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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

    This resource has been partially reviewed and updated by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of January 17, 2022

    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 bigger breeds and those with chronic health challenges like 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, weigh-ins, and routine evaluation for signs of parasitism so that you can catch and effectively treat issues early on. Even common ailments can be harder to manage in older sheep residents and may require early interventions to maintain their quality of life.

    Special Food Recommendations For Older Sheep

    When Making Changes To A Male Sheep Resident’s Diet, Always Consider The Risk Of Urinary Calculi!
    Unfortunately, urolithiasis, the formation of urinary calculi (stones or crystals) in the urinary tract, is a common issue in neutered male sheep and is often diet-related. Struvite and apatite stones are most commonly seen in sheep eating diets high in grain concentrates, while calcium carbonate stones are more common in sheep eating diets containing lots of legumes. Keep this in mind when discussing diet changes with your veterinarian. If concentrates are necessary, be aware that some formulas contain ammonium chloride to help reduce the risk of struvite stones. If not already present in the concentrate, it can be administered to the individual separately, per your veterinarian’s instructions.

    While some older sheep residents may continue to thrive on a standard sheep diet consisting of fresh or dried forages, others may require certain modifications or supplementation. It is not uncommon for elderly sheep to lose weight, which could be due to various issues such as dental disease, an underlying health condition (such as OPP), or eating less due to environmental factors or social dynamics. You should be very mindful of an older sheep’s weight so that you can catch weight loss early. It’s important to identify the cause of the weight loss, take steps to address the issue, and make changes to their diet, living arrangement, and/ or environment, based on their needs. In some cases, you may need to separate the individual one or more times per day so you can offer them supplemental foods to ensure they are getting all the nutrients they need.

    Excess Weight Is A Concern, Too!
    It is also possible for some older sheep to become overweight as they continue to eat at the same pace while lowering their general activity levels due to arthritis or general stiffness. Excess weight can lead to a host of health issues and can exacerbate existing conditions, so you should look at ways to help them maintain a healthy weight. This may include feeding a lower quality grass hay rather than richer hay, encouraging safe exercise, or working with your veterinarian to manage any pain that may be affecting their activity level.

    Potential Causes Of Weight Loss

    While these are not the only possibilities, below are some things you should consider if an older resident is losing weight (or is underweight) as well as some diet-related considerations to discuss with your veterinarian or an experienced nutritionist.

    Dental Disease

    Older sheep can lose, break, or wear down some or many of their teeth through the course of their lives. 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. As a result, an older resident may have a harder time chewing comfortably and getting the proper mix of nutrients from forages. 

    Tough fresh forages and coarse 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, but because of their dental issues, they just can’t break it down enough to digest. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian if you suspect a resident has dental issues, and if a resident is losing weight, ask to have their teeth checked to determine whether or not dental issues could be the cause. Your veterinarian can evaluate their teeth and file or remove any teeth that have gotten uncomfortably sharp or painful. They can also make recommendations regarding the best diet for a resident with dental issues. In some cases, individuals with dental disease may only be able to eat soft hay (rather than hay that contains coarse stalks) or chopped hay (rather than long fibers), but if a resident has lost most or all of their molars, they may be unable to eat hay entirely and may need to rely on a different source of nutrients. 

    The frequency and amount of additional food necessary will depend on the specific needs of the individual and whether or not the food is supplementing what they are getting from forages or replacing it entirely. In either case, soaking timothy pellets or other grass hay pellets can be a good option for individuals who can no longer eat dried hay. Alfalfa-based pellets should typically be avoided when feeding neutered males, as alfalfa can increase the risk of some types of urinary calculi. However, depending on the specific situation and the needs of the individual, your veterinarian may recommend including alfalfa pellets in their diet. By soaking the hay pellets, they will soften and break down a bit. You can play with the consistency to find what the individual most prefers- some prefer an oatmeal-like consistency and others like it a bit soupier. To increase palatability, certain additions, such as beet pulp or a small amount of concentrate, may be recommended and can also be softened through soaking. By giving them foods that do not require the extensive chewing that hay and fresh forages require, you can ensure residents with dental issues are still getting all of the nutrients they need. Individuals with dental issues may also do better with loose minerals than those offered in block form.

