(Editor’s note: Susan Schoenian is a sheep and goat specialist with the University of Maryland.)
Dystocia means difficult birth.
The official definition is when birth takes more than an hour after the rupture of the fetal membranes (water bag).
Dystocia could be a prolonged unassisted birth or a birth in which assistance was provided.
Dystocia causes the death of many ewes/does and lambs/kids.
There are three primary causes of dystocia: Fetopelvic disproportion, malpresentations, and complications. Fetopelvic disproportion is when the lamb/kid is too big to get through the pelvic opening.
It is most common with singletons and large birthweights.
The head, shouUlders, hips are the most difficult parts to get through the birth canal. Some big lambs/kids just need a tug or some extra lubrication.
Others require patience and perseverance and in extreme cases, extreme measures.
A malpresentation is an abnormal presentation of the fetus at the time of birth. You can find various diagrams of abnormal presentations with explanations on how to correct them. Some are easy to correct.
Others require more manipulation (and patience). Normal presentation is “diving:” Two front feet with the head resting on the front legs.
Unless there’s something else going on, the ewe/doe should be able to deliver the baby on her own.
Backwards (hind legs first) can also result in a normal birth, though there is some risk of suffocation if the umbilical cord breaks before the head is out.
Whenever you observe a baby coming backwards, it’s best to pull it out.
Backwards is different from breech. In a breech birth, the rear is coming first, but the legs are still in the uterus, tucked under. Only the tail may be present in the birth canal.
The ewe/doe cannot deliver a breech baby on her own. Assistance is required.
The baby should not be turned around. It should be delivered backwards, once the hind legs are extended into the birth canal. Breech births are a little tricky but can be handled with a little experience (and confidence).
Elbow locks and one or more legs back are the most common malpresentations and the easiest to correct.
Heads can present more difficult challenges, especially when the head is twisted back in the birth canal, in which case it must be righted before the baby can be delivered (easier said than done).
If just the head is sticking out of the vulva, it is usually necessary to return the head to the birth canal, unless there is one leg out and the baby can be pulled out without extending the other leg.
Various complications can cause difficult births.
The most troublesome is ringworm. Ringwomb is when the cervix fails to dilate.
A successful outcome is usually only achieved with a caesarian section. If the cervix is partially dilated (“false” ringwomb), it may be possible to manually stretch the cervix to get the baby out.
The female may also respond to drugs.
False ringwomb is sometimes caused by premature intervention.
Most sheep and goat producers can get comfortable dealing with difficult births.
At the same time, it is important to have a veterinarian on-call that can assist with more complicated situations.
Mentors can also be valuable, especially to new shepherds.
When dealing with difficult births, one of the most important things is knowing when to get help.
It is never acceptable to let a ewe/doe endure prolonged suffering.