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How to Conduct A Sheep Health Examination

A caregiver examines the ear of a white sheep.
Checking Maxine’s ears for buildup is a quick but important part of the exam!

Updated October 9, 2020

Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of sheep with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until they’re showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy sheep look and feel like, but familiarizing a sheep with human handling might help them stay more calm in stressful situations. Be prepared to check them over every six to eight weeks*! For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.

*An Exam Every Six To Eight Weeks Means Daily Observations

Our recommendation to conduct routine health examinations every six to eight weeks must be done in conjunction with daily observations.  Caregivers should be trained to observe animals both for behaviors that are abnormal for the species and also behaviors that are abnormal for each individual, keeping in mind issues that are common in a particular species and their warning signs.  Thoughtful observation plays a crucial role in catching health issues before they progress into more serious situations.

Residents With Challenging Backgrounds

Close daily observation can be difficult with certain individuals or groups who come from challenging backgrounds. They may be more likely to hide signs of illness or injury, or may not allow you to come close enough to them to thoroughly assess their well being on a regular basis. Challenging backgrounds may include individuals who are not socialized, have lived feral, or were abused or malnourished. If you care for individuals who came from a challenging background, it is imperative to make time to foster a bond of trust so careful observation is possible. A monthly health exam is recommended for these individuals until they exhibit signs that they feel safe and you are confident that close daily observation is possible.

New Resident? Conduct An Intake Examination!

If you are conducting an initial health examination on a new resident, check out our intake examination resource to learn about what you should check for and document!

Problem Signals

Due to their typically thick coats, sheep require close examination to reveal potential ailments and injuries that you may not notice through a cursory observation. In addition, sheep tend to hide even significant pain and discomfort as much as they possibly can, as an instinctual protection from predators. By paying regular attention to the flock, you may see some subtle cues in the event that something is amiss. A sick, injured, or otherwise distressed sheep may:

  • Hide more often than they used to
  • Change their daily schedule or general behavior
  • Have labored breathing, coughing, sneezing, nasal discharge, or a constantly open mouth
  • Have foam around their nose or mouth
  • Be immobile, inactive or unresponsive to your approach
  • Be stretched out in order to relieve bloat
  • Be sitting far more often than usual
  • Walk around in circles frequently
  • Avoid or be rejected by the rest of the flock
  • Be stamping their feet
  • Not bleat as much as they usually do or vocalize excessively
  • Grind their teeth frequently
  • Have a limp in their step
  • Have unusual or abnormal droppings including diarrhea, blood in stool, or worms
  • Be less hungry or thirsty, or drink water excessively
  • Have an odd posture like hunching over or avoiding putting weight on one of their legs
  • Have a bulge or non-uniform abdomen
  • Have an abnormally strong odor
  • Have an internal body temperature not in the range of 101-103.8 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Have pale skin, mucous membranes or a swollen jaw
  • Have unusual abscesses on their body or in their mouths (potentially signifying a serious infectious condition called Caseous Lymphadenitis)
  • Be reluctant or averse to urinating or urinating frequently
  • Rapidly shed wool for no apparent reason (This means a sheep needs immediate veterinary attention)
  • Repeatedly kick at their belly
  • Lay down and then immediately get back up over and over as if they cannot get comfortable
  • Stand or lay down with an extended neck
  • Stand with their head pressed against a wall or gate (head pressing)
  • Have weakness in their back legs
  • Have food material packed in their cheek (cud packing) or drop/ spill cud as they chew

Conducting The Exam

Ask An Expert

Prior to regularly conducting sheep health examinations, you should have a veterinarian or compassionate care expert give you hands-on training in order to be the best sheep health advocate possible. Being trained to rapidly distinguish healthy conditions from abnormalities can be crucial in early health problem detection and effective treatment!

In cases of symptoms such as the ones above, it’s especially important to conduct a health examination on the sheep. Generally, where you begin the exam should be determined by the symptom you are seeing.  If someone is limping, you will likely want to start with the foot they are limping on.  If they have signs of internal parasites, you will likely want to start by checking their mucous membranes.  During routine health examinations, it’s good to have a set order that you follow (such as starting at the head and working down to the hooves, or visa versa) in order to ensure you do not miss a step. It’s important to keep regular documentation of these checkups, including weight and any abnormal findings, in order to keep an easy-to-follow set of information in case a veterinarian needs the sheep’s history.

Safety First!

Sheep can become ill with many diseases that are highly transmissible to humans. It’s very important to wear gloves when conducting health examinations! Do not put your hand inside a sheep’s mouth as they have extremely sharp teeth.

It can be easier to conduct the examination after the sheep has eaten or as they’re tucking in for the evening as they tend to be less fussy. Before stepping into their living space, you should take note of a sheep’s behavior. Are they acting differently than they usually do? How are they getting along with fellow flockmates? These clues can say a lot about a sheep’s health.

