Updated November 5, 2020
If you are planning on providing lifelong care for sheep, either in a sanctuary or microsanctuary environment, the hands-on training you’ll need and the standard care practices you must develop for your residents are much more rigorous than what non-sanctuary sheep resources may have led you to believe! Taking in sheep without having the appropriate skills and policies in place could threaten their health and well-being, as well as the health of other residents at your sanctuary.
This introductory resource is not intended to dissuade you from rescue, but merely provide a perspective on what a sanctuary must be able to commit to in order to provide the best life for a sheep.
Sheep Care That Should Be Taught By An Expert
Responsible sheep care means being able to fully understand and perform safe handling and healthcare techniques, as well as being able to react rapidly and effectively in the event of an emergency. Anyone who is in charge of regularly providing care to sheep should be taught the following techniques from a compassionate sheep care expert or a qualified veterinarian.
- Performing a sheep health examination: All of the sheep in your care need to be regularly examined from their head to their hooves in order to catch any health problems early on for successful treatment. An expert or veterinarian can give you hands-on training so you can give examinations quickly, efficiently, and with the least stress possible for the sheep.
- Safely being around and handling a sheep: There are a number of nuances that an expert must demonstrate for you in order to prevent potentially serious health and safety consequences from mishandling a sheep or misjudging their behavior. Certain individual sheep may require unique handling techniques, due to their size, personality, history of trauma, or health status.
- Understanding the safe range of joint motions in sheep: When performing health examinations on sheep, it’s important to check their leg and joint flexibility and check for signs of pain, infection, inflammation, or arthritis. You must have an expert demonstrate for you how to check the range of motion in their bodies without causing injury and teach you what a healthy sheep looks and feels like. This way, you can be the best advocate possible for them if something feels or looks amiss.
- Evaluating a sheep’s rumen: Rumen problems such as bloat or grain poisoning are unfortunately common in sheep and can quickly cause death if left unmanaged. For this reason, you must learn how to evaluate a sheep’s rumen, and quickly discern between healthy and abnormal rumen operation in order to intervene quickly if something’s wrong.
- Evaluating a sheep’s foot and hoof health: Sheep can develop a number of foot and hoof problems throughout their lives, either as a result of overgrown hooves, environmental problems, infection, or old age. Failing to identify sheep foot issues early could lead to permanent injury and a greatly reduced quality of life for the individual sheep.
- Evaluating a sheep’s droppings: Abnormal sheep droppings can be a warning sign that something is amiss in them, be it a problem with their nutrition, an illness, or a parasitic infection. It’s important to learn what healthy sheep poop typically looks like for the individual sheep in your care throughout the day so that abnormalities can be caught and evaluated early on. Early intervention for many sheep health issues can be lifesaving.
- Trimming a sheep’s hooves: Safe trimming is a health essential for sheep that someone at your sanctuary must be able to regularly perform. Improper technique could hurt or permanently injure a sheep.
- Foot illness management in sheep: Interdigital dermatitis, foot rot, and other foot illnesses are highly common in sheep. If left untreated, the illness could spread up a sheep’s leg and cause permanent damage. Treatment is dependent on the kind of infection and how much it has progressed into the sheep’s foot. Failure to learn appropriate foot and hoof treatment techniques could potentially lead to greater health problems than the infection itself.
- Treating mites, flies, parasites, and lice in sheep: Although it may seem straightforward to treat individuals for these problems, you should have someone demonstrate dosage and technique until you are fully comfortable with treatment (and know when not to treat for parasites to prevent resistant strains from propagating). Some sheep may become seriously ill or die if they are exposed to too much pesticide or anti-parasitic medication. Flies around sheep must also be managed with effective strategies, as they can spread serious diseases like pink eye.
- Having a plan for CL: CL is a highly infectious disease that can be transmitted to humans. You must be trained to handle this very common ailment appropriately and safely. Do you have space to establish a permanently separate CL-positive herd to protect the CL-negative residents at your sanctuary if necessary?
- Handling a bloated sheep: You must learn exactly what to do if a sheep is suffering from bloat or grain poisoning, including rapid evaluation and response. If a sheep is exhibiting signs of extreme distress, you may only have a few minutes to administer lifesaving treatment. A veterinarian is not likely to be able to come to you in time, so caregivers must receive training on what to do long before any emergencies.
