Rachel worked as a farm manager for three years in Pennsylvania and now has her own farmstead in Minnesota.
My experiences with raising sheep and lambing have been nothing but enlightening. Sheep aren't nearly as dumb as tradition says. They make excellent mothers, and with a relatively small number of acres, a farmer can make a pretty penny producing lambs.
Aside from their place in farming, sheep can also make good pets, and from what I've seen, keeping sheep as pets is a growing trend. I don’t live very far from the suburbs, and I’ve done public sheep-shearing demonstrations here at the farm using old-fashioned hand shears.
As a result, I’ve received inquiries from people wondering if I could come and shear their pet sheep for them. I’ve answered these calls and arrived at beautiful suburban homes owned by good-natured, friendly folk with a few acres of land that have decided to keep a few sheep.
Sheep kept as pets may never be expected to act like “farm sheep” and produce quality wool or large lamb crops, but a sheep is still a sheep and needs to be cared for as such.
So What’s a Sheep?
Technically, the sheep (Ovis aries) is a four-legged, small ruminant mammal. Ruminants are animals with a rumen, which is a compartment where plants and grains that have been ingested by the animal stop by for a visit with some bacteria.
The ingested food is then regurgitated after undergoing some initial digestive processes and returned to the mouth in the form of a “cud,” a ball of partially digested food. Ruminant animals like sheep chew on the cud as the next phase in digestion.
Sheep are one of the oldest domesticated animals, and through selective breeding practices, we have changed them a bit.
The domestic sheep, like most livestock animals, has become just as dependent on its human keepers as we have on the products it produces. So whether a sheep is being kept for agricultural purposes or not, some basic guidelines for care will apply.
Your Friendly, All-Knowing, All-Important Veterinarian
I know that large animal vets can sometimes be hard to come by, but if you are keeping sheep as pets, you should find one. A veterinarian who specializes in small ruminants will be an invaluable source of information for you.
I wasn’t raised on a farm or by farm people, so when I first started breeding sheep, I learned everything I know from my vet. Honestly, you might be surprised to find that many of your questions and concerns about your sheep can be dealt with over the phone.
Additionally, fees for “house calls” are generally very reasonable, so if you do need an expert on hand, don’t worry too much about the cost.
Look at it this way: You wouldn’t buy or adopt a dog if you couldn’t afford the vet bills, right? Same difference.
Most pet sheep will never need to see a vet, but you never know what might happen, so it’s a good idea to find one. I really can’t stress enough that if you’re going to keep sheep, you should know the number of a large animal veterinarian that you can contact.
Like all animals, sheep should have constant, free-choice access to fresh, clean drinking water. A free-choice salt block and mineral block should be provided, and the mineral block should be for sheep, not horses. Mineral supplements designed for horses contain far too much copper for sheep, which can lead to a condition called copper toxicity.
Grazing and Hay
Sheep are excellent grazers and prefer a diet of grass and clover. Ewes (female sheep) that are not being bred will do very well through the whole growing season if they have access to reasonably good pasture and won’t require any grain to maintain good body condition.
In fact, one of the common issues I’ve seen in suburban sheep flocks is over-graining. Feeding grain when it is not necessary, no matter how much you love your sheep, is only going to accomplish one thing: Make your sheep overweight.
Fat sheep do not do well. Overweight ewes especially do not do well if they are ever bred. The animal really wasn’t meant to pack on a lot of fat, and a sheep can experience health problems if allowed to become overweight. And as a side note, shearing a sheep is made more difficult if the animal is overly plump.
Pet sheep that have not been bred should do just fine during the winter months if provided good hay. Straight alfalfa is unnecessary. If you’re not sure about hay quality, the cheaper of the available products is probably what you want for your pet sheep.
Do the smell test: Does it smell good to you? Would you eat it (if you were a sheep)? Hay shouldn’t smell moldy or musty, but sweet and fresh, sort of like mowed grass.
Pet sheep that don’t have access to a lot of pasture should be given hay throughout the year. And again, if your sheep are losing weight, that’s the time to offer grain. Don’t grain sheep that already have good body condition!
Assuming you are not breeding your ewes, grain should only be offered to pet sheep over the winter if you notice that they are losing condition (getting thin).
