Livestock Sickness Warning Signs

Tune in to when your farm animals aren’t feeling their best by being on the lookout for these symptoms of illness.

by Dani Yokhna
Be aware of warning signs that point to disease or injury in your livestock. Photo by Rachael Brugger (
Photo by Rachael Brugge
Sometimes molting can be normal in your chickens, but it can also be a warning sign for disease. Take note of what is normal in your birds to determine the difference.

Unsure if the behavior and appearance of your barnyard animals is normal or pointing to a symptoms of disease or injury? Be aware of these warning signs.

Physical Appearance
Inspect the animal’s skin for wounds, hair loss, lumps or swellings. Does the coat or plumage appear shiny and healthy? A worm infestation, for example, can make a horse’s coat shaggy and dull. Is there a change in posture? A sick chicken might stand hunched on both feet with its feathers fluffed out. Has the animal lost weight—a sign that can accompany a number of health problems, from worms to cancer—or does its skin show evidence of dehydration?

“Elastic skin that snaps back in place when pulled away from the body is a sign of good hydration,” says Dr. Jeremy Powell, DVM, an extension veterinarian at the University of Arkansas who teaches about diseases of livestock. “If the skin stays in a tented position, it’s an indicator of dehydration.”

Observe your animals as they move. Do you notice any stiffness that might indicate arthritis? Is the animal limping or bobbing its head? Lameness could signal a variety of illnesses, depending on the species: foot rot in a sheep or goat, bumblefoot in a duck, a sole abscess in a horse. If your normally active alpaca is reluctant to budge from his resting spot at all, his behavior should arouse your suspicions. Watch your livestock for any out-of-the ordinary head-shaking, pawing, yawning, scratching, rolling or teeth grinding, as well.

Attitude and Behavior
Your Alpine milk goat, due to kid within the month, always meets you at the gate eager for breakfast, eyes bright and ears perked. This morning, however, it huddles listlessly at the back of its stall and barely glances at the grain you’ve brought. Her water bucket is untouched. Could it be ketosis, that deadly pregnancy illness you’ve read about? Whatever the cause, her symptoms warrant action, preferably a call to the veterinarian. Lethargy, weakness, depression, lack of appetite and decreased water consumption are all signs that should set off those inner warning bells. Likewise, be suspicious if one of your bantam chickens stops preening its feathers or your once-immaculate rabbit quits grooming herself.

Are you hearing less (or more) mooing, baaing or crowing than usual? Keep an eye on your animals’ interactions with others. Is your normally social llama or goose suddenly spending time alone?

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“Most of our domestic livestock are from herd species; therefore, if they aren’t with the group, something could be wrong,” Dr. Powell says.

Bodily Functions and Vitals
While not the most pleasant way to spend your time, it’s important to keep tabs on your animals’ bodily functions. Pay attention to any changes in the color or consistency of their stools when you clean up. Is diarrhea or blood present? Have you noticed any change in urine color, amount or frequency? Has your gelding or ram been straining to urinate? Also, watch for unusual discharge from the eyes, nose, mouth or reproductive tract, recommends Dr. Powell. In a sick chicken, feathers may be missing, dirty or pasted around the eyes, nostrils or vent area.

Taking Action
If an animal seems ill and you have the means to do so safely, monitor its vital signs: heart rate, respiratory rate, body temperature, gum color and capillary refill time (how many seconds it takes the pink color to return after you’ve pressed a finger to the gums).

“Vital signs will vary among species, but get familiar with the [normal] vital signs for the particular species that you own,” Dr. Powell says.

Do some research to find out what’s normal for the species and breeds you keep. For example, normal rectal temperature for a llama or horse ranges from 99 to 101.5 degrees F, while a large domestic pig’s runs from 101.5 to 103.5 degrees F. A temperature lower than normal could indicate shock or hypothermia, while a higher temperature might mean the animal has just exercised or point to something serious: heat exhaustion, an infection or some other malady.

“Be prepared to call the veterinarian if some of the signs listed are noted,” Dr. Powell says. “Always keep a record and be able to explain these abnormal clinical signs to your veterinarian. When did they begin occurring? Are they getting worse? Are they continuous or intermittent? Being able to answer these types of questions will allow your veterinarian to make a faster diagnosis and prescribe the proper treatment.”

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

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