Have you ever walked out, looked at your sheep flock and found one standing, with their head thrown back as if gazing at the stars? You try to get them to move and all they will do is stagger in circles and eventually fall over. This is the scene we were met with at feeding time last night. Naomi, a big healthy ewe was showing all of these signs. My first thought was possibly a bone spike from one of the goats butting her. So we took care of her, got her settled in a safe place and went up to the house. This morning she had gotten up, staggered her way to the woods and had fallen over. She was on an angle so she couldn’t get up, even if she had tried.

Time for some help. Unfortunately, our large animal Vets around here are so involved with horses and alpacas, sheep take place at the bottom, so I started researching online what might be wrong with Naomi.  Polioencephalomalacia was the answer. For those of you who find yourself being your own vet from time to time, I will share what I read regarding this condition.


Polioencephalomalacia (PEM), also known as cerebrocortical necrosis, is a disease characterized by a disturbance of the central nervous system. The brain of infected animals becomes inflamed and swollen, and eventually becomes necrotic. Diagnosis is usually done by performing a necropsy on the brain of the dead animal. Dead gray matter will fluoresce under a Wood’s lamp.


PEM sometimes occurs on high grain diets, and diets that include plants high on thiaminases and sulfur. Thiaminases are enzymes found in a few plants, such as bracken fern, and the raw flesh and viscera of certain fish and shellfish. When ingested these enzymes split thiamin (Vitamin B1), an important compound in energy metabolism, and render it inactive. Normally ruminants are fairly resistant to thiamin deficiency since rumen microbes provide the animal with sufficient amounts of thiamin. However, the ingestion of thiaminases will lead to deficiency. Additionally, young growing ruminants, especially cattle and sheep, fed high-grain diets are especially susceptible. Diets high in grains can encourage the growth of certain thiaminase-producing bacteria in the rumen. These bacteria, including Clostridium sporogenes and a few species of Bascillus can produce enough thiaminases to induce thiamin deficiency. A thiamine-analogue is also produced within the rumen if there is excess sulfur, which may replace thiamine in important metabolic reactions in the brain. When thiamine is deficient, key tissues that require large amounts of thiamine, such as the brain and heart, are the first to show lesions.

Clinical signs:

This usually occurs suddenly. Affected sheep stand or sit alone, are blind and arch their necks back and stare upwards and become “star gazers”, the medical name for this being opishotonus. They are disoriented, lose their appetite, and they do not want to drink. Temperature and respiratory rate are usually normal but the heart rate may be depressed. Excitement may be seen but is usually replaced with dullness. Normally only a few individuals are affected. The animal may go down on its side with its head thrown back. The legs may be rigidly extended and convulsions may occur. Animals with PEM will often press their head against a wall or post. If not treated on time, most animals with PEM will die within 48 hours.

Treatment and prevention:

Sheep suffering from polioencephalomalacia generally respond very well to treatment if caught early. They can be successfully treated with 200 to 500 mg of thiamin injected intravenously, intramuscularly, or subcutaneously. Because thiamine is water-soluble, it is quickly eliminated from the body through the kidneys and, therefore there is little risk of overdosing. Dexamethasone (you can only get this from a Vet and for our 150 pound ewe, we needed 34 ml for one dose) is often administered along with thiamine to reduce brain swelling. Although recovery is usually quick, if significant brain damage has occurred, the recovered sheep rarely regain satisfactory levels of productivity. Therefore, very early treatment is critical. If a case of PEM is diagnosed in a herd of sheep, it is advisable to inject the remaining animals with thiamine as prevention. Drinking water should be tested for sulfur contents, sources of thiaminases, if any, should be removed and animals should be introduced to grain diets in steps to avoid a sudden increase in thiaminases-producing bacteria in the rumen.

We, as I am sure is the case with many of you who have livestock, you have increased grain feeding due to the harsh weather conditions we have experienced this winter. We do not feed silage, so are fairly confident that the increase in grain feeding had everything to do with this problem.

As of this writing, Naomi has had 2 B1 injections and is now standing and walking. Her head is in its normal position and hubby is on his way to pick up Dexamethasone from the Vet. Looks like we caught it in time and that she will be OK. She, of course,  is now on the watch list for a few days but we expect a full recovery.

Naomi - March 2009


7 thoughts on “Polioencephalomalacia

  1. oh my! I am so sorry to hear of your sheep problems…we have never had sheep. I read a blog by Katherine Dunn who is in oregon call apiferafarm.blogspot.com. she is an artist and has sheep among other animals…check her blog…i know she had some sheep problems last year but I can’t remember what illness. so sorry and hope things go well….keep us posted.

  2. Thanks for sharing. With alpaca, the big issue is M-worm. That’s the first thing we talk about when we discuss herd health. People don’t realize that the herd out in the pasture are more than just pretty fiber…we have to take care of their health too.

    She’s a beauty. Hope the treatment takes sooner than later.

  3. Good vet work. Glad you caught it in time and she’s going to be o.k. I printed out what you wrote and it is now in my sheep notebook — just in case we ever need it. Thanks for the education.

  4. Oh I’m so sorry MaLinda. Watching those rumens takes great care. Do you use any homeopathic treatments? I successfully used it for bloat one late night on my heifer (when I gave her too much grain) and in less than 2 hrs the bloat subsided. I use the book “Homeopathy For The Herd”. I’m thinking since they are both ruminant animals the info is very similar. The homeopathics are the same for animals and humans alike. Of course being cautious with certain minerals. When I purchased my remedies online, I chose the most likely issues that I might have to deal with. So far so good.

    I think it’s really hard not to want and give more grain. It’s like a comfort food for us. I was able to stick to my 1 qt oats 2x day plus BOSS (black oiled sunflower seeds) and a sprinkle of molasses, for my heifers this winter and tried to give them an abundance of good hay and minerals which they scarfed down. Have you looked at Coutryside Naturals down by you near Charlottesville? I have to order from them but I really like their mineral mixes and my animals go goo goo over Kelp. Just some thoughts….you know me…always have more than one thing to say….

    I am really glad that she’s up and that you hope to have things under control soon. These critters capture our hearts.

    • I try to write at least 4 or 5 times a week. Since my Mother’s illness I’ve been awful about keep up the Blog but am hopeful that that will turn around soon.

      Thanks for the visit and comment.

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