How can I tell if my sheep are sick?
Answer: Sheep are a bit different than cattle or hogs in that they have a high tolerance to pain. They bond to their shepherd and the herd, and they do not like to be left behind. You can use these aspects of their behavior to tell when they are sick.
If you are the shepherd, talk to your sheep as you walk among them. Lead them to fresh pasture. They will bond to you, as it is in their nature. When you first come into an area where they are grazing or feeding, every eye and ear should immediately turn to you. If there is a sheep that is not attentive to you, she is most likely sick. This is the most important sign of a sheep not feeling well.
As she gets even sicker, you will notice these behaviors:
1. She is not keeping up with the flock.2. She is not eating.3. She has droopy ears.
If you see these, you have missed the first sign. If you don’t act fast, your sheep may die. Ranchers often remark that sheep are either “alive or dead.” That is not true; you just have to focus on the signals that they are sending.
Pneumonia is by far the most common cause of disease in lambs and ewes. Extreme swings in day and night temperatures can predispose any animal to pneumonia, including sheep. Look out for lambs that have pneumonia because they have lost their mother and are starving. When you are evaluating a possibly sick sheep on pasture, first FAMACHA score its eyes. If it scores a four or a five, you have a problem with the Barber Pole Worm. Then listen to its lungs with a stethoscope. Healthy lungs sound like sipping through a straw. Bad lungs sound raspy. Take the animal’s rectal temperature. A sheep’s temperature should normally be 102.5 degrees F. Sheep with pneumonia generally run temps of 104-106 degrees F.
Your veterinarian can help if you unfamiliar with these steps. Call and ask questions. A good vet will teach you how to take care of your sheep by taking care of the simple things that contribute to the majority of the disease issues. A veterinary call can be more than money spent on the care of an animal; consider it an opportunity for continuing education. For tips on working with your veterinarian, see the ATTRA publication Tips for: Working with a Veterinarian.
Coccidiosis is another illness to be on the watch for. For a great discussion on coccidiosis, consult the ATTRA publication Coccidiosis: Symptoms, Prevention, and Treatment in Sheep, Goats, and Calves.
ATTRA has many publications on internal parasites in sheep, which you can easily find on the ATTRA website with the search term “sheep parasites.”