This resource was updated as part of the veterinary review process. It was originally published on May 25. 2018.
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 a sheep is 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, it can also help your sheep residents become accustomed to gentle human handling which might help them remain calm during other scenarios where restraint or handling are necessary. 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.
Before conducting a health examination, it’s helpful to gather any supplies you may need and have them arranged nearby for easy access. Having everything you will likely need nearby can make the examination go more smoothly and will reduce the amount of time the individual must be restrained. If you are performing an exam on someone with a known health issue or detect signs of a certain health condition during the exam, you may need additional supplies besides those listed below. Otherwise, supplies to have on hand during sheep health exams may include:
- Recordkeeping supplies
- A halter (if using for restraint)
- Hoof trimmers/shears and/or rotary tool
- Gauze squares (non-sterile is typically fine, but there may be times when sterile gauze is necessary)
- Exam gloves
- Sheep-safe topical disinfectant (such as dilute chlorhexidine)
- Saline flush
- Sheep-safe ointments or creams such as a triple antibiotic ointment or silver sulfadiazine cream 1% (SSD)
- Cotton-tipped applicators
- Headlamp, penlight, or flashlight
- Thermometer and lubricant (good to have on hand in case you suspect someone is ill based on exam findings)
- Clippers (to remove patches of wool if needed)
- Fly treatments or deterrents (during fly season)
- FAMACHA card (if applicable)
Conducting The Exam
Before beginning individual exams (and, if possible, before entering your residents’ living spaceThe indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests.), it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to observe the group. Make note of their behavior, activity level, and general appearance. If residents are up, observe how they are standing and moving and whether or not they are actively eating. If they are lying down, make note of how they are positioned, whether or not they are chewing cudFood matter that returns from the first stomach compartment back to the mouth for further chewing, and whether or not they are away from the flock or are the only one lying down.
Now is also a good time to observe the respiratory rate of individuals in the flock since this may become elevated once residents are moved or restrained. While you can certainly assess the respiratory rate for each individual, for starters, you may simply spend a few minutes observing the group, checking to see if anyone appears to be breathing more rapidly or with more effort than the other residents. If anyone jumps out as breathing differently than the rest of the group, you could then take their respiratory rate and further evaluate them during their exam (or, depending on other signs they are presenting, you may opt to call your veterinarian).
To assess a sheep’s respiratory rate, watch their chest movements, counting how many times their chest expands/contracts over one minute. You want to count each paired expansion and contraction as one respiration. The normal resting respiratory rate for an adult sheep can vary quite a bit depending on the ambient temperature and whether or not they are in full wool. In fact, different sources offer different ranges, but according to Large Animal Internal Medicine, 5th Edition, the resting respiratory rate of adult sheep ranges from 12-72 breaths per minute with an average of 36. Because there can be a wide range of normal, it’s a good idea to observe the group and note what seems to be normal for the group, generally, while looking for anyone whose respirations are much faster, slower, or more labored than their flock mates. Keep in mind that individuals who are active will have an elevated respiratory rate compared to someone at rest. In addition to being an indication of illness, an elevated respiratory rate can also be indicative of a sheep being stressed, hot, or in pain.
During this general observation of the group, watch for anyone who stands out as looking or acting differently from the rest of the flock. While this may not necessarily be an indication of a health concern, it certainly warrants further observation and assessment during the exam. For example, if you notice that all members of the flock except for Winnie are actively eating hay, you’ll want to keep an eye on Winnie and gather more information to determine whether or not there’s a problem brewing.
Up next, we’ll go over important components of a health examination. Please note that while these “steps” do not have to be completed in the order listed below, it is helpful to have a set order you follow consistently so as to avoid accidentally missing a step. Some folks like to start at the feet and work their way up, while others like to start at the head and work their way back.
Body condition scoring can also be a useful tool, particularly if weighing residents is not possible. We recommend working with a veterinarian for proper training in body condition scoring to ensure the most accurate results. However, if you are not trained in body condition scoring, you can still roughly assess their body condition. Because an individual’s hair or wool coat can drastically skew our visual assessment of their body condition, this part of the exam requires a hands-on assessment. A thin individual will have a prominent spine, whereas in an overweight individual, the spine will be difficult to detect.
Be sure to share concerns about a resident’s weight with your veterinarian. Flock-wide issues warrant a closer look at your residents’ diet, but flock-wide weight loss could also be due to contagious disease or parasitism. Isolated instances of weight gain or loss should also be discussed with your veterinarian. There are a number of reasons a resident may be losing weight, such as parasitism or ovine progressive pneumonia (OPP), which is why it’s important to work with an experienced veterinarian to have the individual assessed. You’ll also want to discuss how the individual is doing overall. Losing weight despite a healthy appetite will suggest different possibilities (such as Johne’s disease) than weight loss accompanied by inappetence. Particularly in elderly sheep, weight loss might be the result of dental disease and may require permanent alterations to the individual’s diet.
