Acidosis in weaned lambs

by: Dr J.D. Bobb

Acidosis is a term that is used to describe grain overload.  Sheep are ruminants which means they are designed to utilize roughage.  The bacteria that live in the rumen are very capable of converting roughage into useable energy.  Modern lamb production has producers feeding more concentrates such as corn which are highly fermentable in the rumen.  A lamb that is placed on a high concentrate ration too rapidly will become acidic.  The rumen bacteria require time to change, this takes approximately three -four weeks.

Ration changes need to be made gradually.  Start the lambs on a diet that contains a mixture of roughage and concentrate.  Every one – two weeks the ration can be stepped up to include more concentrates.

Lambs that are acidic are weak, depressed, refuse to eat or move normally.  Lambs may scour if they live long enough before becoming comatose.  Many will die in two to three days if not treated.  Lambs that survive have a high chance of having founder (laminitis) due to the effects of histamine on the growth area of the hoof.  Also liver abscesses are common in lambs that survive the acidosis.


  1. Must be early and aggressive.  First 12-24hours after the overload.
  2. Oral or intravenous sodium bicarbonate.
  3. Penicillin orally to reduce acid producing bacteria in rumen.
  4. Mineral oil orally.  Usually one quart.
  5. Activated charcoal orally.
  6. Injectable antihistamine and Banamine (Flunixin) given subcutaneously.

Lambs will need to be restarted very slowly after treatment.  Start them on roughage for one-two weeks and slowly add the concentrates.  Lambs that have become acidic are often hard to finish.  Keeping hay in the ration at ¼ to ½ pound helps. Adding free choice bicarbonate may be an adequate preventative.  If you notice the lambs backing off of feed this is the first warning.  Lambs that are borderline acidic for long periods have a greater tendency for developing polio.  Polio is a lack of vitamin B1 being produced in their rumen.

Acidosis is very common in lambs on high concentrate rations; keep an eye on the management of ration changes.

About Ask-a-Vet Sheep

Veterinary services, procedures, biologicals, and drugs mentioned in this publication represent the personal opinions and clinical observations of the contributing author. They are in no way intended to be interpreted as recommendations without the consent of the producer’s own practicing Veterinarian. We strongly urge that producers establish a patient-client-veterinarian relationship that allows extra-label use when there are no drugs approved for treatment or if approved drugs are not effective. This procedure allows veterinarians to go beyond label directions when “prudent use” is necessary. The limited availability of drugs and biologics in this country is a major factor in restricting the growth of the sheep industry and allowing producers to compete in the world market place.
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