Well this is a story I must tell, even though I risk ruining my reputation as a serious rancher. Let me start by saying that Lily is a very special ewe. She is the daughter of Bonnet, and grand-daughter of the legendary Panties, best dairy ewe I ever had. Lily is half East Friesian, half Romney, and she has the beautiful, sleek open face of an East Friesian with a just a hint of a Romney hairdo, and a BIG personality. Lily was a bottle lamb, because Bonnet developed a condition that prevented her from nursing her lambs. That made Lily particularly friendly. She was scheduled to go to slaughter, because I didn’t want to keep any black Romnesian lambs. On the day in September 2019 when we were sorting the last lambs of the season for the slaughterhouse, Lily was first into the chute. She looked up at me with those big, brown eyes, and I said, “Oh man, you are the one that is really killing me…” I hesitated and hesitated, and finally said, “OK I’ll just take one less lamb for our family freezer this year” and sorted her into the keepers. Melinda, standing behind me, let out the breath she had been holding. Lolo had tears in his eyes. We all love Lily, a lot. We named some of our black lambs that year for black or dark-brown flowers, so once we had decided to keep her we named her Chocolate Lily.
Lily proved to be an excellent mother. She had a single ewe-lamb last year who we kept and named Lulu, and this year she raised two big boys. But she developed a bad case of mastitis after her lambs were weaned in June, a case so bad that I felt I would have to put her down. After a lot of deliberation, we decided to give her a chance to beat it, and treated her with a long course of antibiotics. She did recover, but the mastitis left her with dead tissue in her udder that needed to be removed. Lily will never have lambs again because of her compromised udder, but she has a beautiful fleece that my friend Jackie loves to use for felting, and besides, she is our pet.
So…I took her to Dr Dotti on Tuesday for a procedure to remove the dead tissue, and I brought her back home afterwards. She seemed like she was doing fine, but there was a slow drip of blood that did not stop. We kept thinking it had stopped, but it never did totally. After many hours, even a slow drip adds up to a large volume of blood, and by morning her udder was filled with clotted blood, she was weak and the insides of her eyelids were absolutely white, indicating severe anemia. And she was still dripping blood. I called Dr Dotti, and rushed Lily back to the clinic. Dr Dotti was out on a call, but Dr Venable examined Lily, began giving her fluids by IV to stabilize her, and added some vitamin K to help clotting. She wanted to wait for Dr Dotti to return to decide what to do. Seeing the concern on my face, she added, “I know she is a beloved pet, and if you want to pull out all the stops, you could bring her to UC Davis for a blood transfusion. We’re not equipped to do that here.”
I left and went home, waiting to hear from Dr Dotti. He called me a few hours later and said he wanted to go in and clean out the clotted blood, and find and tie off the source of the bleeding. But, he said, Lily’s blood count was really low (packed cell volume of 11% when it should be above 24%). He said they did in fact have the equipment necessary to do a transfusion, and all he needed was for me to bring him a nice big ewe as a donor. Sheep, it turns out, don’t require blood-typing agreement for a transfusion. Melinda and Lolo helped me load up Flake and Ingot, two big strong retired East Friesian ewes and I headed back to Cotati.
When I arrived, Lily was sedated and Dr Dotti was finishing cleaning all the clotted blood out of Lily’s now-empty udder. He had tied off every possible blood vessel that might have been the source of the leak, and he sprayed a solution of epinephrine into the udder to cause vasoconstriction and prevent bleeding. Next he packed the whole udder tightly with gauze soaked in Betadyne. Then Lily was ready for her transfusion.
The mood at the vet hospital was positively festive! This was a rare event, something Dr Venable hadn’t done since vet school. Dr Dotti produced the essential piece of equipment, a vacuum-jar with some liquid in it containing an anti-coagulant. With assistance from Antonio the tech and Dr Venable, Dr Dotti put a line into Ingot’s jugular vein and poked a needle from the line into the vacuum jar. The vacuum started to draw about 400 milliliters of blood out of Ingot. The anticoagulant kept the blood from clotting.
Once the blood receptacle was full, Dr Dotti took the remainder of the bag of saline they had been dripping into Lily, and switched it over to Ingot, to replace the pint or so of fluids she had lost in her donation, and hooked up Lily’s IV line to the blood jar. Lily still seemed pretty listless while the blood was dripping in, but by the end they were able to get her up.
I left Lilly in their care to be observed overnight, to be sure she didn’t have a bad reaction to the transfusion, or begin to bleed again.
By the next morning, Dr Venable reported that Lily was chipper and bright, and added that it is amazing what a pint of blood will do! They pulled out the packing in the early afternoon to watch and make sure she did not begin to bleed again, and now Lily is home, taking it easy in the barn for a few days before going back to her flock.
Normally the most economical and humane thing to do when a ewe comes down with intractable mastitis is to put her down. That is what our protocols say we should have done. But then sometimes there is a special ewe like Lily, and you go the extra mile.
Thank you to our wonderful vets at Cotati Large Animal Hospital!