and Difficult Births (Dystocia)

Introduction: Sheep and goats are gregarious by nature and any act of withdrawal is a sign of a problem or pending parturition. An animal that seeks seclusion by moving off from the rest of the group may actually be in the early stages of the birthing process. During this period, the ewe/doe may experience a "stress syndrome" or what is often called first stage labor. A basic understanding of the stages, progression, and position of a normal birth is essential. A list of lambing/kidding supplies can be found on page B528.

Stages of the Birthing Process:

A.     Stage 1:

  1. Some signs that may be seen include uneasiness, kicking, pawing the ground, lying down and getting up frequently, and sporadic urinating or attempts at urination. There may also be some vaginal discharge and obvious uterine contractions. Visible signs of early labor may or may not be seen in all animals.
  2. This stage lasts 1-8 hours and may be longer in first time mothers.
  3. Stage 1 ends with the fetal parts entering the birth canal.

B.     Stage 2:

  1. Visible signs of second stage labor include appearance of the water sac and evidence of a foot or leg exiting the birth canal.
  2. This stage lasts about 1-2 hours (15 to 30 minutes per lamb/kid).
  3. Stage 2 ends with birth of the lamb/kid.

C.     Stage 3:

  1. This stage is where the placenta or fetal membranes are passed. This occurs 15 to 20 minutes after the birth of the lamb/kid. Tradition states that it is not good for the ewe/doe to eat her placenta. In some cases, this is not true because it is a natural process that reduces predator attraction to the flock/herd or ewe/doe. The placenta is also rich in the hormone oxytocin, which aids in the milk let-down and the uterine involution processes.

When to Give Assistance:

  1. If an animal is in stage 1 of labor for longer than 8 hours.
  2. If in stage 2, any of the following occurs:
    1. The mother has been straining for 30 minutes with no progress.
    2. The water sac is observed for longer than 1 hour and the animal is not trying to push.
    3. The animal is showing signs of severe distress or fatigue, including bleeding from the rectum of the mother or a swollen tongue of the lamb or kid.
  3. It can visually be determined that the lamb/kid is coming in an abnormal way. (For example, you see 3 or more feet, the tail, etc.)
  4. If the fetal membranes have not passed within 12 hours after delivery.


Dystocia (Lambing or Kidding Difficulty):

Dystocia, or difficult birth, is common in sheep or goats and causes the death of many lambs/kids and ewes/does. Yearling mothers are much more susceptible to problems than mature animals that have given birth previously. Obesity and lack of exercise during late pregnancy increase the chances of dystocia.

The ability to recognize lambing/kidding difficulty is as important as proper technique in relieving dystocia. A common error of the inexperienced producer is to intervene too early in the birthing process. Because it increases the risk of infection of the female reproductive tract, vaginal examination of the ewe/doe should not be performed unless completely necessary. A good rule of thumb is not to intervene as long as progress is being made. When a ewe/doe has been in full labor for 30 to 40 minutes with no progress, examine her to determine if the baby is positioned correctly. Because it often leads to hemorrhage, shock, trauma, and infection, never try to force the cervix open.

There are a few hard and fast rules about handling dystocia, and gradually developing expertise through experience is often the best way to learn. Beyond simple assistance, the novice should call a veterinarian when in doubt about proper procedures. Many animals die because of prolonged manipulation of lambs or kids in the birth canal and excessive force used to remove them. Never try to pull or remove a lamb/kid that is in an abnormal position. The position of the lamb/kid must be corrected before attempting to remove the lamb/kid. Excessive force can result in shock, hemorrhage, trauma, infection, fertility problems, and very possibly an eversion or prolapse of the vagina and uterus.

Causes of Dystocia:

  1. Failure of the cervix to completely dilate.
  2. A lamb/kid that has an extra large head and shoulders or is just an overall large lamb/kid.
  3. Twin lambs/kids coming simultaneously.
  4. A ewe or doe that was disturbed during the initial phases of lambing/kidding.
  5. A lamb/kid that is not in the proper presentation, position, or posture.

Once it has been determined that an animal is having difficulty, the following steps should be taken:

  1. Clip excess and dirty wool or hair from around the anus and vulva.

  2. Clean the vulva, anus, and surrounding areas with dilute chlorhexidine (Nolvasan) or soapy water, removing all dirt and feces. Begin soaking sleeves and equipment in a bucket of dilute chlorhexidine. Re-scrub whenever the ewe/doe contaminates the area with feces during delivery.