Caseous lymphadenitis (CL) is common in sheep and could result in abscesses on the head (namely under the ear or along the jaw) or on other parts of their body. CL is contagious and spreads via discharge from abscesses, so if you find an abscess, work with your veterinarian to determine if it is caused by CL and take measures to prevent disease spread. You can read more about CL here.
If the individual has horns or scurs (horn-like tissue that, unlike a true horn, is attached to the skin rather than the skull), be sure to check that these are not growing in such a way as to cause injury or irritation to the face. Work with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action if a horn or scur is causing a problem.
Feel along the neck for any swelling, lumps, lesions, or areas that are sensitive to the touch.
Make note of how the eye is sitting in the eye socket. Sunken eyes may be a sign of moderate to severe dehydration, or they could be due to fat loss in very thin individuals. Bulging of the eye should also be noted. Check the mucus membrane of the lower eyelid to look for evidence of anemiaAnemia is a condition in which the blood is deficient in red blood cells, in hemoglobin, or in total volume. (pale mucous membranes) which could be a sign of barber pole worm infection or other serious condition. If you are trained in FAMACHA scoring, be sure to use your card and record their score (please note that your veterinarian may recommend performing FAMACHA scoring more often than just at routine health checks). You can also check for a menace response by moving your hand towards each eye a few times (without touching their eyelashes or eyes). Sheep over 2 weeks of age should reflexively blink in response to this test.
Now check the eye itself. Sheep have an elongated horizontal pupil. These should be symmetric and should constrict in response to bright light. Check for thickened blood vessels or an abnormal color to the eye which, depending on the part of the eye affected, could indicate a number of issues including edemaEdema is the abnormal accumulation of fluid in tissues of the body. or scarring.
All eye issues should be raised with your veterinarian as soon as possible. They can do a much more thorough examination if needed.
Next, look inside the ears, checking for any discharge or dirtiness and also checking for any unusual odors.
Pay attention to their breathing. Flaring of the nostrils could indicate increased respiratory effort. If you hold your hand in front of their nose, you should be able to feel air coming from both nostrils equally. Also make note of any abnormal odors coming from their nose. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect a respiratory issue.
While checking their nose, make note of any lesions, scabs, swelling, or areas of discoloration. You can also feel along the bridge of their nose for any asymmetry.
Check/feel their jaw for any lumps, lesions, or areas of swelling or discharge. A lump along the lower jaw could actually be due to the individual collecting cud in their cheek and could be a sign of a dental issue. Your veterinarian can perform a dental examination to determine if they require any dental work, and they can also make recommendations if the individual requires dietary changes due to their dental issues. Lumps along the jaw that are not packed cud should be evaluated by your veterinarian.
Carefully part their lips so you can see their teeth and gums. Do not put your fingers inside the sheep’s mouth, particularly near their molars, which are incredibly sharp! Sheep have four pairs of lower incisors, but no upper incisors; instead they have a dental pad. While a full dental exam is beyond the scope of a caregiver-performed health examination and should be reserved for your veterinarian, you can look for missing, broken, or visibly loose incisors, which are not uncommon in older sheep. You can also check their gums which should be moist and, unless pigmented, should be pink. Red, pale, or tacky gums can indicate a problem.
While checking their mouth, make note of any abnormal odors on their breath or originating in their mouth. An abnormal odor could be a sign of a respiratory infection, dental issue, or even an issue with the rumen.
You can also listen for rumen contractions by placing a stethoscope over the paralumbar fossa on their left side. You should hear a rumen contraction (sometimes described as sounding like a thunderstorm or dull roar) approximately 1-2 times per minute. If you note long gaps between contractions or weak contractions, please consult with your veterinarian.
Be sure to check for pressure sores, particularly in the areas that typically make contact with the ground when the sheep is lying down. Early signs of pressure sores include wool/hair loss and irritated skin before becoming open sores or scabbed areas.
When checking male residents, check around the preputial opening for crystals, sandy deposits, blood, scabs, sores, or dryness. If they urinate during the exam, watch that they are not straining and that they have a normal stream of urine. Straining, dribbling urine, or producing a weak stream of urine could be signs of urinary blockage, and your veterinarian should be contacted immediately. Left untreated, this condition can be fatal. Lesions around the preputial opening could be due to pizzle end rot. If hair or wool is covering the preputial opening and becoming soaked with urine, this can be carefully trimmed to prevent skin ulceration.
