Updated March 4, 2021
When a new sheep arrives at your sanctuary, there are a number of critical steps that must be taken to ensure safety for the incoming resident, the existing residents, and yourself!
While sheep, in general, have certain diet, housing, and care needs, you must also consider if the new arrivals require any special accommodations based on their age, health status, known history, or the circumstances of their recent living situation. Each new resident and situation will be different, but some things to consider include:
- If you’re taking in lambs, you will have to learn how to properly care for them in terms of heat, food, and shelter, and if you take in a pregnant sheep, you will need to learn how to offer appropriate prenatal care.
- If you welcome a mother sheep along with her nursing lamb, you should not separate the two of them unless absolutely necessary for their health. If you separate them, allow them to be close enough to touch if they choose to!
- If the new sheep is from a starvation situation, you must work closely with your veterinarian to determine what to feed them. Offering unrestricted food sources to an individual who has been starved can result in serious health complications.
- If you are taking in a group of both goats and sheep, you must provide sheep-safe minerals. If goats and sheep are to permanently live together, you may need to supplement copper for the goat residents.
- If the new resident is a mature ram (unneutered male), you should take time to closely observe his behavior before entering his living space, and make sure staff who will work with him know what physical cues to be on the lookout for that may indicate he is frightened or feeling confrontational. Not all rams are confrontational, but they do have the potential to behave quite differently than a neutered male and can cause serious injury if they slam someone, so it’s important to really assess their response to human presence and interactions.
- If the new sheep is very agile and appears to be fearful, or if the new resident is assumed to have escaped from their previous living situation, be sure to assess if your quarantine space can safely contain them. A frightened sheep may try to jump a fence, and you might be surprised just how high a sheep can jump if they feel they need to. Not only do you want to avoid the new resident getting loose, they could also seriously injure themselves while trying to escape. Any time you take in fearful individuals, it is important to find gentle ways to help them become more comfortable around their caregivers. They may never become sheep who crave human attention (though some individuals who arrive very fearful certainly do!), but you should be able to ease their fears and hence increase their comfort, even if they choose to keep their distance from humans.
Adhere To A Quarantine Policy
The new sheep must be housed in a strict quarantine area on your premises away from all other residents (not even nose-to-nose contact through a fence), even if you know exactly where the sheep came from! At a minimum, new sheep must be kept away from other sheep and goat residents, but could potentially spread disease to other residents as well. Quarantine is absolutely crucial to protect everyone from possible infectious diseases that may not be producing visible symptoms in a healthy-looking arrival; an entire flock or herd could be easily infected, and possibly killed, by certain diseases, and some diseases can contaminate pastures and live in the soil for quite some time. Even if the sheep was previously healthy, a new environment can produce stress that might cause an illness flare-up. Reciprocally, existing residents might be carrying a disease that the new resident isn’t healthy enough to fight off yet!
If you’re taking in a whole flock that was living together previously, you can probably quarantine them together since it’s likely that any diseases they have will be already spread throughout the flock, and staying together may put the new residents more at ease. However, if the flock includes a mix of females and unneutered males who are sexually mature, you will need to take steps to prevent breeding. If an individual sheep seems very ill or behaving oddly or has an open abscess, they should be isolated from the others until a veterinarian determines exactly what’s wrong. Monitor the flock to ensure that the current social situation is safe for everyone. Just because they came in together, doesn’t necessarily mean they get along well. If anyone appears to be getting picked on, find a way to split the group to reduce tensions while avoiding anyone having to live alone unless absolutely necessary.
Anyone coming into contact with the new sheep should wear gloves and full body covering or immersion suits and should either wear boot covers or use foot baths. This is true even for healthy looking sheep, but is imperative if the sheep is visibly ill, is producing undiagnosed discharge, or has diarrhea, sores, or abscesses. These protective coverings should not be used outside of this The policy or space in which an individual is separately housed away from others as a preventative measure to protect other residents from potentially contagious health conditions, such as in the case of new residents or residents who may have been exposed to certain diseases. space or you will defeat the purpose of wearing them in the first place! The new sheep should remain in quarantine for a minimum of 30 days, and until all blood work and fecal exams come back with a clean bill of health. Make sure any external parasites have been eradicated before discontinuing quarantine, taking into account the life cycle of the parasite to ensure enough time has passed since the last instances of live parasites being found.
