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The Hypothermic Lamb

Dealing with the Premmies and the Cold Lambs

The Hypothermic Lamb

Adipose Tissue (Brown Fat), and Glucose for Maintenance

Have you ever wondered how tiny lambs stay alive when they are born on the coldest of nights and often in the wind and rain?

It is with a remarkable feat of nature which most mammals have, called Adipose Tissue or Brown fat, which helps to keep baby mammals alive until they can obtain nourishment from their mothers, in the form of colostrum. Adipose tissue consists of varied, closely connected, fat globules and covers most areas of the newborn's body from the neck, back, shoulders, thighs to the joints, blood vessels and lymph nodes and even into the abdominal cavity and the around the heart, making sure all the organs are well protected. The tissue works by generating heat through the uncoupling of proteins, resulting in heat through chemical energy. Adipose tissue can generate up to 300 watts of heat, and is activated by several internal and external factors at birth.

These fat reserves accumulate in the final sixty days of pregnancy, so feeding your ewes well in this time is paramount. Vitamin E and Selenium are also thought to activate the use of brown fat. 75% of foetal growth occurs in the last trimester, so high protein and molasses for energy will help both ewe and lamb.

Now this is fine when everything goes according to plan and the newborn lamb is alert and able to stand and feed soon after birth. The brown fat will keep it warm and Mum's colostrum will do the rest. However, if the lamb is compromised, premature or unable to drink, mis-mothered or rejected and you are not there to assist, it will use up the brown fat reserves, start to shiver, become hypothermic and without intervention, will die. 

If you find a lamb like this, you need to act quickly as once their temperature drops to below 33°, you will be very lucky to bring them back. Less than 36° and they are unable to warm themselves as their brown fat reserves have been used up. At this stage, warming them up is not enough as once their fat reserves have been depleted, their blood glucose level has also dropped to a critical level, so not only do you need to warm them, but you also need to get some sugar into them to keep the brain functioning. Powdered Glucose rubbed onto the gums is the best thing to use for this, as they don't need to swallow it, it works across the mucous membranes of the gums or tongue. Hypothermic and comatose lambs cannot drink and their ability to swallow has also been impeded so don't be tempted to try and get fluids into them, even with a syringe, until their temperature has reached 38°, and they are awake and able to swallow. 

How to Help a Hypothermic Lamb

  • Check the lamb's temperature, so you know what you're dealing with. Warm them up slowly but actively - just wrapping in a blanket is not enough. A heat pad, a hot water bottle wrapped, so it can't burn the lamb, blankets and a hair dryer on a low but warm setting. Any of these will work. Please don't be tempted to put the lamb in a warm bath as the sudden shock can kill them. 
  • At the same time as actively warming, rub powdered glucose on their gums very five-ten minutes, until their temperature is up to 38°. By this stage the glucose should have kept the lamb's brain functioning and it should be awake enough to have some colostrum.
  • If you call the Vet, they will probably do an injection of dextrose or something similar into the peritoneal cavity. I wouldn't advise trying this procedure yourself, as we had one done to a llama cria, and it was not easy, even for the Vet. It is a large needle and placed in the wrong spot will possibly kill the lamb. 
  • Although the rule of thumb is a lamb registering a temperature of under 33° will die, don't give up. Using the active warming/Glucose method, we brought Dottie back and her temperature was so low, it didn't register at all for forty-five minutes. She did not suffer any ill effects and is perfectly normal today.
  • Once the lamb is awake and its temperature has reached 38°, it can be offered some colostrum in a bottle or put on Mum for a drink. If you are returning the lamb to its mum, make sure they are in a warm place and the lamb has a coat or woolover on, as its fat reserves have been depleted.
  • Keep the lamb warm for at least the next three weeks, with a coat, or in a shed, as it has lost its fat reserves and will need extra help keeping warm until it can build up its own fat reserves again. 

In a Nutshell

  • Bring the cold lamb inside 
  • Check temperature 
  • Actively warm with hot water bottle, blankets, hairdryer 
  • Whilst warming, rub powdered Glucose on gums 
  • Once temperature has reached 38°, and lamb is awake and able to function, give Colostrum or put on Mum for a drink 
  • Put a coat/jumper/woolover on lamb 
  • Keep warm and monitor