Updated July 21, 2021
Lambs (baby sheep) have their own special care needs to help them reach adulthood in good health and comfort. Depending on how old they are when they enter your care and whether they have had or continue to have access to their mother, lambs have diverse needs when it comes to health, nutrition, and socialization.
Sanctuary Intake Recommendations For Lambs
When a new lamb finds their way to your sanctuary, it’s critical to follow appropriate intake and quarantine guidelines in order to protect your new resident and the existing flock. They should receive all location and age-appropriate vaccinations, should be evaluated for any health issues, and males should be neutered when your veterinarian deems appropriate. There is some controversy around the best age at which to neuter a male sheep, so you should discuss the pros and cons of neutering male sheep at various stages of development with your veterinarian. While neutering individuals at a younger age may result in less risk of complications during the procedure, there is a valid concern regarding neutering sheep before their urethra has had time to fully develop, since urinary blockages can be a concern in male sheep. Male lambs typically reach sexual maturity between 4 and 6 months old, but there are various factors that will affect the age of puberty. If waiting until lambs are older to neuter them, be sure to take measures to prevent accidental breeding and watch closely for signs of sexual maturity.
Depending on regional laws, you may need to register guardianship of the lamb with your local government. If they are with their mother, you should not separate the two unless absolutely necessary (especially if the baby is still nursing), such as if one of them has a communicable illness or needs extra space to recover from a health issue. Always weigh the stress of separation with the benefits.
If you have not already done so, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about incoming testing for lambs. Blood testing for certain diseases in very young lambs may not be recommended due to the presence of maternal antibodies, which could affect the results.
Daily Health Care For Lambs
Be sure to monitor the lamb’s rectal temperature once or twice per day and monitor joints and navel for any signs of heat, swelling, pain, or discharge twice a day. According to the second edition of Sheep And Goat Medicine, a lamb’s rectal temperature should be between 102.5 and 104 degrees Fahrenheit (39.2 to 40 degrees Celsius). However, a healthy lamb’s temperature can fluctuate due to environmental factors and activity level; this is why it’s important to consider many factors when assessing a lamb’s temperature- a lamb who is bright, constantly playing, and has a temperature of 104, is very different from a lamb who has that same temperature but also has runny eyes, a cough, and doesn’t have a great appetite. Taking a lamb’s temperature either in the morning and/ or evening will likely give you the most accurate reading. After the first few days, assuming the lamb appears healthy and has not been spiking a fever, you can take the lamb’s temperature once a day instead of twice. If you have concerns regarding a lamb’s temperature, always consult with your veterinarian, and be prepared to give them other information about how the lamb is doing overall (appetite, activity level, and if they have any other signs of concern).
If the umbilical cord is still attached or the navel is still open, be sure to keep this area clean. If the lamb is over 7 days old, the navel and any remaining umbilical cord should be completely dry. Upon intake, dip the umbilical cord in 7% providone-iodine solution or a 2% chlorhexidine solution, then clean twice daily with dilute 0.5% chlorhexidine until healed. It’s best to allow the umbilical cord to dry up and fall off on it’s own. We recommend weighing the lamb daily, until they are at least 2 months old, to ensure they are gaining weight appropriately.
Food And Nutritional Recommendations For Lambs
Nutritional care decisions for lambs hinge upon their precise age and whether they have received their mother’s (or a different recent mother sheep’s) colostrum immediately after birth. Without colostrum, the first milk produced by their mother when they are born, lambs will not receive the protective immunoglobulins they need to fight off disease (this is referred to as passive immunity). Colostrum also contains important nutrients and growth hormones which help the lamb properly develop. Without colostrum, lambs lack the crucial immune system boost required to help them survive and thrive until their own immune system develops. There is only about a 24 hour window for the lamb’s intestinal lining to be able to absorb the colostrum’s antibodies, with the first 4-6 hours after birth being the most effective absorption time and an exponential loss in effectiveness as the day goes on. If the lamb has their mother, or you have access to colostrum from another sheep mother, the baby should receive between 10-20% of their body weight in colostrum (you can use the calculation in the table below), ideally spread out between multiple feeding over the first 12 hours with the first feeding occurring within the first 2 hours after birth. In the event that they do not have their mother, colostrum (and later, milk) can be fed via a bottle, but if a lamb is unable to suckle, they will need to be tube fed to ensure they receive the appropriate amount of colostrum. This must be performed or taught by a veterinarian or care expert, as improper tubing can result in aspiration and even death. It is recommended that the total amount of colostrum needed be broken down into feedings not exceeding 5 ounces at a time (with very small lambs receiving even smaller feedings).
