Does and ewes suffering from pregnancy toxemia (ketosis) appear lethargic, sluggish and often fail to eat. The first symptom noticed in does and ewes is an unwillingness to eat. They become depressed, weak and have poor muscle control and balance later in pregnancy.
Many times, when they lie down, they are unable to rise. Early in the disease, does or ewes will show a positive test for ketone bodies in the urine. The breath of does and ewes will have a sweet or foul smell. Ketone bodies are by-products of fat breakdown found in the blood and urine. Test kits are often available for ketone bodies and they are easy to use.
Pregnancy toxemia is caused by the sudden extra demand for energy by the fast-growing kids or lambs in the last few weeks of pregnancy. Seventy percent of fetal growth occurs during the last few weeks. The disease is not normally observed in ewes carrying singles. It is usually seen when the ewe is carrying two or more lambs. Does and ewes that are too fat often will experience pregnancy toxemia. At the time when the kids or lambs are growing very rapidly, increasing amounts of space and energy are needed, in addition to the protein and energy needed for maintenance of the doe or ewe. The increase in feedstuffs high in energy must be supplied on a daily basis. Does or ewes consuming large amounts of hay need a greater internal space in the rumen, which causes decreasing space for growth of the kids or lambs in the uterus. In meeting the nutritional needs of the kids or lambs, the doe or ewe will metabolize or break down fat resources from her body to maintain pregnancy. This rapid breakdown of body stores of energy produces ketones (a toxic by-product) and you soon observe the symptoms of the disease. Maintaining does or ewes in a medium body condition rather than overly fat condition early in pregnancy will help keep down the disease.
Pregnancy toxemia is not a transmittable disease from one doe or ewe to another, however, flocks or herds experiencing the disease may appear to be infectious because the plane of nutrition and management throughout pregnancy is similar. This shortage of energy in the diet may cause these symptoms in several does or ewes, especially those carrying twins or triplets.
Treatment and Prevention
The treatment of pregnancy toxemia is usually unsuccessful. Providing energy in the form of molasses or syrup generally does not suffice. Treatment with propylene glycol at 60 to 90 ml (2 to 3 oz) twice daily may help. Cesarean section to deliver the kids or lambs early will
sometimes save the doe or ewe and the kids or lambs if they are near term. Corticosteroids may be used to abort the doe or ewe to prevent the loss of the dam. Kids or lambs will die shortly following the diagnosis of pregnancy toxemia due to lack of nutritional transfer from the doe or ewe to them. The sooner the kids or lambs are born, the less likely the doe or ewe will die.
Grain is a high source of available energy. Feeding 1-2 lbs. of grain daily along with high quality legume hay during the last four to six weeks of pregnancy will help prevent pregnancy toxemia. If the does or ewes are large, it may be necessary to increase the grain from 50% to 100%. Feeding grain first and having ample space at the feeders for each doe or ewe to get her share of the grain followed by hay feeding may help. Protein requirements should also be balanced, but protein level in the feed is not related to pregnancy toxemia. Exercising the doe or ewe is quite helpful especially in the cold winter months when feeding is in drylot. Hay can be placed in feeders quite a distance from the barn to force the does or ewes to walk to the feed to increase their exercise.