Abortions in sheep

Campylobacter abortions in sheep

By Felicity Wills, Ruminant Technical Advisor, Coopers Animal Health

What is Campylobacter (Campy) and how is it spread from farm to farm?

  • Campy is a bacteria that causes late-term abortions, still-births, and weak lambs in otherwise healthy ewes.
  • Two strains of the bacteria are known to cause abortion in sheep, Campylobacter fetus fetus and Campylobacter jejuni
  • Campy can be carried and shed in the faeces of healthy sheep. Naive sheep grazing contaminated feeds or pastures are then exposed to the bacteria. If this exposure occurs during pregnancy abortions can occur. 
  • If ewes are exposed to the bacteria outside of pregnancy, they show no ill health and develop a natural immunity that can last for several years. This why maiden ewes are most at risk as then only have a short time to be exposed to the bacteria prior to their first pregnancy. 
  • As infected sheep move between flocks and from property to property the bacteria can be spread.

What is the prevalence of Campy in South Australia?

  • Campy is found Australia wide. In most states of Australia, it is the leading cause of infectious abortion diagnosed in ewes. 
  • In Australia 70% of the 820 flocks tested have been exposed to Campylobacter fetus fetus the main abortion causing strain.
  • In South Australia 66% of the 140 flocks tested have been exposed to Campylobacter fetus fetus.

What might make you suspect Campy is causing lamb loses in your flock?

  • Finding aborted foetuses in confinement pens, in the paddock or during yarding. 
  • Blood stained breeches and hanging afterbirth on ewes prior to the start of lambing. 
  • Scanned in lamb ewes not lambing. Seeing a big difference between number of foetuses scanned and the number of lambs marked may often be the only sign of abortions in your flock. 
  • Birth of stillborn or weak lambs that subsequently die.

Management of risk factors that contribute to the spread of Campy:

  • Mating maiden ewe lambs or ewe hoggets. 
  • Confinement or trail feeding during joining and pregnancy. 
  • Running high stocking rates during joining and pregnancy, like in cell grazing or rotational grazing systems. 
  • Introducing ewes to your flock, particularly at joining or during pregnancy. 

What to do if you suspect abortions are occurring in your flock during lambing:

Campy can be shed in faeces by healthy carrier sheep. Infectious diseases can be spread by close contact with faeces, aborted materials, and dead lambs. To minimise the risk of spread of disease consider the following practices:

  • Maintain isolation of introduced ewes from the rest of the flock during joining and gestation.
  • Confinement feeding during the joining and gestational periods increases the risk of spread of Campylobacter so monitor ewes closely and consider vaccination with Campyvax for ewes in confinement.
  • Where possible feed stock off the ground to reduce accidental consumption of feed contaminated by faeces and infective material.
  • Pick up aborted materials and dead lambs whist wearing gloves, put into disposal containers (i.e. old seed bags/garbage bags) and dispose of all materials away from stock access.
  • If possible, isolate ewes that have aborted to prevent the spread of disease to other ewes. 
  • Consult your local veterinarian or PIRSA. Diagnostic testing of foetuses or ewes is essential to diagnose the cause of lamb loses. Many lambs may need to be examined by post-mortem (fresh is essential!) 
  • Emergency treatment of ewes with antibiotics during an abortion outbreak may be required so please contact your veterinarian for guidance.
  • Act early as this can prevent significant numbers of dead lambs.
  • Most causes of stillborn or dead lambs are contagious to people so be sure to wear gloves.
  • Ewes that have aborted should be blood tested early to detect infectious causes.

Can I prevent campy abortions in my ewe flock?

  • Minimising exposure to infectious organisms like Campy that can cause abortion, through the methods described above can help minimise loses. 
  • Campylobacter is currently the only infectious cause of abortion that has a vaccine available in Australia. 
  • Coopers Ovilis Campyvax is a 2-dose subcutaneous (under the skin) vaccination given at or prior to joining. The 2 doses can be given between 3 and 8 weeks apart with the first dose being given no more than 8 weeks prior to the start of joining. 
  • Producers with a standard 5 to 6 week joining period may find it convenient to give the first dose at rams in and the second dose at rams out. 
  • For more information about Campyvax please contact your local Coopers representative on 1800 226 511. 

What can you do if you suspect you have had Campy abortions in your ewe flock?

  • If you would like to protect your ewes against potential abortion due to Campy a vaccination program can be started in your maiden ewes. 
  • If you require more information about your ewe’s exposure to Campy blood testing can be done. Ewes to consider blood testing include. 
  • Ewes that were scanned pregnant and were dry at weaning. 
  • Recently introduced ewes.
  • Ewes that will be joined for the first time e.g. ewe lambs/hoggets
  • A positive Campylobacter blood test will confirm whether your sheep have been exposed. Your vet will discuss whether this was the likely or only cause of lamb losses in your flock. A preventative vaccine program can then be undertaken in your flock.