Watery mouth in lambs

Watery mouth is an infectious bacterial disease that can kill newborn lambs usually within the first three days of life. Lambs pick up infection from the environment and the bacteria multiply very rapidly in the gut. Affected lambs die within hours.

Back to colostrum management in lambs

Signs of watery mouth 

  • Lethargy
  • High temperature
  • Drooling
  • Constipation
  • Distended abdomen
  • Sometimes diarrhoea

The role of colostrum

The most important and practical way to prevent and/or reduce cases of watery mouth is to provide enough good quality colostrum quickly to every lamb.

Lambs need at least:

  • 50 ml/kg of colostrum as soon as possible after birth (latest 4-6 hours). Example, for a 5 kg lamb 50 ml/kg would require = 250 ml of colostrum.
  • 200 ml/kg of colostrum in the first 24 hours. For a 5 kg lamb 200ml/kg this is approximately = 1 litre.

Lambs that will require additional support and should consider supplementing with colostrum:

  • Difficult lambing
  • Multiple births (such as triplet lambs)
  • Lambs from ill ewes (e.g. from ewes with mastitis or twin lamb disease)

Good colostrum management can also help to prevent other infectious diseases e.g. clostridial diseases. Protection can be boosted by vaccinating ewes before lambing to allow antibodies to be transferred from the ewe her lamb(s).

Avoid tail docking and castration on the first day of life as it can put lambs off suckling colostrum.

Speak to your vet or advisor for more information on colostrum management, vaccinations and target body condition scores for your system.

Case study

Farmers involved in the Challenge Sheep research project funded by AHDB advise focusing on colostrum management at lambing time to prevent watery mouth.

Sheep farmer Sam Jones hasn’t used Spectam for about 20 years and stopped blanket using antibiotics for six years.

“We normally only have cases of watery mouth after about 60% of the ewes have lambed.  Not using antibiotics challenges all of us to rethink hygiene during lambing. This needs to be an opportunity to move forward not to look back. It will be hard but having resistance to antibiotics will be even harder. Antibiotic resistance is a real threat to all and needs to be taken seriously. In the long run Spectam not being available could be a good thing, as it will make all of us check and improve ewe and lamb management.”

Sheep farmer Richard Baugh decided not to use Spectam “like water” four years ago.

“I still had the same amount of watery mouth as I did when using it, normally coming near the end of lambing. I now concentrate more on getting the lambs drinking in the first 12 hours. We had always disinfected the pens between sheep and it really does help a lot. We have also improved our hygiene, changing our coveralls more often and we also wear disposable gloves around the shed to reduce the spread of disease.”

He recommends spending time focusing on making sure the lamb drinks from the ewe in the first 12 hours and reduce time in a pen/shed.

Sheep farmer Ian Wilson has had a few cases of watery mouth in the past, but no outbreaks, recommends:

“Make sure all lambs have plenty of colostrum and keep lambing pens as clean as possible.”

Sheep farmer Pete Webster’s top tips for lambing are:

  • Make sure the whole team is on board and knows what to do
  • Prepare well for the lambing period
  • Store sheep colostrum in ice cube trays
  • Carry a thermos flask on farm (especially if outdoor lambing) so you can:
    • can collect excess colostrum from one ewe and maintain the temperature to feed to a lamb in need
    • can keep colostrum at the right temperature to feed to a lamb in the field without delay

Listen to our podcast: Lambing, colostrum management and watery mouth