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ill thriftThin livestock

Some livestock just don’t do as well as they should, even when they have plenty of pasture.

Can you identify with any of these problems?

  • There are some ewes that are losing weight steadily in spite of good feed.
  • There is plenty of pasture, but the lambs just aren’t growing well.
  • The old thoroughbred horse is in a grassy paddock but he is very thin.
  • The house cow or dairy goat is a bag of bones in spite of all the feed she’s getting.
  • The beef steers are looking leaner than they should.
  • The roadside goat is just skin and bone.

If so, what you can you do about it?

As you might expect, there is often no simple answer, but if you can definitely rule out insufficient feed or feed of poor quality, there are other causes of ill-thrift that are quite common.  You should check them out.  But first, make sure the problem isn’t gastro-intestinal worms.

Check for worms

If your livestock are not thriving, and even if they’re not scouring, worms could well be at least part of the problem.  Getting advice from your vet about a drenching strategy and perhaps getting faecal egg counts done should be the first line of attack.  You will find out more about worms and the causes of diarrhoea elsewhere on lifestyleblock.co.nz.  Check out the Lifestyle File.

So if you’ve ruled out poor nutrition and worms, what are the other possible causes of ill-thrift in sheep, goats, cattle and horses?  Here are lists that will give you an idea of the range of possibilities.  Remember though that with most of these conditions you will need your vet’s help to confirm the diagnosis and treat the problem effectively.

Ill-thrift in sheep

The causes of ill-thrift in lambs less than 6 months old include:

  • Chronic infection (eg navel ill, arthritis, pneumonia)
  • Cobalt/vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Selenium deficiency
  • Drench gun injury to throat

In lambs over 6 months old, the causes of unthriftiness include:

  • Selenium deficiency
  • Cobalt/vitamin B12 deficiency
  • Chronic disease (eg foot abscess, facial eczema liver damage, pneumonia)
  • Drench gun injury to throat area
  • Johne’s disease (a wasting disease caused by bacteria) (in sheep over 2 years old)
  • Fungal toxins in pasture (summer and autumn) (eg facial eczema, mycotoxins in pasture)
  • Faulty incisors or cheek teeth (usually mature ewes)
  • Intestinal tumour (mature ewes)
Ill-thrift in goats

Some causes of ill-thrift in goats less than 6 months old are:

  • Chronic infection (eg navel ill, arthritis, pneumonia)
  • Selenium deficiency
  • Iodine deficiency (goitre)

In goats over 6 months old, the causes of unthriftiness include:

  • Selenium deficiency
  • Chronic disease (eg foot rot/abscesses, pneumonia)

The wasting disease, Johne’s disease, can cause weight loss in goats over 18 months old but usually there is severe diarrhoea too.

Note that road-side goats are often very thin, possibly because the pasture on verges is usually unpalatable because it’s covered with grime and dust.  Often their water supply and shelter are less that adequate too.

Ill-thrift in cattle                             

Possible causes include:

  • Selenium deficiency
  • Copper deficiency
  • Chronic disease (pneumonia or liver disease)
  • Ragwort poisoning
  • Woody tongue (can cause a hard swelling of tongue or lips and drooling)

The wasting disease, Johne’s disease, can cause weight loss in cattle over 2 years old, but usually there is severe diarrhoea too.

Facial eczema causes liver damage that can lead to ill-thrift but there would usually also be signs of sun damage to white skin.

Ill-thrift in horses:
  • Teeth problems:  The cheek teeth of horses commonly become long or unevenly worn creating sharp edges so that the horse can’t chew efficiently.  Sharp edges may cause ulcers in the cheeks so that the horse is reluctant to eat because of the pain.  The teeth can be rasped down by your veterinarian or a specialist horse dentist.
  • Chronic disease like laminitis (inflammation in the feet) or abscesses in the feet or arthritis can cause ill-thrift because of the pain caused and the difficulty of moving around to graze.  You will probably need a vet’s help to deal with this type of problem.
  • Other diseases like liver disease (caused by ragwort poisoning) can also cause weight loss.  Again your vet will be able to help, and possibly arrange tests to confirm the diagnosis.
  • Stress is another contributor to poor body condition that is often overlooked.  The stress could be caused by insufficient shelter (thoroughbred horses in particular have a thin skin and light winter coat and they use a lot of energy to keep warm in cold weather unless they are well fed and well-sheltered), or by anxiety (being kept alone or parted from a paddock-mate so that the horse is restless and loses its appetite).
Big bellies don’t mean fat

Thin animals are often pot-bellied and some inexperienced people mistake this for fat.  In fact the distension is caused by roughage, gas and fluid in the intestines.  If the ribs show and the bones of the pelvis are prominent, the animal is thin.

Lactating cows and goats

Note that while they are lactating, cows and goats often seem to ‘milk off their back’.  In other words they are thin in spite of abundant feed, effective drenching and being otherwise healthy.  It is important to feed these animals as much good quality feed as possible, by supplementing pasture with concentrate feed if necessary to try to maintain a reasonable body condition until lactation slows or stops, when their body condition should improve.


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