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Emergency Services

While the vast majority of animals give birth on their own without hassle, it pays to know what to expect and when to intervene or call for help.


A normal birth will follow these stages:

First stage labour: The cervix is dilating but no pushing is seen. The animal may appear uneasy or restless, with vague signs of colic. This stage usually lasts 2-6 hours, but may take longer in first-time mothers.

Second stage labour: The cow or ewe will start to push and the offspring is delivered. The water-bag is pushed into the birth canal and bursts, followed by the appearance of two feet and the head. This stage should not last longer than 2 hours from the appearance of the sac until delivery.

Third stage labour: The placenta or membranes are passed. This should occur within 8 hours of the birth.

When to intervene:

First stage labour: (vague colic, restlessness) lasts longer than 6 hours. While it may take longer in first-time mothers, it still pays to check that everything is aligned and progressing well.

Second stage labour: (active pushing) lasts longer than 2 hours, especially if the waters have broken early on.

When intervening, it is very important to stay clean and to use plenty of lubricant to avoid damaging the mother. Have a bucket of warm water with antiseptic on hand to wash your arms repeatedly, especially when assisting a birth in the paddock.

Try to determine what orientation the foetus is lying in. The natural birth position has both front legs extended forward with the head between them. Unless you have some experience with calving or lambing, it would pay to call the vet if you suspect that the orientation differs from the above.

If the cervix is fully dilated and the foetus is presented normally, you may pull on the front legs to assist the mother, as long as the head keeps coming in the right direction.

You should never need to apply more pressure than one person’s strength for a lambing, or two people at a maximum for a calving. If you are not making any progress within 10 minutes, it is time to change the plan and/or call the vet.

It pays to have the following on hand in case you need to assist with a birthing:

  • Lubricant – the most important tool in the kit
  • Antiseptic
  • Ropes to attach to the legs and/or head

If you suspect a cow or ewe had a difficult birthing, or if you have assisted in any way, she is at risk for conditions such as retained placenta, infections and metabolic disease (milk fever). Please contact your local vet for advice on how to aid her recovery, as early intervention can make the difference to her getting pregnant again next year.


Often referred to as “bearings,” prolapses occur in sheep, cattle and pigs at different times and for different reasons.


Commonly seen prior to lambing in older, fatter ewes carrying multiple lambs, some ewes develop a prolapse of the vagina and cervix.

During late pregnancy, hormones are released to soften the reproductive tract. At the same time, abdominal pressure increases due to a full rumen, growing foetuses and lots of internal body fat. These two factors combine to allow the vagina and cervix to be pushed externally. In doing so, the vagina will often kink the opening to the bladder, which continues to fill but cannot empty.

Bearing retainers may help to keep the prolapse in but you will have to closely monitor these animals as they may have trouble lambing on their own. Ewes that have thrown a bearing are likely to do it again on subsequent pregnancies so you may have to think seriously about breeding these animals again.

As a preventative measure, avoid ewes being overfat prior to lambing to minimize the pressure in the abdomen.


Unlike ewes, cows tend to prolapse after giving birth, and it is usually a complete prolapse of the uterus, not just the vagina and cervix. These cows are almost always low in calcium too, so will require treatment for milk fever as well as the prolapse.

In both species, it is important to replace the prolapse as soon as possible to avoid a ruptured bladder and damage to the soft vaginal or uterine lining. While some ewe prolapses will reduce easily, cow prolapses are difficult to replace properly and require veterinary intervention immediately.

If in doubt, call your vet as soon as you notice anything unusual as it is important to treat these conditions as soon as possible.


Reproduced with permission thanks to Franklin Vets, Papakura


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North Canterbury Veterinary Clinics operates four clinics throughout the Hurunui region.