Since I’m only in my second year of owning sheep, there is a painfully large amount of knowledge that I do not have. You can do a lot of reading before you get your animals—which I did—but knowing what is important and not so important is something that comes with experience.
Slowly but surely, I’m learning.
In fact, sheep are not my first venture into livestock. I’ve raised chickens for the better part of 20 years.
Having a sick animal of any kind is distressing. There’s one thing, though, that I’ve learned from chickens that applies to sheep as well. Keeping your animals healthy is the best way to keep them from getting sick.
Sound obvious? Possibly. But you cannot overlook the wisdom of maintaining sanitary conditions for your sheep, like clean bedding if you keep them in a barn or clean water that is offered all the time. Also, it’s important to make sure there are no pesticides or other toxic substances that the sheep can get into.
Nutrition is a big part of keeping your animals healthy. So is ensuring that your sheep don’t eat down pasture too far that they kill the grass and eat too closely to their own manure.
Preventing Illness Is the Best Cure
But I have come to the conclusion that there are still some things I can be doing to ensure my sheep have good health. One is to treat them for internal parasites—this means worms. The other thing that I can do is to vaccinate my sheep on an annual basis.
What you vaccinate your sheep for depends on what you are going to do with them (show them? keep a closed flock?) and what part of the country you live in. It’s always best to consult with a local vet or county extension office to learn what diseases are prevalent in your area.
The one vaccine that I now give my sheep and lambs on an annual basis is one for clostridial diseases. In fact, according to the Maryland Small Ruminant site (a really great resource for sheep and goat owners), this is the only universally-recommended vaccine for sheep and lambs. The vaccine is most commonly called CDT, which affects three of the clostridial diseases including overeating and tetanus.
There are other versions of this vaccine that protect against several more of the clostridial diseases. But most of the sites I found noted that the three-way CDT is probably sufficient for most small flocks.
What is a clostridial disease? Simply put, it’s a disease caused by bacteria that’s present in the sheep’s environment, including the soil and feces. It can cause sudden death before you even know your animal is sick. So it’s better to vaccinate your animals before they get it.
The shot itself is not hard to administer. We use an 18- or 20-gauge needle (1/2 inch or 3/4 inch length is fine) and give the shot high up in the neck, pulling the skin and plunging the needle at the base. I’ve read also that it’s OK to give the shot over the ribs or behind the armpit. I just find that it is easiest to vaccinate sheep high in the neck, so that’s where I do it.
Lambs get two doses, preferably 21 days apart, and then annually after that. It’s recommended that a pregnant ewe should get vaccinated in the last month before they give birth. This gives their lambs some protection for a few weeks after birth.
We were especially interested in that bit of advice, as we are purchasing a ram and going to breed some of our ewes later this fall.
That in itself will be another adventure and—I am sure—will offer many more lessons for us in keeping our sheep safe and healthy.