    A Note On Supplemental Commercial Foods
    Be sure to only use food formulas that are labeled for sheep, as those designed for goats, cows, or horses could contain toxic levels of copper. Also keep in mind that while there are various commercial foods marketed for sheep, not all are appropriate for sanctuary residents. Not only can some of these foods increase the risk of urinary calculi in neutered male sheep residents, large quantities of concentrates can also cause other health issues such as rumen acidosis or frothy bloat.

    Underlying Health Conditions

    Old Age In And Of Itself Is Not An Underlying Health Condition
    Weight loss should always be investigated- don’t just chalk it up to “old age”. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to diagnose and, if possible, treat (or manage) underlying health conditions. Your veterinarian or a nutritionist will be able to make diet recommendations based on the specific needs of the individual.

    Some health conditions can make it more difficult for a sheep to maintain a healthy weight. For example, individuals with clinical OPP, Johne’s disease, or certain cancers may lose weight despite a healthy appetite. These individuals may require additional nutrients and supplementation in order to maintain a healthy weight (or to prevent/ slow further weight loss). Your veterinarian may recommend a diet higher in protein, the addition of healthy fats (such as from flaxseed oil), and possibly supplemental vitamins and minerals. To increase protein levels, your veterinarian may recommend switching from grass hay to one that contains alfalfa. While this may increase the risk of urinary calculi in neutered males, if they are suffering from a chronic, incurable disease, the benefits of adding alfalfa to their diet may outweigh the risks- your veterinarian will be best able to advise you. They may also recommend using a mineral block that contains protein. In addition to making changes to the type of hay and minerals you are using, residents with underlying conditions that lead to weight loss will benefit from additional supplementation such as hay pellets, beet pulp, and sheep-safe concentrates. If chewing is not an issue, you can consider offering these foods without soaking them, but if the individual eats very quickly, they could choke. The risk of choking is reduced when the food is soaked.

    While some underlying conditions cause weight loss without affecting the individual’s appetite, other conditions lead to weight loss because they affect the individual’s appetite. These individuals may need encouragement to eat. If you know their favorite foods, incorporating them into their diet might get them interested in eating. If you don’t know their favorite foods, do some experimenting. Try offering them some hay pellets both dried and soaked, experimenting with adding beet pulp, and try various sheep-safe concentrates (again, try both dried and soaked if safe to do so). You can also try the “cut and carry” method- gathering a mix of sheep-safe vegetation and bringing these directly to them. 

    Arthritis

    Instead of requiring supplementation, sheep residents with arthritis may simply require modifications to how their food is offered (though in some cases they may also need supplementation). 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, which will allow them to eat while lying down if they prefer. If residents prefer eating lying down, a shallow bowl will be easier for them to eat from than those that are deep. Keep in mind that hay fed directly off 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. Be sure to consider each individual’s needs- while some residents might be most comfortable eating while lying down, others might require something different, such as a slightly elevated bowl. 

    Individuals with arthritis may also struggle to eat enough during the grazing season if access to fresh forages involves walking longer distances or involves walking up steep grades. We’ll discuss this more in “Outdoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Sheep”. For residents with mobility issues, in addition to ensuring they have easy access to food, make sure they are also getting up to drink. In some cases, keeping a bowl of water near them or offering them water throughout the day may be necessary.

    We’ll discuss arthritis treatments in more detail at the end of this resource, but in addition to pain management, some sanctuaries include supplements that are recommended for humans with arthritis, such as omega-3 fatty acids or turmeric, in the diets of their arthritic sheep residents.

    Social Dynamics

    In some cases, older residents may be eating less because they are getting crowded out by other residents. This occurs more often with hay than pasture vegetation because access to hay is often confined to a much smaller area than access to fresh vegetation (when available). Be sure to offer ample space for everyone to eat comfortably, and offer additional areas for residents to eat hay if it seems anyone is getting pushed away or seems intimidated by the others. In some cases, an older resident may do best in a smaller group with other residents who are more mild-mannered. We’ll talk about this more in “Social Recommendations For Older Sheep”.

