Keeping livestock means there is always the potential for illness or injury, so how do we recognise when our animals might need help? Most grazing animals are prey animals and so their instinct is to not show weakness if they are sick or injured, as this can be detrimental to their survival. As their guardians, we therefore need to be on the lookout for anything that might indicate the animal is unwell or injured.

How do we recognise injury? There are always obvious signs of injury but sometimes they may be more subtle.

Obvious signs may include:

Bleeding: Bleeding from a cut or puncture wound. It will either look red if fresh, or blackish if coagulated and the bleeding has stopped.

Swelling: If there is swelling on any part of the animal’s body, it shouldn’t be there. Swelling can be caused by an injury, but also from illness. For example, Lumpy Jaw in cattle causes swelling from an infection caused by illness.

Runny eyes or closed eyes: If the animal injures its eye, you will notice a discharge from the eye or runny eyes. The eye may be half or fully closed. If it has cut its eyelid or damaged the inside of the eye, there may be blood also. Pink-eye is a common infection of the eye where getting a seed under the eyelid causes an infection. The cornea can become ulcerated and the animal may go blind. Treating pink eye before it gets to the stage of blindness will help the animal recover more quickly.

Lameness: If an animal suddenly goes lame, it is an indication that it may have injured itself. If weather conditions aren’t wet and predisposing to disease like footrot or scald, then the animal may have trodden on something sharp, or pulled a muscle, much in the same way as people do. Even though the hooves are hard, the sole is pliable, so if the animal stands on something sharp it is akin to a person standing on Lego in bare feet! Holding a foot up is a sign it has injured itself reasonably severely.

Head tossing: If an animal shows signs of tossing its head, or rubbing the side of its head or ears on the ground, it could be an indication it has something in its ear. Grass seeds are notorious for getting into ears and eyes. The seed or other foreign object can work its way out, but if head shaking persists, it pays to find out what is causing it.

Unwillingness to move: If an animal has injured its back, neck or legs, or has sustained a puncture wound that is not directly visible, it may be unwilling to move about normally or eat normally. Sudden onset of stiffness can point to injury.

Not eating: If the animal has injured its mouth it will probably stop eating. There may not be obvious signs of injury, for example if it has cut its tongue, but the behaviour will ring alarm bells.


Injury and illness can go hand in hand. An unobserved injury, may cause illness through infection. Whatever the cause, an animal that is ill may display the following:

Listlessness: A listless animal is not hard to pick out in the crowd. While others will naturally move away from you (unless feeding out!) an animal that is listless is a sure sign not all is well.

Inability to get up: If an animal stays lying down when you approach it (unless it is very tame), that is an indication it is not well. A healthy animal should bounce up and take off!

Isolating from the flock or herd: If an animal takes itself away from the flock or herd, this is often because they are feeling poorly. An exception to this is when an animal is about to give birth - then they often take themselves off for some privacy!

Drooling: Drooling with the head hanging is not a good sign. The animal is either sick, has injured itself, or has something stuck in its mouth.

Swollen flanks: In cattle swollen flanks or bellies can be a sign of bloat. If they are grazing on clover rich paddocks, a dewy morning can set off bloat. It can happen incredibly quickly and kill the animal just as quickly.

Lamb foaming at the mouth and paddling: Can be an indication of Pulpy Kidney or Tetanus. Usually happens to the biggest healthiest lambs.

Animal lying down stiff legged and arched neck/head: Tetanus can cause these symptoms.

Staggering: Staggering can be caused by grass staggers, milk fever, hypoglycaemia or eating something poisonous. If the animal is staggering, it is sick.

Dry nose: If you have got close enough to your animal or brought into a yard for further inspection, a dry nose can indicate illness or infection.

Runny poo: Runny poo can be caused by a change in diet, a high worm burden or an infection from bacteria or a virus. Runny poo is not normal and should be investigated.

Heavy breathing: An animal struggling to breathe may have a pneumonia type infection.

Loss of weight: If an animal or animals are losing weight despite good feed, they may have an underlying illness or a high worm burden. Broken teeth or loss of teeth can also cause weight loss. If many animals are not thriving, they could have a vitamin or mineral deficiency.

Temperature: If an animal is running a fever, this is an indication of illness.

Not wanting to drink: A lack of interest in eating and drinking can point to the animal being unwell.

Limping: If limping is not caused by an injury, it could be caused by an infection like footrot or scald.

In summary

Whether it is illness or injury, our animals let us know there is something amiss by their behaviour and physical signs. People who spend a lot of time with their animals will notice if there is the slightest change in an animal’s behaviour or demeanour and catching signs of illness or injury early can make the recovery quicker through early intervention and treatment.