” Foote says. “Janis went to care for some cattle and she couldn’t find the calf. We went out to look for it and found it down with scours and dehydrated. We put in a call to the vet, and he came within half an hour and treated it with fluids. Had we not looked for this calf right then, it would have died.”

Try to study each of your animals from head to hoof on a daily basis. Use binoculars if you have to.

Don’t just toss your cows or goats some hay and high-tail it back inside without a backward glance: Chow-time is a great opportunity for closer inspection. Watch how your livestock react to your presence, how they move, how quickly they approach their food and how heartily they eat.

“When feeding your animals, you should observe their behavior every day—anything abnormal should soon become apparent,” Painter stresses. Within her own flock, she looks for any sheep behaving differently from the rest, staying alert for listlessness, hunched backs, droopy ears and any animal who seems uninterested in their food.

If it’s practical and you can do so safely, regularly use your sense of touch to assess the animal’s condition (bison raisers might want to skip this). Whenever I confine my sheep on their stanchion for hoof care or vaccinations, I dig beneath their thick wool with my hands to determine their real body condition and search for lumps or wounds. Grooming your horse, dairy cow, goat or rabbit is an excellent way to check for health problems.

“With our mare, we see her and physically touch her twice a day. I look at her coat, eyes and ears,” Foote says. “One reason you brush your horse is to look for injuries. Pet them, play with them, spend some time with them—you’ll spot something real quick.”

Observing our animals for signs of sickness or injury is a daily job. Like all chores, it’s easy for this one to become so automatic that you’re simply going through the motions while thinking of your work to-do list. Try to stay focused and in the moment when checking your animals. Avoid burn-out by taking breaks and vacations. Ask your farmer friends, livestock sitter and family for their observations. (You’ll be surprised at how observant children can be!)

Also be on the look out for these livestock sickness warning signs:

  1. lethargy, weakness or depression
  2. change in food and/or water consumption
  3. change in stool color or consistency; blood present
  4. change in color, frequency or amount of urine; straining to urinate
  5. abnormal discharge from nose, eyes, mouth or reproductive tract
  6. solitary behavior in a normally social animal
  7. irregular breathing, coughing, gagging or retching
  8. loss of body weight
  9. swollen joints or lameness
  10. skin abnormalities: wounds, hair loss, swellings, et cetera
  11. signs of dehydration
  12. abnormal vitals: heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, gum color, et cetera

About the Author: Cherie Langlois is a freelance writer and hobby farmer who raises Jacob sheep and chickens.


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