    Vitamin Or Mineral Deficiencies
    If it seems like an older sheep isn’t thriving, be sure to work closely with your veterinarian to determine the cause. There are many possibilities, but one to consider is a vitamin or mineral imbalance due to less effective chewing and digestion. While blood work can detect some vitamin and mineral levels, others require more complicated diagnostics. Depending on the vitamin or mineral imbalance (suspected or confirmed), your veterinarian may recommend switching to a different mineral formulation or offering supplementation, which may come in an oral or injectable form. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian about vitamin and mineral supplementation- offering too much of certain vitamins or minerals can lead to toxicity or other issues.

    Indoor Living Space Recommendations For Older Sheep

    It’s important to monitor an older sheep resident’s living space to ensure it keeps them comfortable and is free of any hazards that could cause injury. Be sure to consider:

    Flooring

    Flooring should provide adequate traction to prevent slips and falls and should also be easy on feet and joints since older sheep may develop pain due to arthritis. Dirt floors are often a good option as they provide traction and are easier on joints than some other flooring options, but dirt floors often develop pits and slopes over time as dirt washes away or is raked up during cleaning. Be sure to keep dirt floors level, and fill in holes as they develop. Keep in mind that pits and slopes might not be apparent under bedding, so be sure to routinely evaluate the floor when it has been stripped of all bedding. An arthritic sheep could have difficulty getting up if they lie down in a recessed area or on a sloped surface. 

    We don’t recommend housing sheep on concrete flooring, in general, but concrete can be especially problematic for older sheep because it is hard on the joints and could make walking painful. If concrete floors are already in place, covering them with thick textured rubber mats or burying them with a thick layer of packed dirt can make them more joint-friendly.

    While wood floors are not as hard as concrete, these often don’t provide good traction and can easily become slick when they are wet, so we recommend avoiding these or covering them with the rubber mats described above.

    Bedding

    Older sheep may also need to have different bedding in order to make it easier for them to walk and comfortably relax indoors. Sheep with arthritis may not lift their legs as high as they once did when walking, which can cause them to become tangled in long-fibered straw bedding. For these individuals, consider using short-fibered straw or low-dust wood shavings. 

    Older sheep residents may spend more time lying down than they used to, which can put them at risk of developing pressure sores, especially on their sternum or near their stifles, and others may walk on their carpi (often referred to as the “front knees”) which can result in sores or abrasions. Offering a thicker layer of soft bedding can help keep these individuals comfortable and help prevent sores. However, keep in mind that very deep bedding may be difficult for residents to walk through- in some cases, identifying the areas where older residents typically sleep or spend time lying down and then adding additional layers of bedding to these areas can be helpful. Alternatively, placing thick blankets or water-proof cushioned mats in their resting areas may be an option.

    Depending on your climate and your residents’ needs, a thick layer of naturally-sourced sand may be a substrate to consider for residents with mobility issues. Like any other substrate, this would need regular cleaning. Sand can provide lots of cushion, but it can also easily become cold and damp, so may not be a good option in certain climates or during certain times of the year.

    Layout

    In addition to flooring and bedding considerations, also consider the layout of the space. Make sure that food and water sources are close by and easily accessible. Having multiple areas where residents can eat and drink can help prevent situations where someone gets pushed away or is too timid to come over to eat or drink. 

    While indoor spaces are often slightly elevated for drainage purposes, make sure residents do not have to take a large step up in order to move from the outdoors to the indoors. A gentle slope of packed dirt will be easiest for arthritic residents to navigate. A step could result in tripping or abrasions to the feet.

    Temperature Considerations

    An older sheep resident, especially one who is underweight and has poor wool quality, could be more sensitive to the cold. Depending on your climate, you may need to provide an older sheep resident with a warmer living space in order to keep them comfortable. In some cases, additional bedding and the use of coats (described below) may be enough to keep residents warm. In other situations, a safe heat source, such as a ceramic heat panel, may be necessary. Be sure to keep all cords out of the reach of residents and to protect panels from being broken. Due to their increased risk of causing a fire, we recommend avoiding heat lamps whenever possible. Glass bulb heat lamps have proven especially dangerous and should absolutely be avoided.

