Special Problems of Weak and Orphaned Kids
Maxine Kinne

Orphan lambs are called "bummers." I doubt that hippies invented the term to describe their attitude about spending a lot of extra time and effort on hand-raising them, but it's interesting to ruminate on.

Some kids need help to get off to a good start. Each one deserves your finest efforts to save and nurture it to eventually become a productive herd member. Time is of the essence in identifying a kid who need a quick jump-start or extra help. As soon as trouble is spotted, the cause must be determined and treatment started.

Environment and Birth Management

A sanitary environment and your management at and surrounding the birth are important in averting problems. Clean bedding is essential for the kidding area. A clean towel for the kid to be born onto is especially nice. As soon as each kid is born, wipe the membranes and mucus away from its nose and mouth so it can start breathing. With this done, I like to stick a short piece of straw up one nostril to make the kid sneeze so it will take in additional oxygen. Pinching the ears or tail with a fingernail, hard enough to make the kid cry, is also a neat trick to stimulate breathing.

Iodine the navel as soon as the umbilical cord breaks. This should be done as soon as possible after birth to sanitize the kid's umbilical cord, help it dry out, and resist bacteria. Completely covering the umbilical cord with 7% iodine is preferable to sprays. Put iodine into a small jar or film canister. Hold the kid with one hand and lower the entire cord into the iodine. Then, tip the kid backward to get complete immersion of the cord up to the belly wall. I birth kids onto individual clean towels, and as each navel is iodined, I replace the kid on the towel to avoid iodine-stained clothing.

Chilled or Hungry?

Neonates can chill almost immediately after birth for a variety of reasons, like cold weather, drafts or dystocia. Heart, lung and other organ defects may also lead to hypothermia (chilling). Defective kids usually decline in spite of good managment and intensive care, and it is not uncommon to lose them. Dead kids should be necropsied to ascertain the cause of death. (See the article list for related topics in Kid Care an Reproduction in Does.)

The difference between a hypothermic kid and a hungry one is clear. Hypothermic kids are inactive, the inside of the mouth is cool and its rectal temperature will be under 102 degrees. If they are not warmed, they will die. Hunger presents a crying kid who makes frequent nursing attempts. Extemely hungry kids can become hypothermic and eventuallly starve.

Adequate colostrum intake is needed to get hypothermic kids going once their temperature has been brought up to normal. Insufficient colostrum can leave kids immune compromised and prone to any disease that comes along. Kids can be hungry after they have nursed all the colostrum from the doe's udder and before she comes into milk. The start of milk production (lactogenesis) and the quantity produced may be inhibited due to an inadequate diet during gestation which delays the drop in progesterone at the end of pregnancy. In these cases, the colostrum quantity may be reduced, but the quality of the colostral antibodies of vaccinated does is usually adequate.

In a study of normal lambs at Michigan State University in 1995, Dr. Joseph Rook reports, "It was found that 1% (5/453) showed "complete failure of passive transfer" [didn't get measurable immunity from the immune globunlins, or IgG) colostrum] and 17% (80/453) had serum IgG levels in the "partial failure of passive transfer" range. We even tubed half of these lambs once (then allowed natural suckle) with colostrum (20 ml/lb of body weight) at birth and the IgG levels measured in the tubed/suckled vs just suckled lambs where very similar. The major differences in the IgG levels occurred due to single, twin, triplet status - as you would suspect the IgG levels in the lambs decreased as prolificacy of the dam increased. I believe this impacts most producers because singles generally don't go to the orphan pen - a twin, triplet or quad is more likely to be raised that  way. These lambs may be more at risk because of these lower IgG levels. It was also interesting to note that age of the ewe also affected IgG levels in the lambs. First time lambers (mostly ewe lambs about 12 mos old) produced lambs with higher IgG levels than the older ewes with past history of lambing. This appeared to be related to the higher percentage of singles produced by ewe lambs, probably less competition for colostrum in the singles of ewe lambs. This was sort of interesting because in most farm animals we generally think of colostrum from older dams as best. While the colostrum from older ewes may measure in with higher levels of IgG (?) in that milk, other factors of production - such as litter size competition - may influence the "real world" ability of those lambs to receive IgG from that first milk."

Tucking a cold kid under your coat or sticking it under a heat lamp will not warm it sufficiently or quicky enough. Its temperature needs to be raised to the normal 102o F using an artificial heat source. An hour on a heating pad at medium heat, with the kid placed on top and bundled in towels or blankets, is usually enough. Check the pad frequently to make sure it's not too warm. Take the kid's temperature rectally. When the body temperature is up to normal, the kid should become active and interested in eating.

Other warming methods work equally well, but I prefer heating pads to warm baths. A bath requires holding the kid constantly for however long it takes or it will drown. Also, the kid will have to be thoroughly dried off again. Failure to respond to warming may indicate an accident or defect in the kid. Efforts to same these should be continued.


After the kid's navel is iodined, it should take its first tottering steps and start looking for a meal. Kids are born with very limited energy reserves which are rapidly depleted. Kids need colostrum (mother's first milk) for energy, antibodies and laxative effects.

Normal kids usually have no problems finding teats and nursing, provided the mother displays good mothering ability. (If not, see Mommie Dearest.) Once slow starters have been warmed up, they usually go on to nurse and have no further problems.

To make sure kids can get colostrum from the doe's udder, it is sometimes necessary to give each teat a squirt or two until milk comes out. Look to see that colostrum come out or feel the colostrum's stickiness on your fingers. Make sure both teats are working. If this is not done, the keratin plug inside the streak canal, which protects the udder from bacterial invasion, may prevent the kid from getting colostrum, even though it apears to be nursing. I always do this.