If a newborn lamb arrives at your sanctuary and did not receive adequate colostrum in the first crucial hours of their life, they must receive rapid intervention. If they are less than a day old, you should still try to administer actual or artificial colostrum, but once they’re more than a day old, it is effectively useless. When using artificial colostrum, make sure you are buying a colostrum “replacement” versus a “supplement”, as the supplement does not contain enough IgG proteins to provide the lamb with the essential level they require. Check packaging carefully- it will state which type it is. If you do not know if the lamb received colostrum, or do not know if they received enough, you can work with your veterinarian to test them for Failure of Passive Transfer (FPT). Consult with your veterinarian regarding the best course of action for lambs who have not received colostrum. They can assess the individual and may recommend antibiotic treatment or even a plasma transfusion. If you are not willing to provide these recommended treatments for a lamb who did not receive adequate colostrum, there is a very good chance they will not survive or will be prone to a life where they are always more susceptible to infectious diseases.
You never know when a newborn lamb will show up at your sanctuary, and you don’t want to find yourself in a situation where you are unable to provide the colostrum they require. Because time is of the essence, we recommend either keeping colostrum replacer in stock, making sure to replace it as needed based on the expiration date, or keeping frozen colostrum on hand. Frozen colostrum can be stored for up to a year. Be sure to thaw only what you need, thaw it slowly in warm water, and do not re-freeze any leftover portions.
Cow colostrum is an acceptable substitute for sheep colostrum if that is all you have available, but you should feed about ⅓ more volume to make up for the fact that it is not as nutritious as sheep colostrum. Make sure it comes from a Johne’s– free herd to avoid disease transmission. There have been some reports of lambs developing hemolytic anemia 1-3 weeks after being fed cow colostrum, but this is rare, and if your options are cow colostrum or no colostrum, feeding cow colostrum is the better option. Always contact your veterinarian if a lamb is not eating as well or is showing signs of weakness. If this occurs in a lamb who was fed cow colostrum, be sure to let your veterinarian know that they received cow colostrum. Your veterinarian can assess the individual for anemia and perform a blood transfusion if necessary.
Without their mother present, you’ll have to feed a lamb with a bottle, artificial nipple, or bowl for at least four weeks, though many sanctuaries continue to feed milk to lambs for at least two months. There are a few different options when it comes to milk. In the absence of their mother’s milk, feeding sheep’s milk is the next best option, but can be difficult to find and is typically raw rather than pasteurized. When using store-bought milk, choose pasteurized milk to prevent the possible spread of disease. Pasteurized goat’s milk tends to be easier to find and works well, but if your local grocer does not carry it, you should be able to buy powdered goat’s milk online. Whole cow’s milk can typically be used if goat’s milk is unavailable, just make sure it’s full fat. The last option is to use a milk replacer, but be sure to use one formulated specifically for lambs, and follow the directions on the package when preparing. The milk replacer will come with a scoop provided and all mixing instructions will be based on using that scoop, so don’t throw it out! It is important to follow all package instructions, as improper mixing can result in issues such as scours (diarrhea- discussed in more detail below) or malnutrition. While it can be more expensive, whole goat’s milk is easier for digestion and is less likely to cause scours. It does have a lower fat content than sheep’s milk, and some sources recommend supplementing it with oil when feeding it to lambs, but anecdotal information from the sanctuary community suggests that lambs fed goat’s milk have grown up to be healthy individuals.