    Sheep Coats
    If necessary, coats can be a good way to help some older sheep residents stay comfortable in the winter. Always make sure the sheep’s hair/ wool is dry before fitting them with a coat. You must also make sure that it does not impede urination or accumulate urine- this is a common issue with male sheep wearing coats with belly straps. If the strap slips over the prepuce, 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. Be sure to replace a coat that has become wet, as this could result in the resident becoming chilled. Also, be aware that ill-fitting coats can pose a safety issue- coats that are too big could shift and become tangled around the individual. 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

    As a sheep resident ages, their activity level may decrease, especially if they have arthritis or another health condition that affects their mobility or stamina. If residents spend part of the year grazing in their outdoor space, be sure to consider how to make this easier for an older resident who may struggle to walk long distances. Ideally, older sheep should be housed in areas where they can access pastures without having to walk very far and without having to walk up a steep grade. Even if the outdoor space is large, an older resident with mobility or stamina issues may not feel the need to travel very far if they have adequate forage nearby. However, if some the rest of the flock is venturing further out in search of the best vegetation, you may find that an older resident chooses to follow them, regardless of whether or not they have pasture available in an area that is easier to access and regardless of the effort involved. In cases such as these, consider separating the individual with one or more close companions and provide them with a smaller pasture space that is easier to navigate. 

    Make sure older residents have easy access to food, water, minerals, and shelter. Older sheep are more susceptible 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. It’s a good idea to check on older residents regularly throughout the day (and even more often during extreme weather) to ensure they are able to move themselves into an area that provides protection from the elements. You don’t want a situation where an older sheep resident finds themselves unable to rise and subsequently gets stuck in heavy precipitation, extreme temperatures, or intense sun. 

    Social Recommendations For Older Sheep

    As sheep are flock animals, they typically form bonds with fellow sheep if raised alongside other members of their species. As a result, living away from other sheep can be distressing. If you decide that it’s best to separate an older sheep resident from their flock, try to house them with at least one other sheep with whom they are bonded. If, for some reason, this is not possible, consider other residents who may be a good fit. You can read more about safe cohabitation considerations for sheep here.

    Hoof Care For Older Sheep

    If an older resident is less active than they used to be, they may need more frequent hoof trimming to keep hooves at a reasonable length. Residents with arthritis may also require more frequent trimming, as the change in their gait may prevent certain hooves or areas of the hoof from wearing down normally.

    Managing Arthritis In Older Sheep

    All Arthritis Solutions MUST Be Discussed With Your Veterinarian!
    Below, we offer some anecdotal solutions suggested by sanctuaries for managing arthritis in sheep. However, ANY time you wish to explore arthritis management options, 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!

    Osteoarthritis (degenerative joint disease) is one of the most common health concerns in older animals, and sheep are no exception. A sheep might develop osteoarthritis in any of the joints of their legs or even in their spine. It’s also possible for an individual to present clinical signs of previously asymptomatic OPP which can manifest as chronic arthritis. Without pain management, arthritis can cause chronic pain (ranging in severity from mild to debilitating) and can affect an individual’s activity level. Severe pain can result in a general reluctance or even the inability to walk. While there is no cure for osteoarthritis or arthritis caused by OPP, and both are progressive conditions, there are medications that can help alleviate the individual’s pain. In order to keep individuals with arthritis comfortable, they might need a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as phenylbutazone or meloxicam (never combine NSAID treatments), or other analgesics such as Tramadol or Gabapentin. 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.  

    Another option to consider, and one that can be used in conjunction with the analgesics listed above, is a chondroprotective agent such as glucosamine to help repair joint cartilage and soothe inflammation. Some sanctuaries have also seen some success treating arthritis pain with alternative therapies such as acupuncture and veterinary laser therapy as well as more natural remedies (in conjunction with conventional medication) such as Boswellia (also known as Indian Frankincense), turmeric, and sheep-safe herbal formulas designed for joint health. Your veterinarian may also recommend a topical treatment such as Diclofenac Sodium ointment (such as Surpass), DMSO, or a formula designed for human use such as Aspercreme. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the most appropriate pain management regimen for each of your residents and talk to them about conducting blood work both before certain treatments (such as NSAID treatment) to ensure the treatment is not contraindicated and to establish a baseline to compare future blood work results to. We also recommend talking to them about conducting regular blood work for individuals on certain long-term treatments (including NSAID treatment) to monitor organ function and watch for adverse effects.

    In addition to offering treatments to reduce inflammation and pain, make extra sure that their environment is as arthritis-friendly as can be, minimizing steep grades or long walks to food or water. Make sure to talk to your veterinarian to assess the individual and create a tailor-made 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

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