  3. Carefully scrub hands and arms with soap and water, and apply a mild antiseptic.

  4. It is also recommended that during the lambing/kidding season producers should keep their fingernails trimmed very short. This will help prevent tearing the soft tissue of the reproductive tract when assistance is given.

  5. Next, apply liberal amounts of a lubricant jelly (K-Yô Jelly, Lubrivetô, etc.) to a plastic obstetrical sleeve. This is one of the most important steps and should not be ignored! It is almost impossible to use too much lubricant. Mothers that have been in labor for a long period often have a dry birth canal or vaginal area. Failure to properly lubricate the birth canal usually results in trauma and tearing of the soft tissues, a very difficult birth, and the prospects of infection after delivery. It is often recommended to put lubricant in the birth canal and even in the uterus before handling the unborn lamb/kid.

  6. Shape the hand into a natural wedge, with the fingers tight together. Then insert the hand with gentle force into the vagina and pelvic areas. Any forward movement should be done during the breaks in the uterine contractions. Forcing the hand forward during a contraction or with a significant amount of effort can cause severe injury and possible death to the ewe/doe and baby.

  7. Determine the presentation, position, and posture of the fetus. This can be aided by referring to the following descriptions.
    1. Presentation - This refers to whether the lamb/kid is coming head first, backwards or sideways.
    2. Position - This refers to whether the lamb/kid is right-side up or upside-down.
    3. Posture - This refers to where the legs of the lamb/kid are in relation to its body.

    The normal presentation, position, and posture is a lamb/kid coming head first, right-side up, with the front legs and head coming through the birth canal.

  8. It should be determined if the front or hind legs are coming through the birth canal. This is done by understanding that the joints on the front limbs flex in the same direction. The joints on the hind limb, however, flex opposite of each other. In the case of twins, any combination of front and hind limbs may be present.

  9. One of the criteria for making a plan of action involves determining if the lamb/kid is alive or dead. This is done by performing the following tests:
    1. Pinching between the toes and having the lamb/kid pull away.
    2. Placing a finger in the mouth and feeling the lamb/kid suckle.
    3. Gently poking the eye - the lamb/kid usually moves its head.
    4. Checking rectal tone by placing a finger in the rectum - the tissue around the finger should contract.

    • A dead lamb/kid may be more easily removed by having a veterinarian perform a fetotomy. This method may also be safer for the mother.
    • A dead lamb/kid, if not removed within hours, will severely compromise the health of the mother.
    • A weak, yet live lamb/kid, needs fast removal. This may mean a cesarean section.

  10. Immediately seek professional help if any of the following arise:
    1. No progress is made with 30 minutes of skilled effort to correct the
    2. After a few attempts, the exact presentation, position, and posture cannot be determined.


Assisted Deliveries:

Delivery of a lamb/kid in normal presentation, position, and posture using chains/handles:

  1. Clean the vulva and surrounding area and use a lubricant (J-Lube, etc.). Use sleeves and equipment soaked in Nolvasan (Chlorhexidine) to reduce contamination.
  2. Chains or straps should be placed on both front legs with one loop of the chain/strap above the first joint (fetlock) and a half-hitch between the fetlock and the hoof.
  3. If the ewe/doe is down, traction should first be placed on the lambís or kidís lower limb. (If the mother is standing, place traction on either limb.) The shoulder of this limb should be pulled through the birth canal. Often, it is possible to feel the shoulder come through the birth canal. Traction should then be placed on the opposite leg and the shoulder pulled through the birth canal. If the second shoulder cannot be pulled into the birth canal, a cesarean section may be necessary.
  4. Once both shoulders are through the canal, pressure can be placed on both limbs and the lamb/kid pulled until the chest is outside of the motherís pelvis. Frequently, this is where the umbilical cord is compressed and the lamb/kid struggles to breathe.
  5. If the lamb/kid is fairly large, it should be rotated 45-90 degrees, allowing the widest part of the lamb/kid (the hips from side-to-side) to pass more readily through the widest part of the motherís pelvis. Rotation of the lamb/kid is accomplished by crossing the legs and applying pressure to the upper limb and body while rotating.
  6. All traction placed on the lamb/kid should coincide with the mother having a contraction and pushing.
  7. If manipulations need to be performed, it is very beneficial to have a spinal block (epidural) administered. Consult a veterinarian for specifics.


Abnormal Presentations, Positions, and Postures:

All of the steps (1-7) outlined above should be followed in each dystocia case.