There are a variety of styles of nipples and bottles that can be used with lambs, including thinner styles like Pritchard Teat Nipples, larger nipples typically labeled for lambs and foals, or even bottles and nipples designed for human babies. It can be helpful to have a few styles on hand, because some individuals prefer one over the others, especially if they were on a bottle prior to their arrival at the sanctuary. Some nipples do not come with an opening at the end, instead requiring you to cut the tip- in some cases cutting a small slit, and in others a small “x”. It is important not to cut too large of an opening. Milk should not easily flow out of the nipple when the bottle is inverted; instead, the lamb should need to suckle to get milk out of the nipple. If the opening is too large, either because it was cut too large or it became larger with regular use, the baby could aspirate, which can result in pneumonia, and in severe cases, death. Always check the bottle and nipple before using, inverting prior to offering it to the lamb to ensure it is safe to use. Discard any nipples that do not work properly.
Lambs should be fed at least 10-12% of their body weight, though your veterinarian may recommend up to 20%, especially if you are feeding whole goat’s milk. Feeding too much milk replacer can cause stomach upset, so they may suggest you stick with 10-12% body weight to prevent issues. If you took in a lamb in the middle of this period of their life, try to get what they had been eating before coming to their new home so you can gradually transition their diet (and if they were bottle fed, it’s helpful to know what type of nipple they are used to). This will prevent the likelihood of stomachaches or other digestive problems as their body adjusts. Regardless of the type of milk you are feeding, lambs, especially newborns, should be fed warm milk heated to around 100 degrees Fahrenheit (37.78 degrees Celsius).
To make things a bit easier, when calculating how much milk a lamb needs, you can approximate that a U.S. customary fluid ounce of milk and an Imperial fluid ounce both weigh one ounce. To determine how much milk a lamb needs per day and per feeding, you can follow this formula:
|Weigh lamb||Lamb weighs 10lbs|
|Convert to ounces||10 x 16 = 160oz|
|Multiply weight in ounces by percentage you|
want to feed to get total amount per day
|If feeding 10% body weight|
160oz x 10% = 16oz milk per day
|Divide the total amount fed per day by the|
number of feedings to determine amount
to feed at each meal
|If feeding 4 times per day|
16oz/ 4 meals = 4oz per feeding
Until they’re two weeks old, they should have milk split between four and six feedings per day, and they should generally remain on 4 feedings per day until they are one month old (lambs on milk replacer tend to do best on smaller, more frequent meals than larger feedings, so keep this in mind). At this point, they can be fed 3 times per day. When you reduce the number of feedings, make sure you are increasing the amount of milk fed at each feeding to maintain their overall daily amount (unless you are in the process of weaning), and be sure to increase their overall milk intake as they grow! Be sure to sterilize their bottle after each feeding, either with a baby-safe sterilizing agent, a sterilizing appliance, or with boiling water.
If They Cannot Suckle
If a lamb cannot take in milk via bottle, artificial nipple, or bowl, you may need to teach them how to suckle. You can hold the sheep in your lap and place the nipple in their mouth- at first they may just gum the nipple, but they almost always figure it out eventually. Sometimes getting them to suckle on your finger first is helpful. If they are truly struggling with the concept, they may need to be fed via intubation so they continue to receive the vital nutrition they need until they learn to suckle. Remember- do not tube feed any animal without receiving in-person training from an expert, as they can easily drown if not intubated correctly every time. An injection of selenium and vitamin E is commonly given to lambs who have a weak suckle response- contact your veterinarian for specific instructions.
Transitioning To Solid Foods
Until a lamb is at least a month old, milk will be their primary source of nutrients. However, you can start offering a small amount of hay right from the start. They likely won’t eat it at first, but should start nibbling on it here and there. You should also offer water in a small dish that prevents spilling. Avoid water sources that could result in the baby becoming wet, either by spilling the water or walking through the water, especially in colder weather. To assist in their rumen development, you can start offering lambs a small amount of lamb starter food when they are 3 days old. Like the hay, at first they may not eat it, but it’s good to have it available to them. Increase the amount when they start showing interest in eating it.
When the lamb is eating lamb starter and hay (or pasture) regularly, or around the time they are 1 month old, you can start offering free choice mineral access. While some people have had no issue offering mineral access before this point, there is a chance they will overindulge, which could result in toxicity issues. Whenever you start offering minerals, make sure they are designed for sheep and watch closely to ensure that they do not overdo it, removing access for the rest of a day if necessary. When the lamb appears to be eating hay and lamb starter well, you can begin slowly reducing their milk while giving them more solid food access. Bottle or bowl feeding might continue for up to 16 weeks, though the lamb may transition fully to solid food well before this time. They should be eating hay (or pasture if your sanctuary’s foliage can fully support their diet) as the bulk of their diet once weaned. Your veterinarian may recommend you continue to offer measured amounts of lamb starter at first, but be sure to talk to them about the risk of urinary calculi in neutered male lambs on grain.
