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Responsible use of antibiotics in neonatal lambs

Sylvaine Lacrosse BVetMed MRCVS

Farm practice has recently undergone scrutiny for its use of antibiotics, and it is about time we started using them responsibly! A big issue is metaphylaxis, meaning the mass medication given to a group in order to prevent disease. Metaphylactic antibiotic usage needs to be avoided and should not replace good husbandry and hygiene.

AHDB recently released a webinar on ‘The responsible use of antibiotics at lambing time’ by Dr Fiona Lovatt from Flock Health Clubs, covering a lot of the issues with antibiotic metaphylaxis, some of which we will discuss in this article, focusing on neonatal lambs.

The point we are trying to make is not to totally eliminate the use of antibiotics. Treatment of a clinically ill lamb or a lamb at significant risk of disease is absolutely justified. What we want to do is prevent animals from being at risk and risk assess your current lambs to justify your usage.

Issues with irresponsible use of antibiotics
Resistance, resistance, resistance! Like with wormer resistance, using antibiotics unnecessarily speeds up bacterial resistance to treatment. We want to preserve their effectiveness for when we truly need them, both in veterinary and human medicine. Additionally, introducing antibiotics to a neonatal lamb’s stomach when not necessary may hinder the lamb’s performance. The lamb has a natural gut microflora, consisting of ‘good bacteria’ which gets reduced when treated with antibiotics, altering the lamb’s metabolism.

Why are antibiotics being given to every new born lamb?
Most likely out of routine, but some farmers are scared to stop as they are afraid that if they do not dose every lamb, there may be a disease outbreak such as watery mouth or joint ill.

The RUMA (Responsible Use of Medicines in Agriculture Alliance) targets state that ‘it is not appropriate for all lambs to be treated routinely with antibiotics from the start of any new lambing season’, yet it is very common for farmers to orally dose all lambs for watery mouth or inject every lamb to prevent joint ill. This has to stop!

Effective husbandry can prevent disease much better than metaphylactic antibiotics usage, especially when focusing on colostrum and hygiene.

#Colostrum is Gold!

RUMA recently released their campaign, #ColostrumIsGold, so farmers will soon be sick of hearing their vets mention the C word, but we cannot stress enough the importance of colostrum!
IgG: These are the antibodies in colostrum which they acquire from their mothers to protect them against various diseases. A 4kg lamb needs 200ml colostrum in the first few hours of life.
Energy: Lambs are born with brown fat as an energy reserve, however these levels diminish by 5 hours old. Ewe colostrum contains 15% fat, and a 4kg lamb needs 800ml in the first 24 hours for a healthy start and to prevent hypothermia and starvation. For more information, visit www.colostrumisgold.org.

Hygiene is basic, but will minimise the bacteria load your lambs are exposed to. A few examples are listed below:
-Clean hands, bottles, stomach tubes
-Ear tags are not sterile. Sterilising them in alcohol or iodine will minimise the risk of joint ill
-Keep pens dry
-Turn lambs out ASAP
-Isolate clinically sick lambs

Risk based approach
Prophylactically treating a lamb is justified when there is a significant risk of disease. By allocating your lambs a status of ‘High Risk’ or ‘Low Risk’, prophylactic antibiotic treatment is justified in ‘High Risk’ lambs. With good management, the majority of lambs should be in the ‘Low Risk’ column, thus minimising antibiotic usage.

High Risk Lambs 

  • Triplet/low birth weight
  • Poor doing/thin ewe mother
  • Born late in lambing
  • Exposed to clinical cases
  •  Challenging environment conditions

Low Risk Lambs

  • Single Adequate colostrum intake
  • Born start of lambing
  • Surrounding lambs are healthy
  • Good environment conditions

It is important that you do involve your vet in health planning and decision making as they can guide your antibiotics usage, making sure you are optimising your farm husbandry and using a targeted risk-based approach to treatment. Your vet should not be prescribing antibiotics unless they are happy with how you are using them, so make sure you are having these conversations with your vet, as it is both of our responsibilities to not abuse the medicines available to us.

For more information on Molecare Veterinary Services, visit www.molecarevetservices.com or phone 01392 872934.

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