Delivery of a lamb/kid that is coming backward, but in normal position and posture:

  1. A large lamb/kid should be rotated 45-90 degrees before attempting to remove it.
  2. Traction should be applied from directly behind the mother in a slightly upward direction (towards the tail of the mother) until the hips of the lamb/kid are removed.
  3. At this point the lamb/kid can be rotated back to normal and removed routinely.

* Because the head of the lamb/kid is immersed in fluids during the delivery, the lamb/kid must be delivered quickly to avoid suffocation.

Normal presentation and position, except one or both front legs are retained:

  1. With one hand, try to cup the end of the hoof on the leg(s) that is retained. This will protect the uterus and allow the limb to be pulled towards the pelvis. Sometimes a chain can be placed on the retained limb for extra control.
  2. If more space is required, one hand can be placed on the chest or head of the lamb/kid. Then while pushing the lamb/kid back into the pelvis, the other hand can be used to cup and pull the retained limb into the pelvis.

Two front legs are coming through the pelvis, but the head is turned back:

  1. The head can be turned to either side, straight behind or even down between the legs. A lamb/kid in this position is often dead or very weak.
  2. Once the position of the head is identified, the head should be grasped. Often, gently placing the fingers in the eye sockets or mouth of the animal will help give some control. The head can then be manipulated into the proper position.
    1. For extra control, a head snare or a loop of sterilized rope can be attached to the mouth of the lamb/kid and around the pole of its head.
    2. It may also be necessary to push the body of the lamb/kid back into the uterus with one hand while positioning the head with the other. This allows that little bit of extra room that is often necessary.

Normal presentation, but upside down and leg(s) retained:

  1. Both front legs should be identified and pulled out of the vagina using the techniques found in the previous information.
  2. Once the legs are accessible, the lamb/kid is rotated to normal position by crossing the legs and placing pressure on the upper leg and shoulders, while rotating.
  3. The head should also be held and rotated along with the body.
  4. Once the lamb/kid is properly positioned, it can be removed routinely.

Backward presentation, upside down, and both legs retained (breech):

  1. Attempt to rotate the lamb/kid to an upright position. This is done by grasping one side of the baby (hock and/or front leg) and pushing down in a sweeping motion. (In some cases, it may be necessary to get the hind limbs out and use them to rotate the lamb/kid.)
  2. Once the lamb/kid is right-side up, but the legs are still retained, pull the hock of one leg into a flexed position. Then force the hock upwards and forward while cupping the hoof of that leg. Pull the foot towards the middle of the lamb/kid and backwards towards the vagina.
  3. The same technique is used to reposition the opposite leg.
  4. Once both legs are exposed, the lamb/kid can be delivered routinely.

Backward presentation and right-side up, but legs retained:

  1. Same as above without rotating the lamb/kid.

Four Legs in the Birth Canal:

  1. Make sure the legs are all from the same lamb/kid.
  2. If all 4 limbs are from the same lamb/kid, deliver the hind legs first. Delivering the hind legs first will allow the head to follow naturally.
  3. Rotate the lamb/kid if necessary, using the information found in the previous information.

Delivering Twins: 

With multiple births, it is common to have the legs of one lamb/kid and the head of another entering the opening of the birth canal at the same time. If front legs and a head are present in the birth canal, gently pull on the legs to make sure that the legs and head are from the same lamb/kid. If the legs and head are not from the same lamb/kid, take plenty of time to repel (push back) the head of the lamb/kid that is present and follow the legs up to the body of the other lamb/kid. Orient the legs and head of the same lamb/kid in the normal presentation, position, and posture for delivery. Deliver one lamb/kid, and then follow the same steps to deliver the second, third, etc.

If the problem is simultaneous delivery of twins, repel one back into the uterus while holding the other. This is accomplished by putting a lamb saver or snare over the head of the lamb/kid nearest the birth canal and holding it toward the rear of the mother while repelling the other lamb or kid. Do this carefully and gently, using lots of lubricant.

Common Mistakes:

  1. Allowing the mother to be in labor too long before giving assistance.
    1. Check ewes/does often. Intervene if no progress is being made.
  2. Trying to deliver a lamb/kid that is in an abnormal position without first correcting the problem. Never apply traction to a lamb/kid with the head or leg back without first correcting the problem.
  3. Applying too much traction. No more force than the equivalent of two people manually pulling should ever be used.

Note: In most cases where assistance has been given, it is beneficial to administer antibiotics to the ewe/doe to help prevent potential bacterial infections. When questions arise, consult a veterinarian!