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Cornell farm call service saves mother sheep


The Cornell University Hospital for Animals (CUHA)’s Ambulatory service came to the rescue when S'more the Shetland sheep faced a life-threatening emergency after giving birth to twin lambs. Photo: Rick Ryan

Rick Ryan is no stranger to helping his ewes during lambing season, but on a brisk evening in late March, he found himself out of his depth.

Ryan is a hobby farmer who lives in Dryden, New York, with his wife Theresa and two children, and works as a science communicator at the Cornell Laboratory for Accelerator -Based Sciences and Education. On this particular evening, Ryan’s favorite ewe was in trouble, and it was a condition that he’d never dealt with before.

“I was hit with an immediate feeling of overwhelm and uncertainty.” The emergency would have turned fatal if it were not for the Cornell University Hospital for Animals (CUHA)’s Ambulatory service.

His oldest Shetland sheep, S’more, had just birthed twin lambs. The new family was recovering in the barn when Ryan’s nine-year-old daughter, Josephina, noticed that something was off. When Ryan himself came to check, he realized that what at first looked like the afterbirth was in fact something much more serious.

“It looked like a large mass, an organ. It was something completely out of my wheelhouse, something I didn’t feel comfortable dealing with myself,” he said. The ewe was suffering from uterine prolapse — in which the mother continues pushing after lambing and pushes the uterus out the birth canal. It is a relatively common issue, occurring in roughly one in a thousand ewes during lambing.

To the rescue

Sheep and lamb
S'more and one of her newborn lambs. Photo: Rick Ryan

The veterinarian on call was service intern Dr. Mark O’Connor, who, along with fourth-year veterinary student Heather Magnuson, drove out to the Ryan’s farm in Dryden, New York. “Having called and knowing Cornell veterinarians were on their way, it was immediately comforting,” said Ryan.

O’Connor and Magnuson arrived as quickly as they could. “We were glad to see that Rick had done a great job in keeping S’more safely separated from her flockmates to prevent injury to her exteriorised uterus,” said O’Connor. “It was also relieving that the uterus appeared relatively clean and healthy — thanks to Rick and his children being so quick to notice the problem, as well as promptly calling for the necessary help.”

The case was textbook, O’Connor noted, making their treatment straightforward: first, they separated the placenta that was still attached to the uterus at a few points. “This is not always the case,” O’Connor said, “but I don’t at all mind when it is, as gentle manual separation of the fetal and maternal layers reveals the intricate, interdigitating structure through which nutrient and gas exchange occurs between two individual beings. It’s quite beautiful — to me anyway.”

Superheroes on call

Once the placenta was removed and the uterus gently cleaned off, Magnuson administered an epidural with local anaesthetic so that S’more would allow them to re-insert the uterus. “I’m always glad to have students with smaller hands and wrists than mine in cases like these,” O’Connor said. “Heather could reach further into the narrowing recesses of the uterine horns than I would ever be able to.”

Ryan recalls a moment when Magnuson donned the large, yellow glove to guide the uterus back into the ewe’s body. “She was framed by the floodlights, and my seven-year-old son, Theo, looked up at her and said, ‘You’re a superhero!’ and he was right — it really felt like we had these two superheroes helping us in our barn,” he says.

After Magnuson had placed the uterus back within S’more’s body, they used a funnel to pour warm water inside to help the uterus expand and stay in place. “Of course,” said O’Connor, “this water comes back out eventually, and Heather unfortunately happened to be in the line of fire this time, resulting in her being a little chilly on the next call that awaited us.”

With the ewe’s situation stabilized, the superhero duo gave Ryan a syringe of antibiotics to administer 48 hours later. Ryan knew how to administer such medications thanks to previous visits by another ambulatory service clinician, Mary Smith ’69, D.V.M ’72, who just happens to be a world-renowned expert on sheep. “Having the Cornell team brings this great sense of calm,” says Ryan. “They have everything under control, and I know that calling them is the absolute best thing we can do in these situations.”

While the underlying cause of uterine prolapse is typically unknown, O’Connor says that early recognition and resolution is key for improving outcomes. “Owners should keep a particularly close eye on their stock before, during and after birth,” he said. “If an animal continues to have forceful contractions after birth, and there is no remaining fetus or placenta inside to cause this, it may be a sign that she could prolapse. Being attentive to such signs can make all the difference.”

Ewe and lamb
While the underlying cause of uterine prolapse is typically unknown, early recognition and resolution is key for improving outcomes. Photo: Rick Ryan

An invaluable resource

Ryan admits that when he first began raising sheep on his farm, he had been intimidated around calling Cornell for help. “There was a fear that people from this Ivy League institution might judge me for not knowing everything about my animals,” he says. “I’ve been so pleasantly surprised by my experiences with them.”

After the eventful evening, Ryan woke to a text the next morning from O’Connor checking in. He was happy to reply that S’more and her twin lambs were doing well. On top of that, he’s grateful to have Cornell veterinarians as a resource. “I so appreciate that educational component,” he said. “They are empowering us as small farmers to feel confident in what we’re doing. And that’s just invaluable.”

The appreciation is mutual. “I always feel very privileged to be so appreciated by clients, especially since I enjoy the work that I do for them,” said O’Connor. “My favorite audiences are always enthusiastic children, such as Theo and Josephina [Ryan]. If their experience with me can encourage and teach them to be good future animal owners (or perhaps even veterinarians), it adds hugely to the fun and the honor of the job.”

Written by Lauren Cahoon Roberts