Ideally, you should have designated tools used only to clean the new sheep’s space that are not used in other living areas. If this is not possible, all tools and cleaning supplies must be thoroughly disinfected before being used in other areas. It’s best to keep all bedding from quarantined areas away from other residents and their living spaces, especially if the arriving sheep seems to be in poor health, has abscesses, unexplained discharge, or diarrhea. If you typically spread old bedding on your sanctuary’s pastures, wait to do so with bedding from quarantined spaces until new residents have been evaluated by a veterinarian. Depending on their evaluation and any testing they recommend, they may advise you continue to keep bedding separate pending certain test results.
Evaluating A New Sheep’s Health
When welcoming a new resident to your sanctuary, it is imperative that you assess their overall health to ensure you are addressing any issues as soon as possible. This is accomplished through initial observations, an intake examination, diagnostic testing, ongoing observation, and possibly a veterinarian’s assessment of the individual, especially if the new sheep shows any signs of concerns.
Whenever you welcome a new resident to your sanctuary, it is crucial that you spend some time observing the individual upon arrival to determine any immediate needs they may have. If you or your staff picked up the individual and transported them back to the sanctuary, this observation process will actually begin before the new resident sets foot on sanctuary grounds. Through thoughtful observation, you may be able to identify signs of concern that warrant immediate veterinary care or further assessment on your part. This part of the intake process will also help determine if an intake examination must happen immediately or can wait for the new resident to settle in a little bit. In instances where you are taking in multiple new residents, this process will also help you prioritize individuals who appear to require more urgent assessment.
If you are taking in sheep who look very similar, you must have a system of identifying and documenting individuals while you are getting to know who is who. The use of properly fitting leg bands can be helpful for staff or volunteers who are working on learning everyone’s name and can also be a good way to make sure information is being recorded for the correct individual. When using leg bands, they should be checked regularly to ensure they are not becoming too tight, and you must take care if using them on individuals who are still growing. If a sheep arrives with an ear tag, record their tag number, if applicable (and consider taking a photo as well), and as long as it is not causing issues currently, we recommend you not remove it for at least 30 days and until you are sure you won’t be adopting the individual out of your region (to avoid having to ear tag them again in the future). Keep any removed tags with their records.
Prioritizing An Intake Examination
It’s important to perform an intake examination on all new residents, ideally within 24 hours of arrival, though some may need more immediate assessment. An intake exam includes conducting a full health examination to evaluate their overall health and to learn more about the individual, as well as gather important information for their permanent record. Be sure to follow quarantine procedures while conducting the intake exam. To learn more about the intake examination process, including how to prioritize assessing and addressing a new resident’s needs, check out our resource here! If, for whatever reason, you are unable to perform a full health examination shortly after their arrival, you will need to closely observe new residents for signs of concerns and take steps to address those concerns appropriately.
An intake examination is conducted in much the same way as a routine health examination- you should check every inch of the sheep, looking for any signs of concerns, and providing any necessary treatments. While there are a variety of issues you may find during a new sheep resident’s intake examination, there are some health challenges that are especially common in new sheep. These include:
- Hoof Issues– Because sanctuaries often take in individuals who may have had their needs neglected, very often new sheep arrive with overgrown hooves. In most cases you should be able to trim them down to a normal length, but if the hoof is severely overgrown or misshapen and you are not sure how much to trim, you should consult with your veterinarian. Be sure to check for any signs of interdigital dermatitis, foot rot, hoof abscesses, or other abnormalities. Some types of bacterial foot rot are highly contagious and must be aggressively treated. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to diagnose any issues and establish a treatment plan.
- Mobility Or Joint Issues– You should assess the sheep’s mobility by watching them walk and looking for any abnormalities in their gait or shifting of weight when standing. When checking their legs, pay extra attention to their joints, feeling for any heat, swelling, or crepitus (popping or crunching). Mobility and joint issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the cause and appropriate treatment plan. If a new resident appears to have joint issues and testing for Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) is not part of your intake protocols, talk to your veterinarian about whether or not they think OPP could be the cause and if they recommend diagnostic testing. While not apparent from its name, OPP can cause extensive joint issues in sheep.
- Respiratory Issues– Watch closely, both during the intake examination and during the quarantine period, for any signs of respiratory illness such as nasal discharge, coughing, an elevated respiratory rate, fever, or breathing that sounds wet, raspy, or wheezy. Your veterinarian can evaluate the sheep’s lungs, recommend diagnostic testing, and ultimately offer treatment options. There are various pathogens that can cause respiratory illness in sheep, including Small Ruminant Lentiviruses (SLRV) which cause OPP.
