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A practical guide to tube feeding

October 05, 202314 min read

As frightening as it might seem if you haven’t done it before, sometimes you may have to tube feed a weak newborn animal, a process that can mean the difference between life and death.

In this article, we will look at the best way to tube feed lambs, kids and calves to revive and survive, with a step by step guide for a successful outcome.

The importance of colostrum

Colostrum is the first milk produced by the mother, and it's packed with essential nutrients and antibodies. Without colostrum, the newborn is vulnerable to infections and diseases, as they are immunocompromised at birth. The mother only produces colostrum for about 24 hours after giving birth before switching to regular milk. 

The ability of the newborn to absorb these vital antibodies peaks within the first few hours of life and declines significantly after the first 24 hours. Waiting too long can mean missing this window of opportunity, and the newborn might not receive the essential protection it needs. If a newborn hasn’t suckled after 4 hours you need to consider tube feeding.

Structure of the throat

Understanding the structure at the back of the animal's throat helps with safe tube feeding. When you're inserting the tube, you're navigating two key areas: the trachea (windpipe) and the esophagus (food pipe).

The Trachea: This is where air travels to and from the lungs. Think of it as a firm tube, ridged like a vacuum cleaner hose, sitting at the front, right behind the tongue.

The Esophagus: This is where food and liquid go. It's located behind the trachea and is softer and more flexible.

When an animal swallows, a small flap called the epiglottis covers the entrance to the trachea, ensuring food and liquid go down the esophagus and not into the lungs. It's nature's way of preventing choking or inhaling food.

If you feel resistance when inserting the tube, it might be in the trachea instead of the esophagus. 

illustration of anatomy of lamb showing tube feeding

Why would you need to tube feed?

You may find yourself in a situation where tube feeding is essential for the survival of your newborn. The reasons can include:

  • If your newborn is too weak or ill to suckle from their mother.

  • If the mother rejects the newborn, or if she has died

  • If the mother is not producing milk

There are checks you can do. Put your finger in the newborn’s mouth. It should instinctively suck on your finger. Does it have a suck reflex? How strong is the suck reflex?

If a newborn can suckle on a bottle then use a bottle, if it can swallow safely you can syringe colostrum into its mouth and let it swallow it down. However, if you syringe colostrum into the mouth of a newborn who is too weak to swallow then the liquid is likely to end up in the lungs. 

A non-existent or very weak suck reflex will mean you have to tube feed. At this point the newborn is going to die without intervention. You literally cannot make things worse!

Note: Tube feeding is a safe method of feeding for any newborn, even if they can suckle. It won't harm them if done correctly. Whether the newborn is weak or simply in need of extra nourishment, tube feeding is an efficient way to deliver essential nutrients safely. In fact, if you want to practice this you can give an older lamb 20mls of water or milk by tube. The only problem is that the healthier they are, the harder they are to restrain and the more likely to bite through the tube!

The equipment

photo of a tube feeder with a red flexible tube and a white plastic container

A tube feeder consists of a tube that is inserted into the mouth and down the esophagus into the stomach with a container to hold liquid that is already attached or can be attached.

For lambs and kids, one end of the tube is rounded and has holes for the milk to pass into the stomach. The other end attaches to whatever holds the colostrum. Some will come with syringes, others will have open ended bottles and some will have vials to attach to the tube.

Calf feeders are obviously larger and the feeding tube for calves is not as soft as a lamb tube and more resembles a plastic drench gun tube. Some calf feeders have rigid tubes. Most have a bottle or bag for the milk.

If you shop around you can find feeders that have ‘safety features’ that minimise the chance of something going wrong. These may include stoppers that let you know you’re in the right place or tips that help keep the tube out of the airways.

How much to feed

This depends on the weight of the animal but roughly you can feed a lamb or kid around 40mls and a calf around  2-3 litres. Anything is better than nothing, the only danger is feeding more than the stomach can hold. Little and often is best especially with smaller than usual newborns.