When checking females, observe and gently palpate their udders, checking for signs of mastitis such as asymmetry, abnormal temperature (hot or cold), swelling, firmness, pain, or discharge. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect mastitis. If one of your residents, male or female, appears to be producing milk unexpectedly, consult with your veterinarian for guidance.
When checking a sheep’s back, make note of any hunching when the individual is standing. Their back should be fairly flat. Hunching could be a sign of a variety of things, including white muscle disease.
Also check for any signs of pain by observing how they stand and move. They should bear weight evenly, and there should be no crepitus (cracking or crunching sounds) when they move. You can carefully assess their range of motion and feel for crepitus by gently flexing and extending the joint, particularly the carpi, tarsi, fetlocks, and stifles. Do not force movements if the individual resists or if the motion elicits a pain response. Also make sure you do not bend the joint in an unnatural position or overextend the joint, which could result in injury.
Osteoarthritis is quite common in sheep as they age, so it’s important to keep a close eye on their mobility and discuss any concerns with your veterinarian. An appropriate pain management plan is an important part of caring for arthritic residents.
If your residents have leg bands, be sure to check that these are fitting properly and are not causing issues. Bands that are too tight can cause injury, and bands that are too loose could fall off or slip over the dewclaws, causing problems. Be aware that hair sheep may build up clumps of hair between their leg and the band that should be removed as needed.
Next, examine the bottom of the foot. Evaluate the length of the hoof wall and check for separation from the sole. Trim or even out the hoof as needed. You can read more about hoof trimming here. Overgrown hooves can predispose residents to various health issues, so regular trimming is important.
You should also visually check their anus and, in females, their vulva, ensuring that they do not have any prolapsed tissue. When checking the vulva, make note of any discharge, crystal deposits, or lesions. Though perhaps not as common as with some other farmed animalA species or specific breed of animal that is raised by humans for the use of their bodies or what comes from their bodies. species, females can develop various reproductive issues, so be sure to contact your veterinarian if you observe abnormal discharge. Caregivers in sunny locales have reported that some female residents with tails that were docked very short developed skin cancer on their vulva. Contact your veterinarian if you see lesions or other abnormalities on the vulva.
Check the tail for signs of injury (including fracture) or paralysis. Individuals with long thin tails that are not covered in wool may be more at risk of frostbite during colder weather, so pay close attention to their tail tip for signs of this which include the tail being cold, stiff, and discolored.
If you are worried that an individual is ill, it can be helpful to take their rectal temperature, as this can be useful information to share with your veterinarian. To do so, coat the tip of the thermometer in lubricant and gently insert it about two inches into the individual’s rectum. The thermometer should slide in easily. If you meet resistance, do not force the thermometer in. It’s important to have the individual properly restrained and to hold on to the thermometer while getting the reading (some folks use a string and clip to secure the thermometer to the individual’s hair/wool so that it does not fall out and get lost in the pen). Particularly if using a glass mercury thermometer, additional care should be taken, as a broken thermometer could put residents at risk of injury and exposure to toxic mercury. Also, keep in mind that a mercury thermometer must be shaken down in order to get an accurate reading, and it must be left in the rectum for approximately three minutes. According to Large Animal Medicine, 5th Edition, the normal rectal temperature for an adult sheep is 102-103.5 Fahrenheit/39-40 Celsius. Be aware that body temperature can be affected by ambient temperature, so comparing an individual’s rectal temperature to someone else in the group may be useful. Contact your veterinarian if you have concerns about a resident’s rectal temperature.
During this part of the exam, you want to make sure you are thoroughly checking their entire body for external parasites, skin issues, or other concerns that may be concealed by their hair or wool. Thick wool, in particular, can hide a number of ailments, so it’s helpful to closely examine any dirty or matted areas and to feel all along the individual’s body for any lumps, lesions, discharge, etc. If you feel something odd, part their wool for closer examination.
Whether they have wool or hair, be sure to investigate if a sheep is showing signs that part of their body is itchy (signs include biting or rubbing the area), and be sure to look more closely at any area that is covered in flies, as this could be a clue that they have an open wound and are at risk of developing flystrike.
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!
Small Ruminant Handling And Assessment | North Valley Animal Disaster Group
Sheep And Goat Medicine, Second Edition | D.G. Pugh And A.N. Baird (Non-Compassionate Source)
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Identifying Sick LivestockAnother term for farmed animals; different regions of the world specify different species of farmed animals as “livestock”. With Dr. Lisa Lunn | UAF Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
The Basic Clinical Exam: Key To Early Identification Of Sick Animals | AgriLIFE Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
Ewe Body Condition Scoring | Virginia Tech (Non-Compassionate Source)