- Administering oral and injectable medications and gastric intubation for sheep: You must be shown how to safely administer oral medications to a sheep without causing them undue stress or accidentally choking them, and must also be shown how to administer injectable medications. While oral medications are often preferred and administration is less stressful to both the sheep and the human, there are instances when an injection is necessary, so you must learn how to administer properly. Gastric intubation (such as to intervene in cases of bloat or grain poisoning) absolutely must be taught by an expert. The threshold for lethal mistakes is very high due to their biology.
- Administering subcutaneous fluids: A sheep who does not feel well may become dehydrated which can be quite dangerous. You must be shown how to safely administer subcutaneous fluids to a sheep so that you are able to maintain proper hydration in a sheep who will not drink on their own.
- Rapid intervention for urinary calculi: While less likely than goats, male sheep can possibly develop stones. If a sheep cannot urinate, they will die. You must be trained to know the signs of this condition and have a veterinary source for immediate treatment.
Necessary Practices For Responsible Sheep Guardianship
In order to provide the best care possible for sheep, you must have the proper policies and practices in place, in addition to providing them with the best environment and nutrition possible.
- Establishing regular record keeping policies for sheep: Keeping detailed records of sheep residents from intake until they leave your sanctuary is a crucial part of giving them the best healthcare as well as providing an extra layer of legal protection to your sanctuary in certain circumstances.
- Creating and following a new sheep arrival protocol: Herd safety means following practical biosecurity and quarantine guidelines when you bring a new resident sheep onto your sanctuary grounds, including evaluating newcomers for OPP and CL. Failing to have an appropriate intake process could pose a serious risk to your residents.
- Daily checkups for each individual: Although it does not have to be as rigorous as a health examination, each of the individual sheep you take in must be visually looked over at least once a day (such as during feeding time) to watch out for early signs of illness or other health concerns. It is not responsible to take in sheep and not be able to provide this minimum standard of care for each of them.
- Creating a fiber policy: If you’re caring for sheep who have been bred for their wool, you should create and abide by a wool policy for your sanctuary. You must regularly shear these residents if they become overburdened by wool in warm seasons. (As a note, it’s not uncommon to rescue sheep who are a mix of multiple breeds, and some individuals may have a combination of hair and wool. Therefore, it’s important to assess each sheep as an individual to determine if they need regular shearing or not. Some sheep may only need parts of their bodies shorn, and some may only need infrequent shearing). What will you do with the wool? Here’s what we’d suggest!
- Establishing a vaccine protocol: Talk to your veterinarian to see what vaccines they recommend based on your area. Many sanctuaries vaccinate for Rabies and Tetanus & Clostridium (also known as the CDT vaccine). The rabies vaccine is typically given every 3 years after the initial booster, and the CDT is typically given annually. Be sure your veterinarian fully understands your mission and how the sanctuary functions. There are certain vaccines that might be recommended to most of their clients, but are not necessary for sheep who will never breed or who spend most of their lives at the sanctuary rather than frequently going to exhibitions where they are exposed to many other animals with unknown backgrounds.
- Regular fecal testing of sheep: Sheep can fall victim to a host of dangerous ailments and diseases that may not present symptoms visibly until they’re too late to treat. You must create a fecal testing schedule and follow it for all sheep in order to head off health challenges early on.
- Creating a plan for isolation or quarantine: If a sheep becomes ill or injured and needs time away from the rest of your residents to heal or prevent the spread of disease, you will need an appropriate area reserved to isolate them. Without space to isolate an ill or injured resident, you risk the spread of disease or further injury to the individual.
What You Must Provide For Sheep
Responsible sheep care means making sure that their food, water, and shelter is provided and maintained to a high standard. Many small scale sheep setups are not designed with the sheep’s best interest in mind and cannot be assumed to be an ideal environment for them. Similarly, the nutrition you provide for them should be considered in terms of what works best for them, rather than what’s easiest!
