Coccidiosis Is A Deadly Sheep Parasite, Too

Most people know to protect chickens from coccidiosis, but the parasite can infect sheep, too. Here's what to watch for and how to treat.

by Jana Wilson
PHOTO: Cindy Parks/Pixabay

Recently I had the chance to pick the brain of a sheep producer who has raised sheep for more than 50 years. You know the saying, “He’ll forget more than I’ll ever know?” That’s him!

At any rate, I asked him what he saw as the biggest threat to sheeps’ health in addition to worms … which we all know and talk about.

He thought for a minute, and then said, “Well, parasites really are the biggest problem. I guess in addition to worms, there’s coccidiosis. That can be pretty bad for the sheep.”

Coccidiosis in Sheep?

I’m no stranger to the plague of coccidiosis, but had only encountered it in chickens. In chickens, it’s a terrible, fast-spreading and quick-killing disease. I’ve lost a few chicks in rapid succession once I noticed the bloody diarrhea—a sign the infection has spread to a dangerous degree.

Interestingly, the coccidia that affect poultry are not the same ones that infect sheep. It turns out there are many different kinds of coccidia. And different ones affect different animals.

What Is Coccidia?

What is coccidia? Well, it’s a single-cell protozoa that causes damage to the sheep’s intestinal system. Once one of your flock has this, the egg-shaped coccidia comes out in the animal’s feces. Like worms, the coccidia can be picked up by an animal eating off the ground where feces are present.

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An adult can actually have coccidia in their intestines and not show symptoms. But, according to a ruminant specialist from the University of Maryland, lambs up to age six months are the most susceptible.

Read more: When you buy sheep, make sure the seller provides these documents.

Signs of Coccidiosis

One sign of coccidiosis in sheep: dark diarrhea, possibly containing blood or mucous. You might see a very dirty back end and tail on the young ones. Your lamb may be weak or not eat as well.

Experts often note that weaning is a particularly stressful time for lambs. They also may be more susceptible to diseases like coccidiosis during that time.

So if you see signs of some serious diarrhea in your lambs, it’s time to act–and fast. You can buy over-the-counter meds used to treat coccidiosis. But according to the Maryland ruminant specialist, they may not be approved for use in sheep.

So my advice? Call your vet! There are also other drugs that require a vet’s prescription that are very effective against coccidiosis.

The Best Treatment

The best treatment for coccidiosis in sheep, though, is prevention. By the time you notice your flock is ailing, some of the damage has already been done.

As with chickens, the best rule of thumb is to keep the housing and bedding extremely clean. Don’t feed hay on the ground where there are feces present, as this can spread other types of parasites, as well as coccidia.

Also make sure your feeders are off the ground and that none of the sheep leave feces in there as well.

Another tip? Keep your water tanks clean as well. When the tank gets low, take the time to scrub it out and make sure it’s clean as well.

Read more: Should you feed your sheep kelp meal?

Nutrition, Stress

Good nutrition goes a long way toward helping your flock resist parasites of all kinds. Feed the best grain you can (if you feed grain). And make sure hay or pasture is high quality.

Finally, from everything I’ve read, keeping stress down in your flock is essential to keeping them healthy. I know we all have to handle our sheep at some point, especially if you shear and trim hooves or vaccinate. But try to plan out your activities so that you can get the most done at one time.

For example, when we shear, we also check hooves and trim if needed. We’ll give the CDT vaccine at this time, too.

Our lambs are doing well so far. We had our first one in early April and still have a couple more ewes left to give birth. That may delay our weaning of the lambs in the entire flock as well. But we will definitely watch for signs of stress and illness when we do finally separate them.

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