Help! My sheep is sick at the fair!
I came home late last night from judging indoor exhibits at our Santa Fe County fair. I love the fair and, since our children aged out of 4-H, I miss being more closely involved. As I walked through the barn and felt the hustle of the families preparing the animals for the livestock shows, I basked in the glow of fun memories and, I admit, felt some relief that it wasn't me this year.
I thought I would share just a bit of advice for our 4-H friends, and others who are preparing and transporting animals to upcoming shows and fairs. While the advice might be a little late for this year, depending on the dates of your show, it is still hard-won information that may be useful in the future. After many years, you end up knowing what to do, but I remember our early years of 4-H showing when we were completely inexperienced and just trying to break in to what seemed like a closed circle of sheep showmen. There is a lot to learn about showing sheep from feeding and handling to exercise and training, fitting and finally showmanship. But the most difficult situation, and the most frightening, is when the sheep or lamb becomes sick at the fair.
There are a couple of reasons sheep may become sick, but the most obvious problem for show sheep is stress. Sheep are vulnerable to stress and, unfortunately, everything concerning a show is stressful. Animals that are not used to being closely managed will react to the increased handling. Washing, clipping, grooming and so many other tasks before you even leave home contributes to stress. Loading and transporting compounds the problem. Further handling at the show occurs with inspection and weigh-ins. The noise, bustle, machinery, flies and unfamiliar, overcrowded housing again compounds the stress. The water may smell and taste funny; the feed may be different and the summertime heat factor can also be a problem in show barns, particularly for sheep in fleece. Further, if the handlers are nervous about the show or any of the previously mentioned points, the sheep may also pick up on this tension. Add in inexperienced and excitable children or youth and it all just combines into a situation and environment that is taxing and stressful. Sometimes the sheep respond by getting sick. (And mothers too, to tell the truth!)
The solution is to plan ahead of time to prevent sickness. Because of registration deadlines, you should know which sheep are going to the show. Begin handling these animals early on. Train them to a halter and clip them up to a fence for ten or fifteen minutes while you move around doing other chores. Tackle as many grooming tasks as you can ahead of time, or arrive at the show with enough time to complete the fitting. Introduce the animals to the trailer and practice loading, if possible. Get the health and transport papers completed in a timely way. Plan to travel and arrive at the show in the morning hours when temperatures are cooler.
Once you are at the show, try to be patient and go slowly through the rigmarole. Allow time for your sheep to get used to the housing and general environment before trying to work with them. If possible, plan to bring familiar feed and hay from home. Plan to feed stemmy alfalfa and not much grain to smooth out the rumen process and promote drinking. Grain is helpful to tempt the sheep to do what we want or need them to do, but too much grain can upset the rumen. So, grain should be fed sparingly at a show. Water is a key component for health at the show. Provide clean, cool, fresh water in clean containers. Change the water when it gets dirty and remember that it probably will get dirty in a crowded pen! If you know the water may be an issue, such as chlorinated city water, you might plan to bring water from home as well. If you're showing market lambs, water will affect the appearance of the sheep and many competitors adjust water intake for a show. In this case, you should be prepared with the water regime you've been using at home, including electrolytes if necessary. Bring a box fan to help with ventilation and hang a fly strip or two. (Be sure to keep these well above the sheep and out of the way of people!) Keeping the manure out of the pen will also help with flies. If the show is longer than one day, take the sheep for a walk outside in the fresh air, away from the bustle in the barn.
Careful observation will alert to potential problems. If a sheep's eyes are dull, if their head is hanging, if their ears are down or they are walking abnormally, you could expect that the sheep is not well. Sheep or lambs that don't feel well don't eat as quickly and often won't finish their feed. Also watch for urination. Sheep that have been bedded for a period of time will urinate when they get up and move around. Sheep will often "bawl" when stressed and they may try to bolt or run away. They may pace or turn in circles, chew the fence or try to jump it. Or, they may be lethargic and refuse to get up to eat. You may notice a snotty nose. If the sheep is heat stressed they may pant and seem weak, and they will probably refuse to eat.
If your sheep do get sick, treat for the stress first. Do what you can to remove the stress producing factors, such as ventilation or overcrowding. Take the animal for a walk if possible, outside and away from the barn. Check for dehydration by pinching the skin of the upper eyelid and then releasing it immediately. If the skin is slow to return to normal, the sheep is dehydrated and will need water immediately and possibly some electrolytes. If they refuse water, first try feeding stemmy hay as it creates a thirst for water. You can also try filling a larger bucket or trough with a hose and tempt them to drink as the water is moving. For some reason, sheep seem to prefer drinking moving water. You might also try an additive. This is most effective when you get them used to it at home first. As a last resort, use a drenching gun to hydrate the animal. If all your efforts to treat for stress don't seem to help, by all means, get advice from a vet.
Usually, sickness at the fair is caused by cumulative stress. Do your best to plan for and prevent the stress, treat the symptoms as soon as you notice them and you will likely not have serious trouble. I know this is a long list and that planning adds layers of complexity to the whole operation, but it does help. Take my word for it.