Sheep - Health

Health

Sheep may fall victim to poisons, infectious diseases, and physical injuries. As a prey species, a sheep's system is adapted to hide the obvious signs of illness, to prevent being targeted by predators. However, some signs of ill health are obvious, with sick sheep eating little, vocalizing excessively, and being generally listless. Throughout history, much of the money and labor of sheep husbandry has aimed to prevent sheep ailments. Historically, shepherds often created remedies by experimentation on the farm. In some developed countries, including the United States, sheep lack the economic importance for drug companies to perform expensive clinical trials required to approve more than a relatively limited number of drugs for ovine use. However, extra-label drug use in sheep production is permitted in many jurisdictions, subject to certain restrictions. In the US, for example, regulations governing extra-label drug use in animals are found in 21 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Part 530. In the 20th and 21st centuries, a minority of sheep owners have turned to alternative treatments such as homeopathy, herbalism and even traditional Chinese medicine to treat sheep veterinary problems. Despite some favorable anecdotal evidence, the effectiveness of alternative veterinary medicine has been met with skepticism in scientific journals. The need for traditional anti-parasite drugs and antibiotics is widespread, and is the main impediment to certified organic farming with sheep.

Many breeders take a variety of preventive measures to ward off problems. The first is to ensure all sheep are healthy when purchased. Many buyers avoid outlets known to be clearing houses for animals culled from healthy flocks as either sick or simply inferior. This can also mean maintaining a closed flock, and quarantining new sheep for a month. Two fundamental preventive programs are maintaining good nutrition and reducing stress in the sheep. Restraint, isolation, loud noises, novel situations, pain, heat, extreme cold, fatigue and other stressors can lead to secretion of cortisol, a stress hormone, in amounts that may indicate welfare problems. Excessive stress can compromise the immune system. "Shipping fever" (pneumonic mannheimiosis, formerly called pasteurellosis) is a disease of particular concern, that can occur as a result of stress, notably during transport and (or) handling. Pain, fear and several other stressors can cause secretion of epinephrine (adrenaline). Considerable epinephrine secretion in the final days before slaughter can adversely affect meat quality (by causing glycogenolysis, removing the substrate for normal post-slaughter acidification of meat) and result in meat becoming more susceptible to colonization by spoilage bacteria. Because of such issues, low-stress handling is essential in sheep management. Avoiding poisoning is also important; common poisons are pesticide sprays, inorganic fertilizer, motor oil, as well as radiator coolant containing ethylene glycol.

Common forms of preventive medication for sheep are vaccinations and treatments for parasites. Both external and internal parasites are the most prevalent malady in sheep, and are either fatal, or reduce the productivity of flocks. Worms are the most common internal parasites. They are ingested during grazing, incubate within the sheep, and are expelled through the digestive system (beginning the cycle again). Oral anti-parasitic medicines, known as drenches, are given to a flock to treat worms, sometimes after worm eggs in the feces has been counted to assess infestation levels. Afterwards, sheep may be moved to a new pasture to avoid ingesting the same parasites. External sheep parasites include: lice (for different parts of the body), sheep keds, nose bots, sheep itch mites, and maggots. Keds are blood-sucking parasites that cause general malnutrition and decreased productivity, but are not fatal. Maggots are those of the bot fly and the blow-fly. Fly maggots cause the extremely destructive condition of flystrike. Flies lay their eggs in wounds or wet, manure-soiled wool; when the maggots hatch they burrow into a sheep's flesh, eventually causing death if untreated. In addition to other treatments, crutching (shearing wool from a sheep's rump) is a common preventive method. Some countries allow mulesing, a practice that involves stripping away the skin on the rump to prevent fly-strike, normally performed when the sheep is a lamb. Nose bots are fly larvae that inhabit a sheep's sinuses, causing breathing difficulties and discomfort. Common signs are a discharge from the nasal passage, sneezing, and frantic movement such as head shaking. External parasites may be controlled through the use of backliners, sprays or immersive sheep dips.

A wide array of bacterial and viral diseases affect sheep. Diseases of the hoof, such as foot rot and foot scald may occur, and are treated with footbaths and other remedies. These painful conditions cause lameness and hinder feeding. Ovine Johne's disease is a wasting disease that affects young sheep. Bluetongue disease is an insect-borne illness causing fever and inflammation of the mucous membranes. Ovine rinderpest (or peste des petits ruminants) is a highly contagious and often fatal viral disease affecting sheep and goats.

A few sheep conditions are transmissible to humans. Orf (also known as scabby mouth, contagious ecthyma or soremouth) is a skin disease leaving lesions that is transmitted through skin-to-skin contact. Cutaneous anthrax is also called woolsorter's disease, as the spores can be transmitted in unwashed wool. More seriously, the organisms that can cause spontaneous enzootic abortion in sheep are easily transmitted to pregnant women. Also of concern are the prion disease scrapie and the virus that causes foot-and-mouth disease (FMD), as both can devastate flocks. The latter poses a slight risk to humans. During the 2001 FMD pandemic in the UK, hundreds of sheep were culled and some rare British breeds were at risk of extinction due to this.

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