Looking at the belly of a sheep won’t tell you much in terms of how fat or thin the animal is because the rumen and intestines take up so much room in there. To check the body condition of a sheep, feel along the spine and the hips.
If you can feel a little vertebrae and a little hip bone, your animal is probably in good condition. If the vertebrae feel sharp, the sheep may be underweight. If you can’t feel the hip or spine, you’ve got a fat sheep and should lay off the grain and treats!
Add grain to a sheep’s diet slowly. Abrupt changes can shock the rumen and cause all sorts of problems. Grain should be divided into at least two meals per day, and no change in grain should be made at more than one-half pound per sheep per day.
Maintenance feed for healthy sheep that need a little grain to keep their weight up shouldn’t exceed one-quarter pound per sheep per day. Compare this ration to that of a pregnant ewe that will typically receive one whole pound of grain per day. Pet sheep that aren’t breeding definitely don’t need that much.
As far as grain goes, lambs are a different story. If you’ve purchased lambs that have basically just been weaned, they should have started on grain and pasture (and hopefully hay) already.
Continue a graining regimen of about one pound per sheep per day until the lamb is six or seven months old, then gradually reduce the grain. Don’t grain the lamb again unless she is losing body condition, or you are going to breed her.
Final Note on Feeding
The best feeding practices for any farm animal will be implemented by a caring, observant keeper.
If water and mineral are available free-choice, the best way to figure out how much hay to feed your sheep is to figure a ration of 2% of their total body weight.
Aside from this, careful observation of body condition will tell you everything else that you need to know.
Shelter and Fencing
Even pet sheep need some kind of a shelter where they can retreat during bad weather and be kept safe from predators.
Most suburban areas don’t seem to have large wolf or coyote populations, so that’s a good thing. But believe it or not, a stray dog with the wrong idea can seriously wound or kill an adult sheep.
Three-sided structures are good. Little barn-type structures that can be closed up at night are better. If you’re sure that you’re in a coyote-free zone and have an electric fence installed that will deter dogs, you can probably get away with something more like a big lean-to.
Use your best discretion in choosing the appropriate shelter for your pet sheep. And don’t let them run away! Sheep need to be fenced if they live in suburban areas, or before you know it, your sheep will be munching your neighbor’s garden or, worse yet, get hit by a car.
Multiple strands of electric fence are really good at keeping sheep where they belong. Wooden post-and-rail or post-and-board fence works well, too, but only if there are more than three rails or boards per panel. Three-rail post-and-rail just doesn’t cut it for sheep. They’ll squeeze right through the rails the first chance they get.
If you don’t want to go the route of electric fence, that’s fine. One good rule of thumb to follow in that case is this: If your fence is good enough to prevent a large dog (such as a German Shepherd) from squeezing through, climbing under, or jumping over, it will definitely suit sheep.
In fact, it will probably be overkill, but that’s okay.
Shearing sheep can be fun! You get to wrestle the silly fluffball to the ground, roll around with it and get filthy, learn how to hold the sheep in such a way that she calms down, and then you stink like lanolin for the rest of the day.
As fun as shearing may be, you don’t have to learn to do it yourself. When you decide you want to own pet sheep, you need to have the name and number of a couple of people who can shear. You must have your sheep shorn every year in the spring before it gets hot.
I can’t stress that point enough. Don’t wait until it’s been ninety degrees for two weeks to call someone and ask them to come shear your sheep for you. For one thing, the animals have already been suffering.
For another, your shearer is probably going to charge you more money because of how miserable it can be to shear when it’s very hot out. Also, your sheep are going to have a harder time being shorn because the stress of being handled by a stranger will compound the heat stress they are experiencing.
Having your sheep shorn before the daily highs get into the ’80s is best.
If you hire a person to shear your sheep, it is very important that you make sure they remove all of the wool. This includes the dreaded crotch region, the wool around the anus and vagina of the ewe. Crotching is the “grossest” part of shearing, for fairly obvious reasons, but it’s pretty much the most important part.
The risk you run in leaving the crotch wool on your sheep year after year is a terrible condition known as fly-strike. I’ll spare you the details of my one and only experience with fly-strike because frankly, it’s too disgusting to relate.