- Orf (Sore Mouth)– It is not uncommon for young sheep to arrive with Orf, though they may not show obvious signs until they have been at the sanctuary for a few days. Be sure to watch closely for any sign of sores developing around their mouth. If everyone is following quarantine procedures, they should always have gloves when entering the sheep’s living space or interacting with the sheep. Orf is contagious to humans, so it is imperative that staff wear gloves to protect themselves.
- Abscesses– Check their body thoroughly for any abscesses. Abscesses on the skin manifest as raised lumps, though not every lump is an abscess. One common cause of subcutaneous abscesses is Caseous Lymphadenitis (CL). This disease is spread through contact with the pus. If you take in a group of new sheep and only one individual has abscesses, you may want to separate them until diagnostics can be done to determine the cause. If it is CL, it’s possible the other sheep may have already been exposed, but it’s typically a good idea to keep individuals with open abscesses separated while the abscess is draining, especially if CL is a possibility.
- Excessive Wool– If you are taking in a sheep with overgrown wool during the warm season, you must have them carefully shorn to prevent overheating. In the cold season, evaluate whether the wool would be preferable to leave to keep them warm, or if there is a concern that makes shearing them necessary. In some cases you may need to perform a partial shearing either to evaluate an area of concern or to address an issue such as urine scald or pizzle end rot. If the sheep has copious amounts of wool or wool that is matted, felted or full of debris, they may need shorn regardless of the temperatures in order to better evaluate the individual and to make them more comfortable. In these cases, you will need to fit them with a coat or find other ways to keep them warm.
- Emaciation– It is not uncommon for new sheep to arrive severely underweight. This could be caused by many issues such as improper diet, dental issues, or disease. Be sure to have new residents who are significantly underweight evaluated by a veterinarian and talk with them about how to encourage safe weight gain. Be sure to have the veterinarian check their teeth in addition to running any diagnostics. Dental issues are a common, but sometimes overlooked cause of weight loss in mature sheep.
In addition to looking for signs of concern, you should determine the following information. In some cases this will require veterinary involvement:
- Assess spay/ neuter/ pregnancy status: New males should be evaluated to determine their neuter status, though in some cases you may need a veterinarian to help with this if you are unsure. Intact males should be neutered as soon as your veterinarian deems appropriate. They will need time to recover after the surgery, which could delay their introduction to other residents if done towards the end of their quarantine period. Females who are sexually mature should be evaluated for pregnancy through an ultrasound and/ or BioPRYN blood testing. If laparoscopic ovariectomies are part of your sheep care practices, work with your veterinarian to determine if they are healthy enough (and mature enough) to undergo the procedure. If an incoming resident is early on in their pregnancy, some sanctuaries choose to administer Lutalyse (or a similar product) to induce miscarriage, though Lutalyse and similar products are less effective in sheep than in goats. If you consider this practice, we suggest having a conversation with a veterinary theriogenologist experienced with sheep to determine the best protocol. This decision ultimately depends on an individual sanctuary’s Philosophy of Care.
- Approximate their age by looking at their teeth: We are not talking about evaluating their dental health here- that definitely requires an experienced veterinarian. However, by observing how many adult teeth a sheep has, you can estimate their age. Unfortunately, if an individual has all of their adult teeth, you really only know they are likely at least 4 years old. If you have never done this before, there are plenty of resources online that show how, or you can work with your veterinarian and have them show you how. They may be better able to guess the age of a sheep who has all their adult teeth by looking at how long or worn they are. Having a general idea of their age can be very helpful when considering their needs. When examining a sheep’s teeth, never put your hand inside their mouth as they have very sharp back molars that can seriously injure a finger.
If you have not already done so, work with your veterinarian to determine appropriate incoming testing protocols for new sheep you welcome to your sanctuary. While individuals showing signs of concern may require additional diagnostics, there may be certain tests your veterinarian recommends for all incoming sheep. At a minimum, all new residents should have a fecal sample submitted to check for internal parasites. Your veterinarian will be able to recommend deworming treatments based on the fecal results. Be sure to submit another fecal sample 10-14 days after any deworming treatment to evaluate its effectiveness. In order to help prevent the ever-increasing resistance to available deworming medications, it’s important to only use dewormers when necessary and to work closely with your veterinarian if resistance to certain dewormers seems to be an issue.
Some sanctuaries choose to do blood tests to screen for CL and OPP, even if individuals are not showing outward signs of the disease. Consult with your veterinarian to see what tests they recommend for screening purposes, and make sure you understand the test’s sensitivity and specificity (which will tell you what the chances of a false-negative or false-positive are). If a new resident has subcutaneous abscesses, the pus should be submitted for bacterial culture. This is a more accurate way to diagnose (or rule out) CL than the blood test.
