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Joint-Ill in Lambs

About Joint-Ill in Lambs

Joint-ill is a common disease of young lambs, up to one month old, in sheep flocks across the UK. The disease often impacts between 1 – 2% of lambs in a flock, but up to 50% has been reported.

The disease is characterised by an arthritic inflammation, usually of the limb joints, which results in lameness, ill thrift and in some cases death. Sometimes other joints can be affected, such as joints in the spine resulting in limb paralysis. The principal cause is a bacterial infection which localises to the joints. The most common species of bacteria isolated from infected joints is Streptococcus dysgalactiae. Only limited information is available on the routes of infection.

Infections associated with the umbilical cord, tail docking, castration and ear tagging wounds are all implicated as bacterial entry points, as well as via the lamb’s mouth. The presence of the bacteria in the lambing environment and the ewe’s vagina are both potential sources of infection. Treatment options are limited to antimicrobials and anti-inflammatory drugs often with limited success, resulting in the culling of severely affected lambs on welfare grounds.

Key points

  • Joint-ill is a disease of young lambs causing severe welfare problems, ill thrift, and death
  • The disease often impacts between 1 – 2% of lambs in a flock, but up to 50% has been reported
  • A recent survey suggests that joint-ill in lambs affects 64% of UK sheep farms
  • The bacteria Streptococcus dysgalactiae is the most common cause of joint-ill in lambs less than one   month old, although other bacteria have been described
  • To ensure you are using the correct treatment and control for your farm, it is advised to ask your vet to collect samples to confirm which bacteria is causing the problem on your farm. Knowing the specific cause on your farm will allow you and your vet to design specific measures for your flock
  • The sources of infection and routes of transmission for some infections are poorly defined
  • Ensuring good lamb colostrum intakes, good ewe and farm hygiene practices, as well as dipping lambs’ navels in iodine are all general measures advised for the control of joint-ill
  • Use of whole flock prophylactic antibiotic treatment (ie treating most or all lambs) is not a sustainable or recommended control strategy for joint-ill
  • Future for control for joint-ill due to Streptococcus dysgalactiae could include a combination of optimising colostrum quality, quantity and delivery with hygiene measures, and an effective vaccine


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Dr Keith Ballingall

(BSc, PhD)

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