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Delia Lacasta, Veterinary Faculty of Zaragoza, Spain

Posted Flock & Herd April 2013


In part because of geography and in part because production systems are more intensive, respiratory diseases, while of some importance in Australia, are the most important cause of disease and mortality in Spanish sheep. Some pathogens, while present in, Australia have different manifestations in Spain and some are exotic to Australia. This paper aims to discuss some of the more important respiratory tract diseases of Spanish sheep.

Sheep production in Aragon

In the Aragon region in the north east of Spain, sheep are reared in a semi-extensive productive system. Sheep are grazed outdoors until the last month of pregnancy, when they are moved indoors to feed them properly. During lambing, sheep are fed with grain and hay or straw. The lambs are weaned at 45 days of age and ewes are sent outdoors for another mating season. Lambs are kept indoors until they reach slaughter weight averaging 22 kg at 2-3 months of age. During this time, they are fed pellets and straw.

This production system results in a different disease spectrum to that seen in Australian sheep. It is easy to imagine that fox predation is not a problem in Spain but respiratory diseases are important. The average mortality in lambs is around 10-12% and the main causes of mortality are summarized in figure 1.

Graphic of mortality causes in sheep
Figure 1. Causes of mortality in Spanish lambs. (Graph: JM Gonzalez)

Respiratory diseases are also the primary cause of death in adult sheep in Spain.

Upper respiratory tract diseases

OESTROSIS. This is the most common disease in Spain affecting the upper respiratory tract. It is a myiasis caused by Oestrus ovis larva inside the nasal cavity. The infestation can be massive and usually most of the flock are affected. Macrocyclic lactones are used in the winter to control the disease.

Image of sheep nose with dried secretions
Figure 2. Muco-purulent nasal discharge in a sheep with oestrosis. (Photograph LM Ferrer).
Image of sheep turbinates with larvae post-mortem
Figure 3. Oestrus ovis larvae in the nasal cavity of a sheep (Photograph LM Ferrer).

CHRONIC PROLIFERATIVE RHINITIS. This is chronic lethal disease affecting a low number of animals per flock. It develops over several months, with proliferative tissue emerging through the nostril accompanied by severe respiratory distress and striking mouth breathing. It is usually unilateral and initially produces a characteristic snore. In our experience this disease has been always related to Salmonella enterica subsp. diarizonae serotype 61:k:1:5:(7) isolated in a pure culture.

Image of sheep nose with exudate and larvae
Figure 4. Chronic proliferative rhinitis (Photograph LM Ferrer).

Pathology findings show that this is an inflammatory process and ventral turbinate is always affected. The dorsal turbinates and ethmoidal area are not affected.

Image of sheep turbinate abnormalities post-mortem
Figure 5. The ventral turbinate is roughened and proliferative polypoid structures arise from the dorsal area. (Photograph D Lacasta)

Inmunohistochemistry with antigens against Salmonella shows dot and rot formation inside epithelial cells and some macrophages.

Photomicrograph of sheep turbinates
Figure 6. Labelling of structures inside the epithelial cells by anti-body specific for Salmonella antigen. (Photograph: M. De las Heras)

NASAL ADENOCARCINOMA. It is a contagious tumour of the mucosal nasal glands affecting sheep and goats. Clinical signs include continuous nasal discharge, respiratory distress, exophthalmos and cranial deformation. This disease has regional importance but there are a low number of clinical cases in each flock. It is produced by a retrovirus (ONAV).

Image of sheep with distorted face
Figure 7. Unilateral nasal discharge and exopthalmos. (Photograph D Lacasta)

The tumour is always located in ethmoidal area. The respiratory and olfactory mucosal glands seem to be the origin of the neoplasia.

Image of sheep turbinates with neoplasm post-mortem
Figure 8. Nasal adenocarcinoma affecting ethmoidal area in an adult ewe. (Photograph M. De las Heras).

Lower respiratory tract diseases

MAEDI VISNA. It is a very important and costly disease in Spain and world wide (apart from Australia and New Zealand). It is produced by a lentivirus (VMV) and in Aragon there is a flock prevalence of almost 100% and individual prevalence around 60-70%. One of the most important ways of infection is colostrum, although horizontal transmission is also possible. Lambs are usually infected in the first day of life, however, they do not develop the disease at least until they are 3 or 4 years old. It has different clinical presentations depending on the target organ: mammary gland, lung, joints or CNS. In our area the most common presentations are pulmonary and mammary. In these organs, the virus replicates in mature macrophages and develops as a slowly progressive inflammatory lesion containing lymphocytes. Serological test are available for the detection of the infection. When mammary gland is affected the milk production decreases dramatically with each lactation until milk production ceases. The udder while superficially normal, is completely hard to the touch (Figure 9).

Image of sheep udder with swelling
Figure 9. Indurative mastitis produced by VMV. (Photograph LM Ferrer).

The pulmonary presentation of maedi-visna is of chronic respiratory signs accompanied by loss of body weight and condition before death.

Image of sheep with respiratory distress
Figure 10. Cachectic animal with severe respiratory distress due to pulmonary Maedi. (Photograph LM Ferrer).

Maedi causes interstitial pneumonia. The appearance of the lung is characteristically heavy (up to 2 kg), uniform pink with small spherical grey accumulations of lymphocytes.

Image of sheep lungs post-mortem
Figure 11. Interstitial pneumonia caused by VMV infection. (Photograph M. De las Heras).

OVINE PULMONARY ADENOCARCINOMA. It is again a transmissible lung tumour of sheep caused by a retrovirus (JSRV). This virus induces neoplastic transformation of secretory epithelial cells. Tumour growth is accompanied by the overproduction of fluid in the lung, so the main clinical signs are an abundance of serous nasal secretions and crackles in lung auscultation. As there is no detectable immunological response to the virus, serological tests are not available. The disease can be diagnosed by PCR of the lung fluid.

Image of sheep slung over gate
Figure 12. "Trolley test" is the diagnostic test use for the detection and collection of abundant
fluid coming from the lung. (Photograph LM Ferrer).

Tumours can appear in different locations in the lung and are always accompanied by abundant secretions.

Image of sectioned sheep trachea with secretions post-mortem
Figure 13. Pulmonary adenocarcinoma and abundant secretions in trachea (Photograph LM Ferrer).


The intensive or semi-intensive systems of Spanish sheep production contribute to the importance of infectious respiratory diseases. Spain, adjacent to Africa and as part of Eurasia is not geographically isolated like Australia and New Zealand and therefore diseases exotic to Australasia, such as maedi-visna and ovine pulmonary adenocarcinoma, are important diseases in Spanish sheep.

( More pictures of respiratory lesions can be found in www.fotovet.com )


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