Your veterinarian may recommend other testing based on the specifics of your region. Certain disease confirmations may require an official report to your local government- if testing for screening purposes only, you may want to have a conversation with your veterinarian about what a positive result would mean for the individual and the sanctuary.
Some health conditions may take time to show outward symptoms. For example, individuals with CL or Orf may arrive with no external signs of disease, so it’s important to continue to monitor them for signs of abscesses or sores. While all residents should be observed closely each day, extra attention should be paid to new residents during their quarantine period to ensure any potential issues are caught and addressed as soon as possible.
Work with your veterinarian to establish a vaccine protocol for your sheep residents based on the specifics of your resident population and your region. When new sheep arrive, your veterinarian can help determine if they are healthy enough for vaccination, which will depend on the vaccine. It may be best to wait to administer certain vaccines if the sheep is sick, but with others it may be recommended that even sheep who are ill receive the vaccine as soon as possible. Make sure you know about any age restrictions as well. Some vaccines are not meant for lambs under a certain age.
Introducing The Newcomer To Other Sheep
If the new sheep is much less mature than the existing flock, you may want to let them grow up a bit before introducing them to the rest of the flock to ensure their safety during their introduction and to give them time to build up enough immune system strength to handle any disease that might be lurking in the flock. Also, newly neutered sheep are still fertile for weeks after the operation, so make sure to wait until they’re completely sterile before they’re around any impregnable flockmates!
Once you’ve ensured that the new sheep is healthy enough to join the resident flock, it can be a good idea to give the sheep time to get used to each other by living in separate, but adjacent, spaces. Consider letting the new sheep live in the same barn as the resident flock without having physical access to one another. This will give them an opportunity to meet without too much drama. You should consider giving the sheep at least two weeks of this transition period before attempting to put them together, though every introduction is different.
When you’re ready to introduce the new sheep to the flock, it’s very important that you monitor their introduction in case you need to intervene! There may be minor fighting at first, as everyone figures out their place in the social hierarchy, but as long as no one is getting injured or overdoing it, it’s generally best to let them sort things out for themselves. However, if things get out of hand, you’ll need to break up conflicts quickly. Watch closely to make sure no one is causing injury and that no one is exhausting themselves or showing signs of overheating. Compared to goat introductions, sheep introductions often go more smoothly, but there may be certain introductions that are more challenging. This can be especially true when trying to introduce a mature male who was recently neutered to other males. With all introductions, monitoring their first few days together is especially critical to make sure everyone is getting along. You may need to offer additional food and water sources away from where the flock typically eats and drinks if the new sheep is getting pushed away or seems wary of the others. If sheep are closed indoors overnight due to risk of predation, you may need to offer the new sheep their own space overnight since conflicts may be more likely to arise in confined spaces. Typically, negative interactions manifest as chasing, mounting, headbutting, and ramming. Some introductions take a few tries. If it seems the new sheep just isn’t working out in the flock, you may need to separate them for now and continue trying supervised visits, or if you have multiple flocks, you may consider trying them with a different group.
Other good techniques to help the sheep get along include changing out bedding material with each other’s scents in order to familiarize the sheep with one another (after the new resident has completed quarantine), ensuring plenty of open space where the sheep socialize, eat and drink (especially ensuring equal food and water access), and providing lots of space for newly introduced sheep to avoid each other. If the sheep are having constant trouble with each other, don’t give up hope yet! It may take a few introductions before they all get along. However, if it seems like the sheep will never be fully accepted into the flock, it would be better to create a second flock with a few individuals who get along well with each other, being careful not to separate bonded companions. A flock with a constantly bullied sheep is an unacceptable living situation for the individual sheep.
Though sheep have a structured social order, introducing sheep to one another typically does not lead to too much drama! It’s rare for sheep to have interpersonal issues that aren’t solved by avoiding one another as long as they have enough space to do so. Sheep tend to prefer to hang out in groups rather than solo, and new flockmates mean more safety in numbers.
It may seem like a lot of extra steps than just releasing a new sheep into the pasture, but if you follow the above guidelines, your new friend will have a much greater chance at a happy, healthy life with you and the flock!
An Introduction To Sheep Behavior | University Of Illinois (Non-Compassionate Source)
Footrot In Sheep & Goats | Purdue (Non-Compassionate Source)