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Additional Care Recommendations For Older Sheep

An older sheep outside in autumn.
Older residents like Phyllis may require special care and attention to keep them happy and healthy. Photo: Isa Leshko, from Allowed To Grow Old

Updated June 15, 2020

Sheep have the opportunity to live long lives. The average sheep lives 10-12 years, but some sheep have lived past the age of 20 with appropriate care! Like all animals, sheep may need a little extra care to help them thrive in their old age, especially larger breed sheep and those with chronic health challenges like CAE or OPP.

As a sheep ages, they may face more health challenges, so it’s especially important to be vigilant in monitoring their health through regular health checkups, fecal exams, and weigh-ins to effectively treat issues early on. Even common ailments can be harder to control in older sheep and require early and effective treatment to maintain their quality of life.

Special Food Recommendations For Older Sheep

Older sheep can typically lose, break, or wear down some or many of their teeth through the course of their lives, especially if their food comes primarily from grazing on natural terrain. Damage to or loss of a molar can then cause issues in other molars- for example, without a matching upper molar to keep it ground down, a lower molar can become painfully sharp and may need to be routinely filed down by a veterinarian.  As a result, they may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from standard food. Tall or tough pasture grass and hay might be especially difficult for an older sheep with dental issues to eat. If you see someone dropping wads of cud, this is a telltale sign of dental issues.  They try their best to chew the grass or hay, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break it down enough to digest.  It’s especially important to monitor an older sheep’s weight as they age to ensure that they are getting enough to eat (and are able to eat the food available to them). If necessary, you can make your own special food by soaking grass hay pellets and beet pulp or offering chopped hay (for females, you can offer alfalfa if they truly need the extra calcium and protein, but this can lead to urinary calculi in males). By giving them foods that do not require the extensive chewing that hay and grass require, you can ensure residents with dental issues are still getting all of the nutrients they need. You can also have a veterinarian evaluate and file or remove any teeth that have gotten uncomfortably sharp or painful.

Older sheep with arthritis may find eating out of a hay feeder more challenging, either due to the position they need to hold their neck while eating or because it is uncomfortable to stand for long periods of time.  It can be helpful to find ways to feed elderly sheep lower to the ground- either in bowls, or strategically placed piles of hay on the ground.  Keep in mind that hay fed on the ground will likely become soiled and will need to be replaced.  In areas with parasite issues, feeding hay on the ground may not be advisable.

If it seems like older sheep aren’t thriving, it could be a vitamin or mineral imbalance due to less effective chewing and digestion or an underlying health condition. Make sure they continue to have easy access to minerals given where they graze and spend time indoors! If necessary, you can administer a sheep-safe vitamin booster, under the guidance of your veterinarian, to help clear up any nagging deficiencies. Elderly sheep can also benefit from vitamins A, B12, D, and E, Selenium, Calcium, Flax, Kelp, Sugar Beet, Molasses, Black Oil Sunflower Seeds, and multivitamin formulas depending on an elderly sheep’s needs. You should also regularly make sure that they aren’t developing anemia, which can lead to dangerous health challenges. Consult with your veterinarian before making big changes to their supplementation.

In general, you should be very mindful of an older sheep’s weight. It is common for sheep to become overweight as they continue to eat at the same pace while lowering their general activity levels due to arthritis or stiffness. Overweightness in sheep can lead to a host of health issues. Underweight sheep may be losing out on food from competing sheep or be eating and ingesting less due to teeth troubles and may need their own special source of food to stay healthy. You can supplement a thin sheep’s food with a source that is higher in protein to help them put on more weight, just make sure to keep monitoring their weight to evaluate its effectiveness, and be sure to identify the cause of the weight loss to determine if other interventions are necessary!

Indoor Living Space Recommendations For Older sheep

It’s especially important to monitor an older sheep’s living spaces for traction and places where they could trip, as a fall could be devastating to an older resident. Be sure to keep dirt floors level and fill in holes as they develop.  An arthritic sheep could have difficulty getting up if they lay down in a hole or on a sloped surface.  Older sheep may need to have special bedding in order to make it easier for them to sleep and relax in their sleeping areas, especially to prevent pressure sores in sheep who lay down more often than they used to or are bonier than they used to be. You should use shorter fibered straw or wood shavings for older sheep who drag their legs and get stuck in longer straw. If this isn’t feasible in the sheep’s living space, you can also give them a regularly cleaned, (naturally-sourced only) sand-covered pen to sleep on rather than straw. Make sure that their food and water sources are close by!  In the wintertime, you may want to provide an older sheep with extra bedding or a barn-safe heat source like a ceramic heater to keep them warm.

