A Happier Birthday

Things were not looking good for our flock’s matriarch, Dot, last night, on the eve of her twelfth birthday.

I went out to milk her one last time for the evening, hoping to relieve the pressure on the rock-hard left side of her udder. Because I wanted to save some money on milk replacer, I decided to put a pan under her and catch as much milk as I could.

Even though I used lots of hot compresses to loosen up her udder, Dot still hated being handled. I’m glad we had a stanchion to lock her into, because she fought every time I squeezed her udder. Eventually, I decided to call it a night and give her a break. There wasn’t much coming out, it was late, and she seemed like she’d had enough.

I put her back in the pen with her lamb, then took the milk into the house to refrigerate. And then I realized something was seriously wrong with Dot. Instead of milk, her udder had been expressing a watery substance heavily tinged in dirty red blood. I knew it meant some kind of infection, probably mastitis, and that we were now in over our heads. Still, Mrs. Yeoman Farmer had a couple of herbal remedies to try: homeopathic pokeweed tablets, and a jar of pokeweed oil rub.

I gave Dot a tablet, then rubbed and massaged her udder with the oil. She didn’t like it, and I had to block her against the wall, but I knew I had to persist. Gave her another tablet, then rubbed more oil into her. Then did it a third time, and called it a night.

The treatment didn’t clear up the infection, but at least Dot was alive in the morning. She still had no appetite, but wanted to be let out of the separating pen. She led me straight to the main sheep area, so I let her rejoin the flock. Within a few minutes, she’d led her lamb outside to the sunshine.

Given the seriousness of Dot’s infection, I knew she needed more attention than I could provide. We don’t have a large animal vet in the area who does house calls, but there’s a veterinary clinic that will see farm animals case-by-case if they’re brought in. Judging from how confused and amused the young receptionist was when I walked in and explained why I was there, they don’t get many sheep.

The clinic owner, Dr. Patterson, is an older vet, who retired from farm calls several years ago. I waited with Dot in the van until he was able to come see her. I explained what’d been going on, and showed him what I’d milked out of Dot’s udder the night before, and he immediately diagnosed a serious mastitis infection. He gave her an injection of B-complex vitamins, and 10cc of antibiotics. He sent the rest of the bottle home with me, and said she should get another 10cc every day — and that I should continue trying to milk that “junk” out of her udder.

After we’d taken care of that, Dr. Patterson smiled, relaxed, and lit a cigarette. We stood there in the sunshine talking…and for just a moment, the parking lot full of dog and cat owners’ cars seemed to disappear. I could see in his eyes how much he missed seeing and treating livestock, even if he no longer had the energy and wherewithal to put 40,000 miles on a car going to visit farms.

“I think we might just be able to save this old girl,” he said with a grin, rubbing Dot’s back.

I paid him, then drove the old birthday girl back home. She rejoined the rest of the flock, and at first seemed mildly better than in the morning. But she wouldn’t touch the hay I put down, and didn’t even sniff at the grain I offered her. As the rest of the flock barged in and went crazy getting to the hay, the contrast with Dot’s condition couldn’t have been more stark. That’s what Dot’s supposed to be doing, I thought.

I drenched Dot with a couple hundred more CCs of apple cider vinegar and warm water, and included some cod liver oil, before going back to work. An hour or so later, she was out in the sunshine with her lamb — but still not at all interested in food. I helped her to her feet, and led her to the hay, but she wouldn’t even look at it. Or the grain I offered.

She needed liquids and nutrition really badly, so I tried offering her the lamb’s milk bottle. She wouldn’t even suck. But then I got an idea: Dot, you’re getting some food in your stomach one way or the other. I went in, warmed up some goat milk, and returned with it and my drenching syringe. I managed to get 3 full syringes of 50cc each straight down her throat. I also put her against the barn wall and, despite her protestations, expressed as much “junk” out of her udder as I could.

Will she make it? I honestly have no idea. It all depends on whether her appetite returns, and how soon. In the meantime, we’re treasuring every additional day of her reign as matriarch of the flock.

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