If The Lamb Has Their Mother
If a lamb came to your sanctuary along with their mother (or if a pregnant sheep came to your sanctuary), you should let their mother take charge of feeding and nutrition for the most part as long as you are confident she is producing enough milk to do so. Lactating sheep require more protein and energy in their diet and should have access to a high quality hay and supplemental concentrate formulated for lactating sheep. While we do not recommend alfalfa hay for flocks containing neutered male sheep, alfalfa hay is a great option for lactating sheep. If pasture is available, be sure to consider if the quality is high enough to provide the nutrients necessary- if the quality is only average or below, continue offering supplemental hay. When feeding concentrate, offer about one pound of concentrate for each lamb she is nursing.
Lambs will wean off of their mother’s milk when they feel it is appropriate (or when their mother feels it is appropriate), and as long as lambs have solid food and minerals available to them, they will time their development much better than a human would in most circumstances! Both sheep will be much happier to have each other than if they had been separated. About 60 days after they’ve given birth, you can start making changes to the mother’s diet to decrease milk production and prevent unhealthy weight gain- reducing, and then discontinuing, supplemental pellets and offering average quality hay or pasture.
Be sure to monitor mom’s udders for signs of injury from enthusiastic nursing and closely monitor her overall health- especially as lambs grow- and watch to make sure she is not losing too much weight while lambs are nursing. Some individuals may require more supplementation than outlined above. Discuss any concerns with your veterinarian.
Keep in mind that sheep who have recently given birth are more susceptible to parasitism than other adults and could be shedding large numbers of eggs in their feces, especially in the first month of lactation. Those who are nursing more than one baby are even more vulnerable. Lambs also are very vulnerable to parasitism as they have not developed any immunity to them yet. Good nutrition can help prevent issues with parasitism, but be sure to talk to your veterinarian about other ways to protect both mother and baby, such as more frequent FAMACHA scoring and being thoughtful about which pastures, if any, mothers and lambs have access to.
Living Space Recommendations For Lambs
It’s important to ensure that lambs are provided with relief from extreme temperatures. In colder environments, they may require extra bedding, sheep-safe heaters, or blankets, if necessary, until they’ve developed a more robust coat and extra insulating body fat. Lamb-sized coats can be found online to help keep babies warm. In hot environments, it’s important to give them ample opportunities to avoid overheating, including employing fans and giving them ample shade if they desire it. Offering both indoor and outdoor living spaces (if the weather allows) away from other sheep and large sanctuary mammals (other than their mother if she’s present) will help keep lambs safe until they grow a little bigger and stronger, and until their immune system grows more robust. Keep in mind that lambs are more vulnerable to predation than mature sheep, so even if your resident sheep flock is safe having access to the outdoors overnight, it’s best to keep young lambs closed in a safe space overnight. This will also ensure they don’t get stuck outside during inclement weather when caregivers are not around to escort them inside and dry them off or warm them up as needed.
Social Recommendations For Lambs
Lambs should be given space away from mature sheep (except for their mother if she’s present) until they have matured to a point where they no longer require supplemental feeding. If you are caring for more than one mother/ baby grouping, these families may do well together, especially if the mothers knew and were friendly with each other before giving birth. Just watch closely to make sure everyone gets along! Consider creating a separate area that the lambs, but not the adults, can enter. This will allow them to get away from adults if desired and is also a good place to put additional hay and water, as well as lamb starter.
If you are caring for multiple new lambs who do not have their mother, once they are given a clean bill of health from a veterinarian, they will typically make for very close lifelong companions! The same can be true for young lambs and goat kids who are around the same age, though depending on personalities, they may seek out companionship with members of their own species as they mature.
Common Lamb Health Challenges
While not an exhaustive list of the potential health challenges a lamb could face, below are some of the most common issues that affect lambs.