Let me just say this: The condition happens when the wool around the anus and vagina of the sheep is left there for too long, becomes moist with urine and caked with manure, stays warm and moist for long periods of time, and turns into a breeding ground for flies.
You do not want to see fly-strike. Make sure your sheep are crotched.
Sheep for Pets: Rams or Ewes?
If you find yourself in possession of a ram lamb, do yourself (and him) a favor and have him neutered. Wethers can have a lot of personality, be less skittish than ewes, and make better pets, according to some.
Rams, on the other hand, are bound to become aggressive. Part of the reason for their aggression is the animal itself. The other issue is that rams that have been handled a lot and given no reason to fear, and therefore respect humans, simply won’t see anything wrong with butting you in the knees or knocking down someone’s children. In short, as far as pets go, rams can become dangerous.
Sheep need to have their hooves trimmed as the hard outer wall grows. Specifying a time frame for foot trimming is difficult, as it really depends on several factors, including the individual animal and what it walks on.
It’s best to have an experienced person, like a vet, herdsman, or savvy pet sheep keeper, show you how to do it. A good pair of garden shears, or even sturdy scissors, will usually work really well.
Sheep need medication commonly called dewormer that will kill and remove intestinal parasites and other types of worms. This medication is generally administered orally and, again, make sure the product you purchase is labeled for sheep and not horses. You should deworm your sheep every spring, summer, and fall.
Some Plants That Are Poisonous or Toxic to Sheep
This is not a complete list, but a good start: azaleas, chrysanthemums, acorns, choke cherry, buttercups, daffodils, holly, elderberry, and black locust bark.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
Questions & Answers
Question: How often do you have to groom sheep?
Answer: You should shear wool sheep at least once a year. You don't have to bathe sheep.
Question: I am thinking about buying a lamb for a pet. How long do they live, and would it be happy living in a large back garden?
Answer: Sheep can live from twelve to fourteen years.
They are not happy living without other sheep - you need at least two.
You can check veterinary recommendations for minimum spacing requirements. In my experience, sheep are happier with more space. A small pen will bore them. It's also healthier for them to have access to fresh grass and pasture forage during the growing season. They won't enjoy a diet of only hay all year long - it's the difference between what will keep them alive and what they will really thrive on.
I stock my fields at five ewes per acre generally, but I also do some rotations. You could probably keep two sheep on 1/2 an acre depending on what types of grass you have. At some point, though, you will have to move them out of that area and let it rest or even reseed it.
Question: We have a 2.5-month-old lamb we've been bottle feeding since birth. She was a triplet. When it is sunny, we leave her outside with the dog, but she has been sleeping inside on the floor. We have .5 acres, and a huge backyard. Any advice on transitioning her to the outside overnight? When we leave her outside by herself, and we are inside it sounds like bloody murder outside. We have definitely spoiled her.
Answer: Your best bet would be to get another lamb or yearling sheep. Your lamb doesn't know she's not a person. She needs to bond to another ruminant animal, or she'll continue to experience anxiety when separated from you overnight. I would recommend doing this as quickly as possible if she's already 60+ days old, and wean her off the bottle if you haven't already.
© 2012 Rachel Koski Nielsen
Sue Goodman on September 26, 2019:
I have an orphaned lamb I am feeding, I feed it and keep it locked in the pen while the others graze in the paddock, should I let it out with the other sheep in the paddock between feeds, it is one week old.
stevie on October 07, 2018:
Helpful article have had two babydoll sheep for pets for the last year was going to breed the ewe this fall but I enjoy them so much as pets and raised polled Hereford cattle for 30 years that I was wondering if I really wanted to breed my pet ewe or just enjoy them as pets so went looking for articles on not breeding and after reading your article decided to just enjoy my two darlings the sweetest most docile animals I have ever had so much fun. Thanks
cream on September 24, 2018:
they are cool sheep
Shamreen Hassan on August 25, 2018:
I have a wether lamb who's currently a month and a week old. I really want to start weaning him but i'm not sure where to start. He's by himself and I've never raised lambs before him so I'm a bit of a newbie and I read online that its better to wean abruptly? He was on 250ml 4x a day but I've cut him down to 300ml 3x a day, I cut down one whole feed and he doesn't seem to be happy about it. He's a bit more vocal than usual and very antsy. He eats handfuls of economy pallets and barely drinks water unless its out of the bottle. Please help! I'm genuinely incredibly confused and Google isn't helping at all. Thank you.