The aim

Vets call colostrum ‘rocket fuel’ and that’s what it is. Once a newborn has absorbed some colostrum it will gain strength. It may take a few tube feeds but unless there is something else going on the youngster should soon be able to suckle from mum or from a bottle. Congratulations, you’ve saved a life!

If you see no progress after a few feeds then you should consult a vet.

Preparation

Know how far down the stomach is: on a lamb or kid hold the tip of the tube at the lips and reach the tube alongside the body to the last rib, which is where the stomach is. This is how far you’ll need to insert the tube. You can mark the tube here.

For a calf, take the tube and run it from the outside of the tip of the nose, up over its ear and down to the point of its elbow. Again you can use a marker and mark the tube. When you are placing the tube into its stomach, you will know to stop when you see the mark on the tube reach its lips.

Make sure your feeder tube and container are clean.

Prepare your colostrum. The best colostrum is from the newborn’s mother, if you can milk her then do so. Second best is colostrum from another ewe or doe in the flock who has just given birth (remember, colostrum is only produced for the first 24 hours after birth.) Third option is frozen or powdered colostrum.

Have your colostrum at body temperature in a non-spill container. Sod’s law says you will spill the lot if you don’t.

Warm up the feeding tube to make it more comfortable and more flexible. You can run it between your palms or soak it in warm water or the colostrum.

Know how much you intend to feed.

If you can find a helper, an extra pair of hands is always useful.

How to know you’re in the right place

  • If the newborn swallows as you insert

  • If you’ve got the full measure or tube in (it won’t all fit into the trachea)

  • Feeling or seeing the tube on the left of the neck

  • If the animal is bleating or screaming (kids may do this) then it’s right. They can’t vocalise if you're in the trachea

  • No coughing or gagging

If you’re still unsure you can check by attaching an empty syringe to the end of the tube once it’s in place and gently drawing back the plunger. If it is difficult to draw back, you are in the right place. If it is easy to draw back it is likely to be in the trachea and is sucking air. If this happens, pull the tube out and start again.

Important: Never add colostrum to the feeder until you are sure the tube is in the right place. If the tube is pouring liquid while you insert it you are very likely to get it into the lungs. The empty tube goes in first, then the colostrum is added.

Lambs and kids

Before lambing or kidding starts buy a tube feeder or two to have on hand so if you need it there isn’t an unexpected trip to your nearest stockist!  

If your newborn is cold, warm it up before tube feeding. Although colostrum will help warm the animal from within, it can’t absorb the colostrum if it’s too cold. So wrap it up, hold it against you under your clothes or give it a warm bath and dry it thoroughly.

Once your lamb or kid has been brought into a warm environment and you have everything ready to go, find a comfortable spot to feed it. You can tube feed with the newborn standing, if it is strong enough but it’s often easier to kneel or sit with your legs straight out in front of you and hold the lamb/kid on your lap with it facing away from you, or between your outstretched legs supporting its body. 

Raise the head up, supporting it under the chin. Take the rounded end of the tube and gently insert it into the mouth, then slowly push it over the tongue. As it goes down towards the stomach, the lamb/kid may start to chew or swallow, this is a good sign as it means it is in the right place. Take your time, you’re more likely to go wrong if you rush.

If it starts to struggle or move uncomfortably, it is possible that the tube has gone into the trachea. If this happens, gently withdraw the tube and start again. If there is any resistance as the tube goes down, this is also an indication it is in the wrong place. 

With lambs, it is usually possible to see and feel the tube going down under the skin on the left side of its throat. 

Once the tube is correctly positioned, the lamb or kid can now receive its first feed. If you’re still nervous, just try a few mls of colostrum to start. If you’re in the right position, nothing will happen, if the newborn coughs you’re in the wrong place!

The best way of getting the feed in is using gravity, just pour the feed into the open ended bottle or syringe barrel and let it go down to the stomach on its own. 

The first feed should be around 30-40 mls. While this may not seem like much, you have to remember the baby is compromised and its stomach will only be able to tolerate a small amount. This can be repeated hourly until the lamb/kid shows signs of reviving. As the baby gets stronger you can increase the amount but the aim is to get the newborn onto its mum or a bottle as soon as it is strong enough to suckle.

