Farm Ireland

Thursday 23 February 2017

Isolate all aborting ewes to minimise spread of disease

Peadar Ó Scanaill

Published 15/03/2011 | 05:00

With diseases such as salmonella, toxoplasmosis and chlamydia abortion lurking around the lambing area, we must prevent their spread and place obstacles in their path
With diseases such as salmonella, toxoplasmosis and chlamydia abortion lurking around the lambing area, we must prevent their spread and place obstacles in their path

The lambing season is well under way around the country and we're seeing all the associated difficulties at the clinics each day. It can be anything from ringwombs to tetanies and difficult lambings, with the odd abortion thrown in from time to time.

  • Go To

Aborting ewes frighten us whenever we see them. One abortion may be just that, a once off. Or it may be the first of an abortion storm. A query that comes up time and again is how do we protect ourselves from picking up whatever disease it is that may spark the problem.

There are several infections in sheep that cause abortions and that can also spread to humans. Such diseases are called zoonoses and can cause similar disease in humans as they do in sheep. Salmonella, toxoplasmosis and chlamydia abortions in sheep spring to mind when we think of zoonotic diseases at lambing time.

Women, in particular, are advised to wear gloves at lambing time and keep strict washing and disinfectant protocols in place when handling sheep at this time.


Pregnant women are well advised to keep clear of the lambing shed at this time of year and the shepherd should be careful with clothing and footwear when going from the shed to the kitchen and back again.

An aborting ewe can spring up in the middle of any pen of lambing ewes, and by the time we realise that this ewe is aborting, we will already have come into close contact with it.

Toxoplasmosis was found in almost 20pc of submissions of aborted foetii at the Regional Veterinary Laboratories (RVL's) last year. Chlamydophila abortus was found in about half that amount and bacterial agents were found in the remainder. Sometimes such infections are active in the flock, even though the lamb is born alive and up to term. However, the lamb will be weak and show poor thrift or even die early post partum if the ewe is infected at the time.

Also Read

With such diseases lurking around the lambing area, we must prevent their spread and place obstacles in their path, such as:

  • Isolate ewes that have aborted from the rest of the pregnant ewes;
  • Remove the foetus and all the placental membranes and dispose safely;
  • Disinfect the pen and change to a new lambing area if possible;
  • Step up the hand washing with easy access to hot and cold water and disinfectant soaps;
  • Antibiotics are of limited use but sometimes are used in the case of severe abortion storms;
  • Vaccination can be recommended, depending on findings at the RVL.

Probably the most important thing to do is to get samples away to the laboratory. Your vet will advise you on what to bring to the regional laboratory.


Once we notice even one case of lambs born early or lambs aborted, then we must immediately step up all disinfection protocols around the flock. The aborted foetus with all its membranes should be packaged and transported fresh to the laboratory.

Anyone handling ewes must wear protective clothing and gloves. Wash your hands and face thoroughly when finished in the lambing house and change clothes before heading back home. We must be especially careful with the hands to the mouth, to avoid ingesting the disease.

Footwear must come under severe scrutiny as that is the easiest way to transport any disease from one shed to another.

The ewes that abort during an outbreak must be recorded and culled for future years. These abortion diseases can lay dormant in the recovered ewe, only to flare up again at a later date.

Hence, buying replacement breeding stock should be approached with caution. Ideally, bought-in ewes should be sourced from accredited disease-free flocks, but that is simply not practical at the present time.

Sheep Ireland will aspire to such goals for the overall improvement of Irish sheep farming. But for now, happy and safe lambing.

Peadar Ó Scanaill is a practicing vet on the Veterinary Ireland Animal Health Committee. Email:

Indo Farming

Top Stories