If necessary, you may have to have a second caregiver on hand to help manage the health examination or help restrain the sheep with a halter. Once you have the sheep calm and ready, conduct the following observations:

When In Doubt...

Unless you are a qualified veterinarian or have been trained to handle specific conditions, The Open Sanctuary Project strongly advocates that you promptly report any health concerns you find during the course of an exam to your veterinarian or care expert. Unless they’re in a life-threatening situation, you should be your resident’s advocate, not their doctor.

Check their weight and body condition

It’s important to keep regular measurements or estimates of a sheep’s weight. If a sheep has lost a lot of weight, this could indicate a sickness, malnutrition, worms, or other parasites. It could also be a symptom of OPP or Johne’s Disease. If a sheep is mature and has gained a large amount weight in a short time, it’s critical to ensure that you aren’t overfeeding them, especially with alfalfa, treats, and snacks. Obesity-related complications can regularly lead to dangerous conditions and death in sheep. Pay close attention to the sheep’s body condition.  The spine, ribs, and hip bones should not be prominent.  Focus on these areas rather than their belly- an emaciated sheep may still have a large belly.

Check their head

How are they holding their head? It’s best if they’re holding it up on their own volition. If they’re shaking, hunching, hiding, or tucking their head, this can be a sign of illness or injury. Ensure that their horns are not causing them harm with excess growth. Check their head for abscesses, which could be a symptom of Caseous Lymphadenitis, which is highly contagious and requires quarantine and intervention.

Check their eyes

The sheep should have bright, clean, alert eyes. They should be free of discharge and clear. Cloudy, watery, dry, swollen, constantly blinking, or crusty eyes indicates likely illness or injury. The above symptoms could be signs of pink eye, which is highly contagious. Their pupils should be about the same size and react properly to bright light (get smaller and then return to normal). Check the sheep’s membranes near their eyes, using the FAMACHA system (after receiving certification from a qualified veterinarian) for reference. Record their FAMACHA score each health examination so you can establish what’s typical for them. If they are excessively pale, it could be a sign of anemia. If you are examining a young sheep and it appears that their eyelid is growing irritatingly against their eyes, this is a sign of Entropion, which requires immediate veterinary treatment.

Check their ears

Their ears can have a modest amount of earwax or debris in them, but should be clear of any ear mites. Excessively sticky, yellow, or odorous earwax needs addressing. You can use a gauze pad to clear out excess earwax or to sample potential ear mites. Ears should not be swollen or hard. Be aware of how a sheep typically keeps their ears. If their ear position changes from its typical position, this could indicate distress or illness.

Check their nose

The sheep’s snout should be free of any discharge, fluid, crustiness, or blood. Their nose should be soft and not cracked. An excessively runny or blocked nose could be a symptom of nasal bots or an upper respiratory infection.

Check their mouth

You shouldn’t be able to hear a sheep breathe in ideal circumstances. Their breathing should not be labored, loud, wheezy, rattly, sneezy, whistling, or squeaky. Generally, a mature sheep should have between 12-20 breaths per minute. It’s always a good idea to compare a sheep’s respiratory rate to other members of the herd as their rate increases when they are hot or active. A breathing-impaired sheep might have Lungworms, a serious and potentially deadly infection in their respiratory system. They should not have a wet or dry cough. Many of these symptoms could be a result of pneumonia which sheep are highly susceptible to. Abnormalities should be immediately reported to your veterinarian. If they’re reluctant to eat, they might have a problem with one or more of their teeth that needs to be managed. Now take a look in their mouth. Sheep have four pairs of lower incisors, but no upper incisors; instead they have a dental pad. Their gums should not be red, and there should not be any sores, abscesses, or scabs in their mouth, which can be a sign of Sore Mouth. A sheep’s jaw should not be swollen or enlarged, which could be a symptom of Bottle Jaw. A sheep’s tongue should not be swollen or bloody, which could be a symptom of Bluetongue. If a sheep has particularly bad breath, it could be symptomatic of an infection and require deeper examination

Check their digestive system

If a sheep is acting abnormally, it’s critical to check the sheep for symptoms of bloat or grain poisoning. Ensure that their abdomen is equally rounded and uniform across their body. If a sheep is burping frequently, has a bulge on their left flank, is grinding their teeth, urinating frequently, stamping their feet, kicking at their belly, has difficulty breathing, are stretching themselves out, or has foam near their nose and mouth, this is a sign of bloat. To confirm, tap their rumen (found on their left side)- if it produces a kettle drum-like sound, this confirms bloat. If you are at all concerned that a sheep might have bloat, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible. It is helpful to have bloat remedies on hand and to have a care expert or veterinarian show you how to administer properly so that in the event of a bloated sheep you are able to start treatment under the guidance of your veterinarian while you wait for them to arrive. In cases like these, it’s crucial to keep the sheep moving while waiting for veterinary intervention.

