Signs and Symptoms: What are Your Sheep Trying to Tell You?

Eastern Alliance for Production Katahdins (EAPK) Communications Committee
(Previously published online with EAPK: December 30, 2022)

We’ve all experienced a sick sheep, or at least one that doesn’t look quite right, but how do we distinguish a serious illness from one that is mild, or simply normal behavior? While your veterinarian should always be your primary source of medical advice, it’s still important that shepherds have the ability to accurately identify and describe any signs and symptoms your animal may be experiencing. When calling your vet, this information will help him/her determine whether a farm visit is necessary or if a plan of care can be initiated by phone. It will also assist you in researching the problem on your own to identify possible causes. Gathering key information and intervening early can be lifesaving, especially in emergency situations.

It’s important to regularly observe your flock so you’re aware of both normal and abnormal behavior. Some symptoms of disease can mimic normal behavior while others that seem concerning are actually benign. For instance, a healthy lamb often stretches when they get up from a nap which is a good sign. However, a lamb that stretches repeatedly, lies down again quickly and/or seems disinterested or isolates may be experiencing abdominal pain which could be serious. A healthy animal can be observed chewing their cud, while an animal in pain may grind their teeth, which can look like chewing. A healthy animal will be actively grazing, while a sick animal may stand in a grazing position with their head down, but not eating. Soft, runny feces may be perfectly normal if the sheep are grazing lush, wet pasture (a little dry hay will help), but could be a serious sign of illness in a young lamb, especially if it contains mucus or blood. Subtle differences are important.

When assessing the animal, consider the big picture to help differentiate conditions that share similar signs and symptoms. Note the age and sex of the animal; stage of production (i.e., newly weaned lamb, ewe in late pregnancy); feed type (i.e., grain, hay, baleage, pasture) and any recent changes to the ration, as well as environmental conditions (i.e., barn or pasture, forage condition, weather, potential toxins, water source). You’ll also want to note if other animals in the flock are affected, if the animal has a fever, how long the symptoms have been present and if they’re getting worse or better. This information will help eliminate some conditions and will allow your vet to focus on the most likely cause of the ailment and how best to treat it.

Once you’ve determined that something is not quite right and that treatment may be necessary, bring the animal to the barn or isolate in the field with shade and water. If a farm visit is necessary, having the animal confined nearby will save time and frustration for both you and your veterinarian, and will make treating the animal much easier.

The table below, while not all inclusive, lists common signs and symptoms, as well as contributing factors and possible causes.

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