If any of your sheep or cattle seem to be unwell, it can be useful to give your vet a good description of the nature of the problem by doing a basic health check before you contact them.

Doing a useful health check requires real skill and it takes a lot of practice to get good at it. The best thing you can do as a livestock owner is to familiarise yourself with normal livestock behaviour so that you can detect the first signs of illness. It is much easier for your veterinarian to treat the disease early in its course before it has become established.

Beware of over-interpreting your findings. Only veterinarians have the experience and knowledge needed to make a full clinical examination and interpret the results accurately, but they will appreciate your description of anything abnormal that you have observed.

For very many diseases, the first signs of disease that you might spot are malaise and anorexia. In other words, the affected animals seem dull, stand apart from the group and don’t graze or eat as much as normal. They may lie down more. Herd animals like sheep and cattle can make it difficult to spot these signs because over the millennia they have evolved so that they never stand out from the herd as being vulnerable. That would make them easy prey. So although they may feel weak, they do all they can to act normally. On the farm, this may be the case when you first go out among your animals. Any animal that is unwell is very likely to be depressed, but the signs may be subtle.

To do a health check on sheep or cattle:

  • Don’t rush into it. Stand back and just watch the animal carefully for a few minutes. You should look for anything abnormal in the way it behaves or moves. It may limp or move unevenly or walk in circles. It may have difficulty getting to its feet. It may have an abnormal stance when urinating or defaecating.
  • Note the body condition of the animal and compare with herd or flock mates so that you can tell if its ribs, backbone and hip bones are more prominent or easily palpated.
  • Check for symmetry on both sides of the animal, looking out for unusual swellings that could indicate the site of injury or disease.
  • Mastitis may cause a swollen or discoloured udder and the milk from it will be abnormal, eg it may be watery and discoloured, it may contain clots or even blood. The ewe or cow may kick at the affected udder with a hind foot. If you can safely handle the animal the udder may feel firmer than normal and unusually hot.
  • Check for discharges from the nose, eyes, mouth, vagina, or penis.
  • Check for signs of diarrhoea around the anus.
  • Check for abnormally noisy or rapid or laboured breathing and note any coughing.
  • Check for excess salivation or difficulty eating or dropping food when eating.
  • Check for signs of lameness or uneven movement by asking the animal to move forward and circle to either side. There are many possible causes of gait abnormalities such as injury, brain disease, blindness and arthritis. If it seems that just one leg is painful and if the animal can be safely restrained, it may be possible to examine the foot for injuries or foreign bodies.

Too often the phone call to the vet is simply “he’s not right”. Your veterinarian will really appreciate a more useful description of the abnormal signs. Phoning early in the day can be useful too when the vets are planning their visits. This will all increase the chances of a successful outcome for the animals and for you.