Check their skin

Check around the sheep’s entire body through their wool to ensure healthy skin. This is the time to ensure you are checking and feeling every area of the sheep’s body, not just the those included in this list.  This thorough section of the exam is critical to ensure that nothing that can be addressed early is missed. Their skin should not have lice, mange, itchiness, mites, nits, lumps, cuts, cysts, bruises, gangrene, larvae, maggots, dry patches, blisters, or pressure sores (especially on the keel). Abscesses on their body could be a symptom of Caseous Lymphadenitis. Their wool should be relatively uniform and not clumpy, and their skin should be bright and not tough. Ensure they do not have any patchy wool loss, which could be a sign of parasites or a mineral deficiency or stress. Check their tail for hair loss and parasites as well. Evaluate how much wool is on the sheep- it’s best to shear them in the springtime if possible in order to prevent them from overheating or attracting infection.

Check their joints

It’s important to check the sheep’s joints in their legs and shoulders for swelling or tenderness. They should not be warmer than the rest of their body. Ensure that the sheep doesn’t have pain when they move their joints. There should be no cracking or crunching sounds when they move, and they shouldn’t be avoiding putting weight on any of their joints in particular. Check their legs for pressure sores. Joint inflammation could be a sign of arthritis, which is prevalent in sheep as they get older. If they seem much too young to display arthritis symptoms, it could be a sign of OPP.

Check their hooves and feet

Ensure that the sheep’s hooves are a reasonable length and free of cracks, heat, swelling, debris, or abscesses. Any of these symptoms can cause lameness, discomfort, and could possibly contribute to infections and further damage. They should be able to put their full weight on their feet and they shouldn’t limp. If they are limping, check their hoof bottoms for uncomfortable debris. Check behind their dewclaws for scabbing, which can indicate chorioptic mange and requires prompt treatment. If their hooves are overgrown, schedule a trimming as soon as you can. Generally, sheep should have their hooves trimmed about once every six to eight weeks, though sheep with chronic hoof issues may need to be trimmed more often. If the sheep has any of the above issues with their feet, or if you smell a foul, sulfurous odor coming from their hooves, it could be a sign of foot rot, requiring immediate treatment.

Check their rear end

The sheep’s rear end under their tail should be relatively clean. It shouldn’t have any discharge, excessive accumulations of fecal matter around it, nor should it be crusty or bloody. Ensure that it doesn’t have any mites, lice, tapeworms, or other parasites. Make sure that it isn’t irritated or prolapsed (protruding). If it’s prolapsed, you should consult with a veterinarian immediately. Females are prone to urine scald.  Be sure to check the underside of their tail as well as the area under their tail for urine soaked wool.  If left untreated, this will lead to scalding of their skin. Check their udders to ensure that they are not swollen, hot, painful, or tough, which can be a symptom of Mastitis and requires treatment. If a female sheep has access to plants that contain high levels of phytoestrogen, such as red clover, she may start to produce milk.  This is typically a benign issue, but can be confused with mastitis.  Your veterinarian can help determine if there is cause for concern, in which case you can submit a milk sample for testing.  When checking female sheep, be sure to check their vulva for any scabbing or discharge.  If a male sheep is struggling to urinate, it can be a sign of urinary calculi and require treatment. Check all males for pizzle end rot, which is a type of scald that can damage their penis.

Check their poop

It’s important to monitor a sheep’s poop and to recognize what healthy sheep droppings look like. Healthy sheep poop is formed in small, round pellets and is not runny. If it’s poorly formed, watery, strong smelling, or bloody, it could be a sign of diarrhea, parasites, illness, or improper nutrition. If you’re particularly concerned by a dropping, you can bring it into your veterinarian for analysis, though you should consider fecal testing healthy-seeming sheep at a regular interval to check for internal parasites. Conversely, ensure that the sheep has regular bowel movements, as they are prone to constipation. Their urine should not be very dark and concentrated. Bloody urine in sheep might signify Copper Toxicity.

Isolate if necessary

If you notice that a sheep is unhealthy, it’s crucial to consult with a veterinarian and/ or compassionate care expert and prioritize accurately diagnosing the problem. Depending on the health concern, it may be necessary to isolate the sheep in order to protect the rest of the flock from a potentially infectious disease. However, with some illness, such as pneumonia, often once a sheep is showing symptoms, the other residents in the flock have already been exposed. In these instances, you will need to weigh what is in the best interest of all of your residents. A sick sheep who is isolated from their flock may become more stressed, which could delay recovery.  If the sheep is being bullied, or needs a quieter place to recover, it may be less stressful for them if you separate them with a calm companion.

Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a sheep and what good sheep health looks like, you’ll be an excellent sheep health ally in no time!

Writing It All Down

As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your sheep health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable sheep health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!

SOURCES:

Sheep Care | Farm Sanctuary

Physical Examination Of Sheep | Homestead (Non-Compassionate Source)

What Makes A Normal Sheep? | Kippax Farms (Non-Compassionate Source)

Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on September 3, 2021

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