Many livestock owners often wonder how to know if and when an animal needs veterinary attention when certain clinical signs are noted.  This article will take some of the more common signs seen and establish guidelines for the necessity of a veterinary call and whether or not the situation is an emergency. Partnering with your veterinarian and knowing when to act help to ensure the best possible outcomes for your animals.

An animal which is not eating may be experiencing any systemic disease, including one of the gastrointestinal tract, an infection, or they may be in pain. If the animal is still eating, but less than normal, it may be appropriate to wait 24 hours to see if they return to a normal appetite. If they are not eating at all, the veterinarian should be called and informed of the condition. The situation should be considered an emergency if no feces are produced for more than a few hours, if the abdomen is distended, the animal is depressed or reluctant to get up and move, having difficulty breathing, or has a fever.

An animal which is losing weight may be experiencing parasite problems, chronic infectious disease, liver disease, or gastrointestinal disease. In general, weight loss is not an emergency, but a veterinarian should be called and an evaluation scheduled. One of the biggest challenges when evaluating animals which are losing weight is that owners frequently initiate deworming medications, antibiotics and other treatments in an attempt to “treat for everything”.  Unfortunately, this often leads to a delay in treatment for the actual problem and interferes with making an accurate diagnosis if the animal does not respond to these on-farm therapies.

An animal who is having a difficult birth may be doing so due to the fetus being in the incorrect presentation (head back, backwards, leg back, etc.) or due to a relatively large fetus compared to the dam’s pelvic size. A delivery is considered prolonged after about 20-30 minutes of pushing in sheep and goats and about 1-2 hours in cattle. After that time, it is considered an emergency and the dam should be examined to determine the position and size of the fetus. Experienced owners may do this initial exam themselves, but care must be taken to be very clean (wash the back end of the dam with soap and water and wash your hands and arms with soap and water and wear gloves) and to be very gentle and the delicate reproductive tissues can tear easily, especially when the labor has been prolonged. When the veterinarian is called to deliver the baby, the dam should be moved to a small pen and confined for their examination.

An animal who is lame can mean a lot of things, including a muscle strain, arthritis, joint or other infection, fracture, or even neurologic disease. Lameness is urgent if there is an obvious break in the bone, if there is a break in the skin, or the animal will only toe-touch or will not put weight on the leg at all. For other cases of lameness, those animals should be evaluated within a day or two. In cases where there is a fracture or a broken bone is suspected, those animals should not be moved or should have a splint applied before movement.

Any animal which is down and cannot get up should be evaluated immediately by a veterinarian.  A variety of diseases, including neurologic, musculoskeletal, and metabolic conditions, may cause an animal to be unable to stand. Keep in mind that livestock, as prey species, are designed to act healthy even when they are very ill, so as to evade identification and attack by predators. Therefore, an animal which is unable to stand has severe disease and should be evaluated on an emergency basis. It is common for veterinarians to recommend symptomatic treatment of recumbent animals, but if animals do not respond to these within 24 hours, diagnostic testing should be initiated to determine the exact cause.

These are general guidelines for these presenting problems and each individual case should be addressed on a case-by-case basis, as these guidelines may not apply to every single case. I sometimes break my own rules when I am presented with individual cases that aren’t typical. For this reason, a good relationship with your local veterinarian is critical to making the right decision for each individual case to achieve the best possible outcome.


This article is an excerpt of a presentation available at This presentation is available to all livestock owners without charge and discusses the signs of not eating, weight loss, bloat, straining, being down or weak and wobbly, difficult birth, not nursing, and lameness.

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