Common Sheep Diseases

October 25, 2016

Sometimes, no matter what special precautions and preventative measures we take, we get sick. The food we eat, the lack of quality sleep we get, even the emotional stress we carry around with us—it all adds up.

It’s just a fact of life: Sometimes, we get sick.

And it’s no different for our animals, including a farmer’s sheep.

But as many of your sheep that do get sick, you can limit illness and fatalities just by being aware of the diseases, their signs and symptoms. To keep your herd healthy you need to be able to recognize the problem, make a correct diagnosis, and treat your sheep in the most effective manner.

So, let’s learn about some of the more common problems:


Vibrio may be responsible for 10 to 60% of the abortions in a flock, where the lamb is aborted during the last three to four weeks of gestation. Some ewes don’t abort but produce weak lambs, most of which die.

The Vibrio organism is ingested orally, and it usually comes from a high concentration of sheep in your flock and a contaminated feed. Thankfully, if abortion has been a problem in the past, you can vaccinate the ewe mid-pregnancy for only 40 cents an ewe.

Chlamydia, another cause of abortion, has become more and more prevalent in the Midwest since 1970. One of the first symptoms is that the infected ewe usually won’t eat for a few days. This is followed by vaginal discharge before an abortion occurs in the last month of the pregnancy.

Thankfully, there is an affordable vaccine ($1) for this too!


A pneumonia outbreak becomes more complicated especially when we are dealing with a group of lambs. What usually infects the sheep can be any number of bacteria, a mycoplasma, or even a virus.

The organisms usually find themselves in the respiratory tract of the young lambs and remain dormant until some outside stimulus—poor barn ventilation, a build up of ammonia, high humidity—rears its ugly head, at which point the symptoms begin to show themselves.

  • Coughing
  • Fatigue
  • Slower, out-of-breath lambs

Prevention is key here. Take care to clean the dust from the collecting yard, to drive your sheep slowly, to make sure there is good air movement throughout your barn, especially during the winter, as stale, humid air is a breeding ground for pneumonia.

Urinary Calculi

A common disease for producers who creep feed their lambs, especially the rams and lambs that are on a high-grain diet. These dietary conditions cause crystals to form in the urine and block the flow of the urethra. This eventually leads to possible rupture, which in 80 to 90% of time, the lamb will die.

But why does this happen? What is specifically in the feed that causes this?

Short answer: Phosphorus.

An easy fix is simply to reduce the phosphorus intake levels of your herd. Conversely, you want to increase calcium. High-grain rations result in a Ca:P ratio of 1:2 or even as high as 1:3, when really you want at least double the calcium you do phosphorus.

As a preventative measure, you can add .5% ammonium chloride to the grain to acidify the urine.


The number one killer of lamb—starvation—actually just comes from a lack of shepherding. However, if you know what to look for, most can be prevented:

  • The lamb doesn’t get started and receives no colostrum.
  • Pneumonia, which often is associated with lambs that receive no colostrum and thereby lack immune bodies.
  • The ewe won’t claim the lamb.
  • Ewes with mastitis, an infection of the breast tissue.
  • The teat is too big or is too near the ground and the lamb doesn’t find it.
  • Lambs with sore mouths.
  • Joint injury or illness.
  • Difficult birth.

However, it is quite common that a lot of lambs die for no apparent reason, simply lacking genetic vitality.

Ultimately, taking care of the small things—ensuring your lambs and sheep have a healthy living environment with the appropriate feed—will make your sheep farm a successful and healthy one.


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