Lambs with FTP, especially those born into dirty environments and who do not receive proper navel (umbilical) treatment, are especially prone to navel infection, referred to as navel ill or omphalitis. In newborns, the umbilicus, or navel, is open and can allow bacteria to enter. The umbilical cord serves as a connection between the baby and mother for the transfer of nutrients, and after being born, this membrane is torn and should dry up and close within a few days of birth. A lamb with navel ill may have a hot, swollen, painful navel, there may be discharge present, and the lamb may appear very dull with little interest in eating. Maggots can also develop in this region if there is an infection present. Left untreated, the infection can spread, resulting in other issues such as peritonitis, joint ill (described below), or septicemia. Lambs with suspected navel ill should be assessed by a veterinarian immediately and will require systemic antibiotic treatment, possibly intravenously. In some cases surgical intervention is also necessary. Be sure to keep lamb living spaces clean and dry, monitor their navel twice daily, and follow the instructions listed above regarding proper navel care and rectal temperature monitoring.
If bacteria travels to the joints, this will cause an infection in the joint called joint ill or infectious arthritis. This can develop as a result of untreated navel ill, or the bacteria can travel to the joints as a result of an infection in other parts of the body. A lamb with joint ill may have a hot, swollen, and painful joint, and they may be reluctant to stand or bear weight on the affected leg. It can affect one or multiple joints at the same time. With early infection, the only obvious sign may be a minor limp. As noted above, if a lamb develops even a slight limp in their step, you should have them evaluated by a veterinarian to determine if the cause is an infection or injury. Lambs with joint ill can face lifelong mobility challenges- early treatment is imperative; this is why we recommend closely monitoring a lamb’s joints (fetlocks, knees, and hocks are most commonly affected, but any joint can develop an infection) twice daily. Lambs with joint ill will require systemic antibiotics and pain management. In some cases the joint will need to be flushed or the placement of antibiotic beads may be recommended.
Pneumonia is a respiratory disease caused by inflammation in the lungs. Lambs can develop pneumonia from a variety of causes including environmental factors (high humidity, poor ventilation, and/ or being exposed to cold temperatures) and aspiration (often from inhaling milk from a nipple that flows too quickly). It can also be caused by a variety of organisms including bacterial, viral, fungal, or a combination of these. As stated above, poor ventilation is a common cause of pneumonia, so be sure to offer appropriate ventilation in lamb living spaces. Lambs with FTP are especially vulnerable to developing pneumonia due to a deficient immune system. Signs of pneumonia may include fever, coughing, nasal or ocular discharge, labored breathing, open mouth breathing, gurgly or wet sounding breathing, a dull appearance, lethargy, and a poor appetite. If the lamb is suffering from a chronic pneumonia, you may only see a mild version of these signs; they generally have nasal discharge with a slight increase in their respiratory rate. Lambs displaying signs of pneumonia should be assessed by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend an antibiotic treatment and based on the severity may recommend other treatments or diagnostics (including blood work and an ultrasound of their lungs). Without proper treatment, lambs can die from pneumonia, and those who recover can suffer from permanent damage to their lungs.
Scours is another name for diarrhea in ruminants, which could originate from a number of different infectious and non-infectious sources. Viruses, bacteria, and protozoa can all act alone or together to cause scours. The lamb’s diet can also be a contributing factor. If left untreated, lambs with scours can quickly become dehydrated. In young lambs it is often this dehydration, not the organism that caused the scours, that is the most common cause of death. Newborn lambs do not have the same pelleted poop as adults, so don’t let the absence of pellets worry you! Their first poop will be dark and tar-like; this is meconium. After that, their poop will be the color of mustard and will go from pasty to more formed as they mature. A lamb should not have watery or overly loose poop. When in doubt about what is normal and what is not, grab a sample or take a picture and consult with your veterinarian.
