I have spent hours with my ewe Lily over the past ten days, trying to treat the mastitis in the left half of her udder. In the above photograph, it’s late at night and she has turned to look at me patiently by the light of the heat lamp over the jug.
To recap, Lily freshened Tuesday, February 28, with severe mastitis in the left half of her udder. As I wrote at the time:
I have seen mastitis in cows and Lily’s case is far worse than a little stringiness or clots. The bag on that side is hard and hot. The teat is completely clogged all the way up into the udder. I can express very little and that comes out in tiny noodles of pus. It resembles greenish-white, cheesy toothpaste. When I feel the teat it feels as if it has a spine. I assume that the “spine” is a column of this hardened pus.
I collected a sample of the pus in a plastic Ziploc bag to be tested by the vet. However it was after business hours, we were threatened with ten inches of snow, the vet was forty-five minutes away, and so I stuck the sample in my refrigerator and began treating Lily according to information outlined on the internet.
There actually wasn’t a lot of information to be found. The basic recommendation for dealing with mastitis in sheep could be summed up: Cull the ewe. (Cull in livestock terms is almost always a euphemism for kill.) I was indignant. Culling is rarely the first option considered with cows with mastitis and I figured the difference must be due to the relative value of the animals.
Well! I was not a mercenary coldheart! I would devote just as much time to Lily as if she were a $3000 prize-winning Holstein and I, personally, would save her. S.W. to the rescue!
The Cornell Sheep Farm protocol called for, among other choices, injections of Oxytetracycline, at 5 ml/100 pounds, and daily teat infusions of the bactericide Cephapirin Sodium in tubes of TODAY mastitis medication. I had both of these on hand. Laura Lawson, in Managing Your Ewe, also recommended a pain reliever: “The ewe will allow her lambs to nurse and [will] be milked-out more readily if pain, inflammation, and tenderness to the udder can be reduced.” She advised using Phenylbutazone (commonly known as the horse aspirin, bute) at 1g/100 lbs. I borrowed a few grams of bute from the school’s horse supplies.
Late last Thursday, after two days of injections and infusions, Lily’s hot, tight udder was beginning to soften. I was able to force several more noodles of pus out of the teat. By Friday, the pus was on the move. I spent almost an hour, three times a day, massaging the udder and expressing endless strings of glistening greenish-white pus. I was elated — and also paranoid about infecting any of the other two dozen sheep and cow udders in the barn.
I tried to take bio-security precautions. Lily was always my last stop at chores. When I left her I scrubbed my hands religiously and threw my clothes in the laundry. I halted all bottle-feeding, afraid that I might unwittingly mix up nipples or bottles and transfer the infection from the mouth of Lily’s lamb to the mouths of others, and thence to the teats of their mothers. Still the worry lay heavily on my mind. When Bean finally lambed, even though I knew I was clean I dreaded touching her bag for fear of somehow giving her the contagion.
Meanwhile Lily had become increasingly tame. In the first, early days I had to pin her to the wall with all my weight to work on her bad teat. Now, possibly because the pain was gone, and possibly because she realized I was not going to hurt her, she stood quietly, even chewing her cud, while I labored to massage her udder and strip out the infection. Her lamb nuzzled my hair and tried to climb up my back.
I was elated. But not for long. On the first day of Lily’s mastitis I had written to various authorities on the internet for suggestions for treatment: my sheep group, my cow friends, and a well-known veterinarian at a prominent university sheep program.
On Saturday, the fourth day of treatment, I received a business-like email reply from the university vet. Though civil, she was clearly appalled that I had given Lily bute, as it is forbidden for use in meat or milk animals.
From your description the udder is unlikely to recover no matter what antibiotics you treat it with and the ewe should be culled from the flock. Except you gave the bute. Your veterinarian (or whoever sold you the bute) is going to have to contact FARAD to determine the meat withdrawal. The withdrawal for the LA200 is at least 30 days.
Oh, dear. What is this? I looked up FARAD.
Ah: Food Animal Residue Avoidance & Depletion, a government program devoted to keeping chemicals and medications out of the U.S. food supply. After twenty minute of googling, I discovered from this FARAD Digest that Phenylbutazone had been declared illegal for use in dairy cattle in 2003. (Hmm. My vet gave Katika bute for her swollen udder last summer. He must not know this.) Digging my way through this document, it appears that the meat withdrawal for oral bute given to beef cows is 40-50 days.
I decided that even if I had known, I would rather have Lily pain-free and bury her rather than butcher her, if it came to that.
But more disturbing was the vet’s statement that I should take the original pus sample to the vet for testing because there were several types of mastitis that were simply untreatable.
The culture result often tells you that the mastitis cannot be cured (A. pyogenes, C. pseudotuberculosis, chronic Staph aureus).
I had already googled all these mastitis infections and none of the descriptions listed had seemed to match Lily’s illness. But now, my heart heavy, I googled “mastitis,” “ewe,” plus Lily’s symptom of “green pus” — and bingo, there it was in a British veterinary reference, Sheep Medicine by Philip R. Scott.
Chronic mastitis: “…a core of green viscous pus…” “The teat is often thickened with a fibrous cord blocking the streak canal…”
Streak canal? Now I went looking for a diagram of the anatomy of a sheep’s udder.
Yes, Lily’s streak canal had definitely been blocked, and though I’d emptied the teat laboriously and it was now soft, she definitely still had a “fibrous cord” running the length of the teat cistern. This was the “spine” I’d originally felt.
Chronic mastitis cases not detected during the pre-breeding check are subsequently identified post-lambing when the first sign is a hungry lamb(s). The teat of the affected gland is thickened and no milk, or only a small amount of inspissated pus, can be expressed from the teat.
I looked up “inspissated.” It means, made thicker by evaporation. I remembered the tiny, tiny noodles of pus that I’d first been dealing with.
I read the article carefully. This type of mastitis, when cultured, was “almost invariably” found to be Arcanobacterium pyogenes, an abscess-forming infection. Abscess… here I’d been describing in my mind the drainage as similar to that from a sebaceous cyst… characterized by little or no fever… just like Lily.
Oh, no! A. pyogenes was one of the types of mastitis the university vet said could not be cured!
My eye raced to the closing paragraph.
Encouraging results have been reported for the treatment of mild cases of chronic mastitis using Tilmicosin (s/c) at weaning. Treatment of chronic mastitis that has progressed to abscessation within the gland is not usually undertaken because of the hopeless prognosis and associated loss of normal mammary tissue and lactogenesis.
Tilmicosin is a powerful antibiotic that is lethal to humans if accidentally finger-stuck. I gulped. But my brain dwelt on the phrase: hopeless prognosis.
It is certainly discouraging. Since reading all this I have been beating myself up for my wide-eyed naiveté in somehow assuming that hard work and devotion would automatically save my ewe. Of course if that were true, no one with loving relatives would ever die of cancer or any other ailment. What foolish arrogance on my part!
I am waiting for a report from the vet but my outlook is glum.