- Providing appropriate living spaces for sheep: You must give sheep an appropriate living space, with sunlight, clean air, appropriate temperature and humidity control, and sheep-safe fencing. They should have a safe place to roam and enjoy enriching activities. Forcing sheep to live in cramped, dark, muddy, dirty, icy, or dangerous conditions is unacceptable. You should never take in so many sheep that they lack adequate personal space! Ensure that their pasture space is free of any plants that are toxic to sheep.
- Providing appropriate food, water, and supplementation for sheep: You must feed sheep a healthy diet suited to their individual needs. They need clean water that doesn’t freeze over in the winter, appropriate forage or hay, sheep-safe minerals, and, depending on your residents’ specific needs, nutritional supplementation. It’s unacceptable to knowingly feed them food that causes health problems or excessive weight gain. You must be willing to adjust their food and supplementation if a sheep needs their diet modified to rectify health challenges as well. A sanctuary must never feed a sheep with food designed to make them larger for human consumption. Sheep cannot eat minerals not specifically formulated for them.
- Regular cleaning and maintenance of sheep living spaces: You must establish and follow a regular cleaning schedule for the spaces where sheep live and sleep. Ignoring regular cleaning and bedding replacement can cause sheep to develop a host of easily avoidable illnesses such as foot scald, parasites, or social challenges like bullying.
- Protecting residents from predators: It is unacceptable to create living spaces that do not offer responsible protection from regional predators. You must implement strategies to prevent predators from entering their living space and regularly review the effectiveness of your efforts. Familiarize yourself with the various predators in your area to assess whether or not the sheep in your care are safe to have access outside overnight. If you live in an area where your sheep residents must be locked inside overnight in order to protect them from predators, you will need to create a responsible system for securing them overnight. Ideally, your residents would be allowed outside for the majority of the day and would be closed in during the evening hours. Not only does this give residents longer periods of time to decide where they would like to spend their time, in warmer climates, waiting until after the temperatures have dropped a bit will help keep residents comfortable while locked in overnight. The time at which they are closed in should be determined by when they are most vulnerable to predators, not just when it is convenient for you to close them in. It is not fair, and in warm temperatures is often not safe, to force your residents to be locked inside during the hours in which they are awake and active unless absolutely necessary. If you need to close your residents in at night, look at ways to restructure the daily schedule so that you have a staff person or volunteer available to close them in at a reasonable hour. Your sheep residents will appreciate the freedom of having access to the outdoors for most of the day, and you will have the peace of mind of knowing they are safe overnight.
- Creating and maintaining indoor living spaces with rodent-proofing in mind: Just as you must protect your residents from predators, it is important to create indoor living spaces that discourage or make it difficult for rodents to take up residence in them. Mice and rats can not only potentially spread disease to residents, they can also cause safety issues by damaging electrical wires (which could result in a fire) or getting into insulation (and creating opportunities for residents to ingest insulation). Severe rat infestations can also result in physical harm to vulnerable residents, such as young lambs or individuals with mobility issues. Be sure to design the space so that any insulation and electrical wires are contained in such a way that rodents cannot access them, avoid (or regularly check) gaps that could easily be turned into a cozy nest, and make sure any supplies that may attract rodents are sealed in metal bins (especially food or sweetened minerals). Making the space completely “rodent-proof” likely is not possible since the space will be open for residents to come and go for at least a portion of the day, but you can take steps to make it less likely that they will build themselves a cozy home inside your residents’ home.
- Regular hardware disease mitigation: You need to keep sheep safe from hardware disease by regularly checking their areas for potentially dangerous materials that they may ingest.
- Honoring the needs of younger, older, CL-positive or OPP-positive sheep: Sheep who are very young, older, or are confirmed to have CL or OPP have unique care needs that must be accommodated in order to thrive. You should not take in sheep with special care requirements until you understand what they need and have an environment and policies in place for them!
- Providing appropriate veterinary care and medication for sheep: When you give sanctuary to a sheep, you are committing to providing them a high quality of life and individual care. Part of this means having a qualified veterinarian who understands sheep care and is willing to treat health problems, manage pain, and provide compassionate end of life care when necessary. It is unacceptable to take in sheep and deny them medical attention or withhold pain management.
This is not an exhaustive list of everything you must know and provide for sheep in a sanctuary environment. Individual sheep may have their own needs and challenges that require additional training and policies to give them the best life possible!