We strongly recommend a lamb with scours be seen by a veterinarian, but if you are experienced in how to conduct a physical examination on a lamb and know how to determine their level of hydration, you may choose to closely monitor them at first. If you are not familiar with how to assess a lamb’s hydration status, you should have your veterinarian show you how to do so through skin tenting and assessing if a lamb has sunken eyes. By being able to provide this information to your veterinarian, they will be able to determine if you can manage the lamb’s care on your own or if more advanced interventions are necessary. It is imperative you involve a veterinarian if the lamb is showing signs of dehydration or has had scours for more than a couple days. They can help determine the underlying cause (though this usually requires fecal testing as well), establish an appropriate treatment plan, and provide supportive care as needed. The most common scour-causing pathogens in lambs less than one month old are E. Coli, rotavirus, Cryposporidum, and Salmonella. In most cases, treatment consists primarily of supportive care, but depending on the underlying cause, your veterinarian may recommend other treatments, such as dewormers or antibiotics. To address their dehydration, the lamb will need lamb-safe electrolytes, which can be given in addition to their milk, or in place of some of their milk. Some electrolytes can hinder the absorption of milk given; therefore, your veterinarian should help determine the best treatment plan. They may also recommend adding lactaid tabs to their milk. If the lamb is too weak to accept fluids orally, they will require intravenous or subcutaneous administration, performed by a qualified veterinarian or care expert.
Ensure that the lamb is kept warm, dry, and quarantined during recovery, and continue to practice good biosecurity habits to protect the rest of the flock. If the scours source is zoonotic, you must take all appropriate measures to ensure that no human is exposed directly to their fecal matter. Do not let a lamb with scours interact with the public! It is imperative that everyone working with or around a lamb who has scours wears gloves and avoid letting any part of the lamb make contact with a human’s face (we know they are extremely kissable, but for everyone’s safety, you really must avoid directly kissing a lamb with scours).
Orf (Contagious Ecthyma, Sore Mouth)
This highly contagious condition is quite common in lambs and is caused by a poxvirus. Individuals with orf will develop crusty lesions on their mouth and nose, and could even have lesions inside their mouth or other parts of their body. A nursing lamb with orf could also spread the disease to their mother’s udder. While adults with orf typically continue eating, lambs with severe lesions may be reluctant to eat, in which case tube feeding may be necessary. There is no treatment for orf, but the condition will usually resolve within 3-6 weeks barring any complications. In some cases, topical or systemic antibiotics may be recommended to address secondary bacterial infections. While this disease is most common in younger sheep and goats, adults can also become infected, so be sure to practice good isolation procedures to protect the rest of your residents. Immunity after infection typically lasts 2-3 years, though after the initial infection, any subsequent infections tend to be less severe. Orf can be spread to humans (though it manifests differently in humans, resulting in a single lesion, often on the hand), so it is imperative that anyone interacting with an individual with orf wears gloves and other protective coverings. Sheep and goats with orf could continue to spread the disease for weeks after lesions have healed. If orf is an issue at your sanctuary, be sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding the best way to prevent further infection.
Once they are weaned and on solid foods, lambs should be strong and nimble enough to spend time among other grazing sheep and will have the ability to safely get away from others if confronted or bullied. Because internal parasites can be a serious issue with sheep in certain regions, and young lambs do not have any immunity yet, we recommend you work with your veterinarian to come up with a plan to keep young lambs safe. This may include keeping them away from known high-shedders or highly contaminated pastures until they have matured.
When you first introduce a much younger sheep to the existing flock, make sure to watch over initial interactions to ensure everyone is getting along and playing safely. In the right setting, older sheep will teach a younger one how to appropriately play and establish boundaries. For more information on sheep introductions, check out our resource here.
Sheep And Goat Medicine, Second Edition (Non-Compassionate Source)
Colostrum | Cornell Small Farms Program (Non-Compassionate Source)
Colostrum Management For The Dairy Goat Kid | Jennifer Bentley (Non-Compassionate Source)
Caring for Baby Lambs of an Unknown Age | The University Of Maine Cooperative Extension: Livestock (Non-Compassionate Source)
CDT Vaccinations | Maryland Small Ruminant Page (Non-Compassionate Source)
Feeding Ewes | Sheep 201 (Non-Compassionate Source)
Periparturient Egg Rise | Susan Schoenian (Non-Compassionate Source)
Diarrhea (Scours) In Small Ruminants | Maryland Small Ruminant Page (Non-Compassionate Source)
Contagious Ecthyma – Commonly Known As Orf | Ontario Ministry Of Agriculture, Food, And Rural Affairs (Non-Compassionate Source)