Saving Premature Kids

Dr. Steven M. Parish

(Reprinted from Pygmy Goat WORLD magazine with permission)


Dr. Parish is a professor at Washington State University, Large Animal Medicine Surgery Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine. He grew up on a ranch with cattle and sheep where he developed an interest in small ruminants. While at WSU, he has worked on research projects that include CAE and OPP in goats and sheep. He also oversees the health requirements of WSU sheep and goat herds.


Watching an otherwise healthy but premature kid die is a devastating experience. The feeling of helplessness is paramount but can anything actually be done to save a premature kid? Before making any decisions about how to treat premature births, several factors need to be addressed.

1) Are you willing to pay the price financially that may be incurred when trying to save the kid? Even a simple measure like keeping the premature kid on oxygen for 24 hours can cost $100. What if the kid requires days of treatment?

2) Is the premature kid otherwise healthy? How do you decide this? Accurate breeding dates are important here, but some premature kids are actually abortions created by nature because something is wrong with them. However, if you have a situation where one kid has died inside the womb (creating an abortion) but the other fetuses are viable, chances are those kids are healthy. Pregnancy toxemia is another causative agent in late term abortions that may have nothing to do with the general health of the kid. However, kids born to does with PT are often weak, having suffered the same metabolic insults that the doe has. Or, if your doe has a prolapse or hormone problem and is delivering early due to these factors, the kids may be otherwise viable. This brings up another consideration.

3) Are the kids genetically desirable to save? If the mother is prolapsing or has a hormone dysfunction, do you really want to carry on that trait in the offspring?

4) How premature are the kids? If they are 10 days or less premature, the chances of survival are much greater. This, of course, is very dependent on each situation but if they are over 10 days premature, more problems will surely be encountered. A kid born at 140 days is much more likely to survive than a kid born at day 130 or even 135.

5) Are there facilities close-by that have the necessary equipment available? For example, an incubator may be necessary. This research needs to be done ahead of time. Unfortunately, no one ever prepares for premature birth and most veterinarians do not have the necessary tools to manage prematurity.

The greatest problem encountered with premature birth relates to the lungs. Inside the lungs are tiny little balloon-like structures called alveoli. Inside the alveoli is where the actual oxygen transfer takes place and if these alveoli stick together and don't inflate, there is no transfer of oxygen to the blood. A chemical called surfactant tells these "balloons" to inflate, but it is not produced in sufficient amounts until very late in the pregnancy. Surfactant keeps the alveoli from sticking together. Without surfactant, the lungs may inflate once and then are unable to stay open. They stick together. There simply is no oxygen transfer taking place.

How do you treat this? Since most premature births experience difficulty with respiration, administering oxygen is the most basic need of the premature kid. Giving 100% oxygen via an incubator may help some kids. In addition to the oxygen there are some cortisone preparations such as Dexamethasome or Betamethasone that can be given to the kid that tell the cells to start producing the necessary surfactant. This could be done in an environment where the kid was in an incubator receiving 100% oxygen. The cortisone would hasten the development of the kid's lungs. All of this treatment costs money, and it becomes an economic decision. It should also be noted here that the urge to give a premature kid mouth-to-mouth resuscitation should be resisted. Many abortions or weak kids are the result of uterine infections that may have zoonotic pathogens. In other words, humans can become infected by the fluids and other contaminated material found on the premature kid.

Basic treatment for a premature kid requires understanding certain facts about the premature kid. When a kid is born premature, it does not have the ability to regulate its own body temperature (thermoregulation). So, temperature regulation needs to be provided by the environment. This is a simple measure that can be taken in borderline cases. Say the kid is breathing on its own but is still very premature. Don't leave the kid out in the barn to fend for itself. You need to regulate its temperature by providing a warm, safe environment.

Then comes nutrition. The kid may not have a sucking reflex and may not be able to nurse on its own. This problem is compounded by the fact the mother probably does not have quality colostrum at that point. Further, premature babies don't absorb colostrum very well so alternatives will have to be discussed. Regardless, tube feeding the premature kid is necessary.

Doesn't sound too promising, does it? There are premature kids that can he helped by the simple measures of providing a warm environment with oxygen and just a little TLC. Others just not plausible to save. Perhaps the best measures to take would be to avoid prematurity if at all possible. This includes good nutrition for your animals and good health. If your herd is free from diseases that may create late-term abortion (chlamydiosis and toxoplasmosis), and is not overcrowded, obese, or genetically flawed, your incidence of prematurity will be insignificant in numbers but, none the less, difficult to manage. If you have provided a warm environment, made sure the animal is breathing on its own, and provided oxygen, you can rest assured you have done all you can to help save the premature kid. Unfortunately there are no magic shots or cures for prematurity.

Related Reading
How to Tube Feed a Kid


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