who cares what my name is on July 30, 2018:
Hi thank you so much for this very important information although one of my sheep are way skinnier then the rest what should I do
Titia Geertman from Waterlandkerkje - The Netherlands on June 19, 2018:
You wrote that copper is bad for sheep and that's true for most commercial breeds, but there are in fact quite some sheep breeds that actually need copper in their minerals because without copper they will get sick and die.
Wenwen on June 18, 2018:
You're soooo lucky! I want to raise sheep someday when I grow up. And lambs are so cute! I went to a sheep farm and they seem to like me, especially the lambs. I loved reading this keep writing!
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on March 20, 2018:
Zan, any sprays should be cleared with a vet before use on sheep. Hair sheep are far less likely to get flystrike, however, because they don't have long wool that can become matted with manure. So you shouldn't need to worry. Following a good antiparasite program is also recommended.
zan on March 13, 2018:
If we pick hair sheep there's no need to shear. Can we then wash them with insect repellent shampoo like we do our other pets? Can they have sprays, etc.? (the fly thing sounds awful).
Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on January 18, 2014:
Wow, I always thought I would like to have some sheep but I can see it is not like having a dog or cat. Lot of responsibility to have just for fun or a pet.
You have some very informative hubs I will enjoy reading.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on September 30, 2012:
Eddy - Thanks, glad you liked it!
Eiddwen from Wales on September 29, 2012:
Oh how I loved this gem;I can relate to your feelings and this hub will be so useful.
I now look forward to many more by you.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on August 10, 2012:
Donnah - I'm glad you enjoyed the hub. I love raising sheep, especially leading up to and during lambing season - lots of work and excitement! Thanks for commenting :)
Donna Hilbrandt from Upstate New York on August 10, 2012:
I love this article! I grew up on a sheep farm, and it is a great experience to raise these animals. Your article is informative and very useful. Voted up.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on July 19, 2012:
Angela - glad you liked my hub! It is true that sheep can graze grass lower than other animals likes horses and cattle, but that alone shouldn't kill your grass. Leaving an animal or group of animals on a piece of ground that is too small to support them will ruin the grass and other forage, however. Rotational grazing is important, i.e., keeping an eye on the available forage and if you see that it is all below three inches, moving the animals off of it. But with pet sheep, it's not likely that a person would have a large enough flock to ruin all of their grass. A good rule of thumb is 1000 pounds of animal per acre, and the average ewe weighs between 150 and 225 pounds. Hope that helps answer your question! Thanks for the comment. Maybe I should add something to the article about making sure you have enough grass for your sheep! :)
Angela Blair from Central Texas on July 19, 2012:
I had a pet lamb years ago but he'd moved on to the herd by the time he was grown. I understand that when sheep graze they graze deep and often destroy the grass -- is this true or false? We have more goats than sheep in my home state of Texas. Good Hub -- thanks! Best/Sis
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on July 18, 2012:
B. Leekley, thanks so much for the votes and various shares! I really appreciate it. Glad you enjoyed the article, it was really fun for me to write and I was hoping it would be helpful :)
Brian Leekley from Bainbridge Island, Washington, USA on July 18, 2012:
Up, Useful, Interesting, and shared with followers and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+. I doubt if I will ever raise sheep, but this looks to me to be an excellent article for anyone who is into sheep to read.
Rachel Koski Nielsen (author) from Pennsylvania to Minnesota on July 17, 2012:
Thanks, Dirt Farmer! I was a little surprised myself at first when people were calling me from 20 minutes outside the city limits, asking me if they could pay me to shear their sheep. I did a little research and sure enough, pet sheep are allowed in lots of places!
Jill Spencer from United States on July 17, 2012:
I learned a lot from your hub! For one thing, I'd no idea that sheep had become popular as suburban pets. Good one.