Orphans usually take quite readily to a bottle. If you have not bottle fed before, be calm and gentle. It is often necessary to pry the kid's mouth open and insert the nipple several times or more before it catches on. It is very important to feed colostrum and milk at 102o F for the first several days. Newborns are very finicky about milk temperature and will probably refuse a bottle that is one degree different. Stomach tubing may be necessary for the first meal of colostrum. This is a skill you should learn before you need to use it. It seems like it is always needed in the middle of the night on a holiday weekend when help is unavailable. It's a great way to jump-start a kid.

When possible, leave hand-raised kid(s) in a special nursery area in the barn for a few days or so before allowing them in with adult goats. Even then, they still need a protected area to sleep and to get away from adult activity. If you are tempted to bring them to the house or garage to make things easier on yourself, only keep them there for a few days and get them back out to the barn. Hand-raised kids need the company of other goats to develop social skills they will depend on later. Kids raised alone often have severe adjustment problems when they are finally introduced to other goats.

Digestive and Other Problems

Now that the hand-raised kid seems to be off to a good start, a number of things can still go wrong. A good milk replacer or substitute should be given. Several good brands of milk replacer are specially formulated for kids and may be available at your feed store, health food store, or through a catalog. Fresh goat or cow milk should be reliably pasteurized to avoid passing diseases to kids. Canned goat milk is safe, available and expensive. Powdered goat milk is safe, very convenient, somewhat expensive and available at many health food stores. (I prefer starting with Meyenberg Powdered Goat Milk and weaning onto whole cow milk from the grocery store and have always had excellent results with this feeding regime.)

Changing brands, formulas, quantity, or temperature can cause digestive upsets. Pay attention to consistency of the feces. Colostrum has laxative properties, and kids who get colostrum usually pass the meconium just fine. Meconium is the sticky, dark-colored, sterile first stool which builds up in the kid's bowels during gestation to prevent the bowels from collapsing. Following meconium passage, the feces are usually a yellow-orange color for a few days. Then color changes to light brown and darkens as the kid ages. Fecal color may vary with diet, even in adults. Digestive upsets to watch for include diarrhea, constipation and bloating.

Overfeeding milk can cause diarrhea (scours) in young kids, but parasites and bacterial infections can also cause this symptom. The ideal amount to give is 15% of the kid's weight, divided into several feedings per day, if possible. When a kid is getting too much milk, it is likely to refuse to start drinking water and eating hay. Excessive milk consumption can be a factor in enterotoxemia (overeating disease).

On the other hand, kids can also become constipated, usually due to dietary changes. These kids should have a small warm water enema to help them pass the impacted stool. A 12 cc non-luer syringe (no needle) is usually sufficient amount for  Pygmy.

Orphan lambs commonly die from what appears to be bloat. On necropsy, the reason is often found to be twisted intestines that ultimately shut off the blood supply to the area. In the opinion of Dr. Joseph Rook, small ruminant specialist at Michigan State University, "The twisted intestines and overeating disease may be related to feast or famine type feeding of replacer," indicating that smaller, more frequent meals are advisable. In addition, he recommends feeding replacers in reasonable amounts at the correct mixed proportions. "This highly fermentable feed alters the intestinal environment (bugs, pH, etc.) and causes an overgrowth of Clostridium perfringens organisms leading to overeating disease. This huge load of nutrients can also cause gas formation and increased or decreased gut motility leading to twists and such."

Diseases in very young kids may take a week or more to beome apparent. Dystocia compromises kids in a number of ways and may frequently be at the root of many illnesses kids develop in their first month. Different kinds of bacteria can cause pneumonia or septicemia (blood infections). Birth in a clean environment and navel dipping go a long way toward preventing these problems. Kids that get sick should be seen by a veterinarian. It is often possible to include medications in bottles which makes treatment easier on your kid and you.

Losing Too Many?

If you are losing kids, try to figure out why. A variety of professionals are available to help you diagnose and treat problems and recommend corrective measures. Serious livestock producers are unwilling to accept losses of more than 5% of their offspring per year. If you are losing more than 1 out of 20, you're losing more than you should. Look at your level of dystocia, genetics, your does' maternal abilities, your range of skills, and your level of management.

Ethical Considerations

Many early life deficits can be overcome, and most kids can grow into useful adults. Approach each case optimistically, and don't give up too soon. But, when you have done everything possible for a kid and it fails to thrive, you face some important decisions. A stunted animal may be prone to poor health and is probably a poor breeding risk. What are you going to do? Keep it? Sell it with disclaimers, recommending against breeding, even though your advice may be ignored? Euthanize it? These are tough choices, but it is imperative to come to terms with what constitutes each animal's best interest. A short good life is far better than a prolonged miserable one. Euthanasia can be the most compassionate and caring gesture of all.

Serious repercussions may affect the Pygmy if we are perceived to have many breed problems. (We already have have a reputation for too many kidding problems.) Breed popularity could decline, and we could draw unwelcome attention from the "wrong" people. Some city folks believe there is cruelty and insensitivity in pet and livestock industries, whether or not they understand what normally happens on the farm. And animal rights activists are only too happy to magnify our shortcomings and try to pass laws to regulate us. Only we can clean up our own act.

In nature, the fittest survive to pass their good traits, adaptability and vitality to the next generation. Do you want to include poor-doers in our gene pool? Think about it.

Related Reading

Neonatal Mortality

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