I originally planned this month’s Shepherding post to be about the vet supplies to keep on hand. However, as I was writing about the topic it became apparent that the subject needs breaking down. Hence, this week is about the basic anatomy and biology of sheep. This foundational post is meant to give you an overview of a sheep’s body so you can better care for your flock. This is no means a detailed survey of ovine biology nor constitutes veterinary advice. This is simply how my brain categorizes basic sheep biology and gives a framework for further discussion on how to handle veterinarian issues that might arise. While I do the majority of my own vet work and surgery, nothing beats a good vet, especially if you don’t have previous medical training.
In the coming months I’ll be discussing different medical issues that can arise in sheep keeping. This article is mostly a reference.
Since anatomy, physiology, and biology cover such a large amount of information, I’m going to keep this to the highlights and the systems that most often go wrong in sheep. I will also list references at the bottom for your further research. This is by no means an exhaustive article and nothing I’m saying is to take the place of a good vet.
What is a sheep?
A sheep is a four legged, even toed , ruminant in the same category as many other domesticated animals such as goats and cattle and undomesticated animals such as deer, bison, and antelope. Animals in this category are basically prey animals with no true offensive characteristics and few defensive capabilities. Sheep are also one of the first animals domesticated by humans and the argument can be made that mankind’s evolution into the modern era would not have happened without them ( https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3145132/ ). Sheep have provided meat, milk, wool, and even pack services.
Some sheep are horned and others are naturally polled (hornless). But all domestic sheep have the same needs and the same problems waiting to happen. I think working from exterior to interior is the most logical. This month we are going to cover the external portion and next month we will dive into what can go wrong on the exterior, how to treat in a pinch, and when to call the vet. So here we go!
Sheep have two toes per foot. These toes are covered by a thick yet flexible horn that protects the inner structure. Unlike horses, founder is not common in most homestead sheep, but it can happen. Most of the time if a sheep is limping they have something stuck between their toes. Just like horses, goat, and cattle, sheep need regular hoof care. Sheep have a gland between their toes. This can become infected or simply clogged. It is a good idea to check these glands on a regular basis.
Sheep have scrawny looking legs for the most part. I have yet to see a sheep that has legs to match its body. Some sheep have wool free legs, and others need their legs shaved yearly. Occasionally, sheep will sprain a leg joint, especially when fighting or mating. Cuts, scrapes, and the odd rash are the biggest concern with most sheep and their legs.
Sheep can have wool free or wooly faces. Our wooly faced sheep get a mid year face trim to ensure they can see well. Exterior, the main concerns on the head are cuts, ear injuries, mites, and horn problems. In the past year I’ve had part of an ear torn off and yet another with horns that need to be filed down. The ones with injuries got them fighting each other for herd queenship. Sheep have very hard skulls, and they will knock them together on occasion. The biggest issues with the head comes between the ears.
The neck is more delicate on a sheep than one would assume given their thick skulls. The neck not only contains their trachea and esophagus, but also long arteries. During shearing, the most dangerous moments are opening up the neck wool. A slip of the hand and you can end up with a major injury in seconds. This is why one needs to always hire an experienced shearer. The neck is also where predators go for the kill strike. This is why it is important to make sure any dogs that will be around the herd on a regular basis are fully trained and trustworthy. Never tie a sheep by its neck. The risk of permanent injury and death are real. We had one ewe that came in with previous neck injuries from shearing. She was extremely difficult to shear and had multiple scars. They REMEMBER any trauma to the neck and will act to defend themselves. Be gentle.
Sheep have fairly sturdy backs for their size. Unlike horses, they should not bear weight on their backs, but sheep rarely have back issues unless they are allowed to age. Then they have the typical inconveniences that most animals (including people) have as they age. Do not sit or bear weight on a sheep’s back. You can break it.
Other than the neck, the sheep’s flanks/sides are the most sensitive. Sheep are prey animals, meaning they can be driven by putting visual pressure/movement along their sides. The skin along the sides and towards the rump is very sensitive and thinner than expected. We’ve had a ewe get caught on a rose thorn and tear an extensive hole into her skin that required stitches. This is so in an attack situation where a predator grabs the skin the sheep has a better chance of escape. What surprised me about Dagney’s injury was how little it bled. Thankfully, we stitched it up right then and she made a full recovery. My vet told me that other than infection, a tear on the flank was considered an injury of inconvenience more than life threatening as long as it was just the skin. Deeper wounds can lead to death.
Sheep have tails. Depending on the breed, they may have long tails or short tails. Several of our sheep have very long tails, and they are a pain to shear. Most shepherds remove the tails shortly after birth. This can seem barbaric, but there are humane reasons to remove the tails. Unlike a cat or dog, sheep can only move the very base of the tail. The rest just hangs there. Tails can get pulled off. When they are – they BLEED.
Some breeds have horns and some are polled (naturally without horns). The animal’s gender has little to do with horns or polled. For the most part horns are fairly low maintenance. However, there are a few things that can go wrong and we will dive into that next time.
Sheep have thirty two teeth. Humans use them to determine age. For the most part teeth are easy. However, like horns there are a few things that can go wrong with them, and we will cover what to look for in a sheep’s teeth, and medical problems than can pop up.
That’s it for today. Like I said, this is mostly for reference and to provide a frame work for next month’s discussion on how to handle minor issues and when to call a vet.
Until next time,
Have a marvelous day,
Moriah and the Flock