When removing the tube, pinch it between your fingers before withdrawing it from the stomach, to stop any fluid left in the tube coming out.

With plenty of warmth and the tube feeding, hopefully the lamb or kid will improve and as soon as it is strong enough and it will suck on your finger, the tube can be stopped and bottle feeding can begin. If you are able to get its mother into a pen, the lamb can be reintroduced to her to see if it will start feeding naturally. An alternative is fostering onto another ewe if you have one that has lost lambs.

While it may seem a daunting task the first time, so long as you are patient and don’t rush,after that first tube feed, your confidence will grow and it will become second nature. 

There is nothing like the buzz of bringing life back to a lamb or kid that appears to be a hopeless case, so don’t be afraid of tube feeding!    

Calves

Tube feeding a calf is different from tube feeding a lamb or kid. Apart from the obvious size difference - it’s not that easy to have a calf on your lap - the way the tube is inserted is different too.

If you have found a calf that has obviously not fed or is weak or cold, transport the calf to a barn or shed. If it has a mum (as opposed to the cow having died) she will usually follow you and her baby there. Remember new mums can be very protective and dangerous so be alert. 

For your own safety, it is important to separate the cow from you and the calf once you reach the shed or barn. If possible, allow her to be near enough to be able to see her calf. This will stop her fretting. The last thing you want is the cow getting in your way while you are  tube feeding her baby!

If the calf is able to stand, back it into a corner so its bum is against the wall or rail.

Before starting the tube feed you will want to mark the tube so you will know when to stop pushing it down to the stomach. 

With a calf, it is important that the head is held in a natural position, so unlike the lamb, where the head is tilted back, a calf’s head should be facing forward with no tilt.  

Supporting the calf’s muzzle with one hand, take the tube and gently push it into the calf’s mouth. Similar to lambs and kids, you will gently guide the tube over the tongue, taking care to aim it towards the esophagus. Since a calf's mouth is larger and their trachea and esophagus are located deeper, this process may require a bit more patience and gentle maneuvering.

As you guide the tube, watch for signs of discomfort or resistance, don't force the tube. Instead, withdraw and try again. A smooth insertion without coughing or gagging is an indication that you are in the right place.

Once you have successfully inserted the tube to the marked point, you can start feeding the calf. Using the gravity method, allow the colostrum to flow into the calf's stomach. Being cautious with the quantity, especially during the initial feed, is essential. A typical calf may require around 2-3 liters, but it's better to begin with a smaller amount and observe the calf's response.

Feeding should be slow and controlled, allowing the calf to adjust and absorb the nutrients effectively. If the calf appears comfortable and there are no signs of distress, you can gradually increase the quantity over subsequent feedings.

For a cold calf, make sure to warm it up before tube feeding. If necessary, you can use heat lamps, warm blankets, or other warming methods. Keep an eye on the calf's temperature and provide additional warmth as needed.

Let the feed go in slowly so it doesn’t regurgitate.

If your calf can’t stand, make sure it is sitting on its brisket. It may need to be supported by hay bales or anything else that will keep it in a natural position with the head in the same position as if it was standing.

It is very important not to tube feed a calf lying down on its side or with its head tilted as the milk can go straight into its lungs.

Once the calf is strong enough, it can be reintroduced to its mum, or if the mother has died, then feeding with a calf feeder with a teat can begin.

Calves shouldn’t be tube fed if they are older than two days as this can cause acidosis in the stomach. 

Finally

While tube feeding can be an intimidating task, especially if it's your first time, it's a skill that can be mastered with patience, attention, and practice. You can save the life of a newborn animal, making the effort well worth it.

Preparing adequately, and being patient with both yourself and the newborn are key to a successful tube feeding experience. If you have doubts, consult with a vet or an experienced farmer. And remember, there are many online resources, including videos, to help guide you through the process. If you search on YouTube then I recommend searching for a video made by a veterinarian so you know the information is accurate. 

By taking the time to learn how to tube feed, you are ensuring that every newborn on your block has a chance to survive. 


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Amanda Bowes

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