How to Care for Sheep as Pets
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 they can retreat to during bad weather and to be kept safe from predators in.
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 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, getting 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.
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 80’s 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 can 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, rams can become dangerous as far as pets go.
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.