Sudden Death in Lambs

April 14, 2022

Sudden death is sadly a common and frustrating problem in lambs. Whilst many people overlook this, it is important to investigate because many causes of death can be avoided with management practices such as vaccination or targeted treatments.

The main causes of sudden death in lambs include:

Clostridial disease

Clostridial disease is one of the most common causes. Clostridial bacteria naturally inhabit the intestines but if the gut environment changes this can lead to multiplication, production of toxins and death. This generally seen due to increased feed intakes and changes in diet (pasture and grain based). The most common clostridial diseases in lambs are pulpy kidney and lamb dysentery (both covered by vaccination).

Acute pneumonia and septicaemia

Acute pneumonia and septicaemia are also regular post-mortem findings. This syndrome is most often associated with stress. Several bacteria are responsible, including Mannheima Haemolytica and Pasteurella Multocida. These bacteria are found in healthy sheep, however under periods of stress these bacteria multiply, invade the lungs and enter the bloodstream causing septicaemia and death.


Parasites can also be a cause of sudden death. Nematodirus battus outbreaks occur when large numbers of Nematodirus eggs hatch simultaneously in fields grazed by lambs (generally 6-12 weeks old). Severely affected lambs can die suddenly This large-scale hatching requires a chilled period followed by a warmer spell and can be predicted. For the current forecast, please visit the SCOPS website or see our website for more details.


Coccidiosis occurs in a similar age group to Nematodirus but can occur as early as 3 weeks. Sheep rapidly gain immunity to this parasite through exposure but if they meet a high challenge before this immunity is in place then disease will occur. Scour is a common finding but if severe gut damage occurs then sudden death can result.

Post-mortems are the best way of investigating. To make the most of this, it is vital we choose the best candidates. Lambs should be fresh and not have suffered predation – we can get answers from those missing eyes but it’s hard to get an answer when they are missing most of their vital organs!

We can carry out post-mortems at the practice or we can use APHAs subsidised service. Free carcass collection is often available depending on your postcode. All supplementary testing is included in the price and a full comprehensive report is received making this excellent value for money.

Please call us on 01327 350239 or email, if you’d like to talk to one of our vets about this service.

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