Sheep Coats

Coats can be a good way to help some older sheep stay comfortable in the winter. If you use a coat, you must make sure that they do not impede or accumulate urine- this is a common issue with male sheep wearing coats with belly straps.  If the strap slips over the pizzle, it can cause serious issues such as Pizzle End Rot.  It’s good practice to check coats daily to ensure they are fitting properly and have not become wet.  Removing and checking under the coat weekly will help ensure you aren’t missing any issues that are hiding under the coat such as weight loss, external parasites (lice love hiding under the warmth of a coat), or other issues.

Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Sheep

If an older sheep is having a harder time thriving on your pasture due to decreased mobility, it might be time to give them (and their closest companion!) their own, smaller-sized and flat pasture to graze on. A smaller pasture with close access to food, minerals, and water can give them the opportunity to get around easier and not have to compete with other sheep for resources like food and water. If you do provide an older sheep with their own pasture, make sure they still have access to some type of shelter or shade in case it’s necessary for your location’s climate! Older sheep are more sensitive to extreme heat and cold and require extra care to ensure they don’t develop temperature-related health issues such as heat exhaustion or frostbite.

Social Recommendations For Older Sheep

As sheep are herd animals, they typically form bonds with fellow sheep if raised alongside other members of their species. As a result, a sheep living away from other sheep can be prone to depression. If you decide that it’s best to give the older sheep their own special indoor or outdoor space, make sure to house them with one of their herd mates, especially one who they are close to. This can help them feel more at home and at peace with their new surroundings.

Managing Arthritis In Older Sheep

All Arthritis Solutions MUST Be Discussed With Your Veterinarian!

Below, we offer some anecdotal solutions suggested by sanctuaries for assistance in managing arthritis in sheep. However, ANY time you wish to explore arthritis management options in sheep, you MUST have a conversation with your veterinarian! Arthritis can be a complex issue, and individual sheep health may complicate any one treatment, or certain treatments could cause significant health complications!

Arthritis is one of the most common health concerns in older animals, and sheep are no exception. A sheep might develop arthritis in any of their feet, legs, or joints and can also develop arthritis in their spine. They might also start developing symptoms of previously asymptomatic CAE or OPP. Untreated, this could eventually manifest as debilitating chronic pain and a general refusal to move around very much, especially in the cold. You might have to treat the older sheep with sheep-approved nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Phenylbutazone or Meloxicam (never combine NSAID treatments), or other analgesics. NSAID use can cause abomasal ulcers, and while ulcers in sheep seem to be much less common than in pigs, it is still important to watch for any indication of an abomasal ulcer such as black tarry stool, a sheep who appears interested in food but then does not eat, and teeth grinding or other signs of discomfort.  You should contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect an abomasal ulcer. For a more long-term solution for arthritis, you can administer glucosamine or a Chondroprotective agent such as Adequan to help repair joint cartilage and soothe inflammation. Sanctuaries have also seen some success treating arthritis pains with more natural remedies in conjunction with medication such as Botswella (also known as Indian Frankincense) to successfully lower inflammation. Other sanctuaries have found success with tumeric, and Dr. Christopher’s herbal remedy “Bone & Tissue” (in goats, but this may provide a solution for certain sheep if cleared by a veterinarian), internally or externally. Make extra sure that their environment is as arthritis-friendly as can be, minimizing steep grades or long walks to food or water if you can! Make sure to talk to your veterinarian to assess the individual and create a treatment plan for arthritis.

SOURCES:

Sheep Care | Farm Sanctuary

Global Coalition Of Farm Sanctuaries

The Benefits And Side Effects Of Adequan For Pet Arthritis

Indian Frankincense | Arthritis Foundation

Updated on April 23, 2021

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