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How to Check your Sheep's Vital Signs

Ever looked at your sheep and wondered, "Have they always breathed that slow?" Or call you vet, just to have them ask "What's their temperature? How's their heartbeat?" FYI, I'm just as guilty for replying with a stunned silence and a quiet, "I don't know". Considering I'm a nurse, I should know better, but obviously I don't.

Like every species, body temperature and respiration is different. The trick is figuring out what is normal and how to find out to get that information when the sheep is healthy. Then you have an idea of what is abnormal vitals.

As with all things farming, you also need the right equipment. A cheap stethoscope isn't necessary, but is handy. You don't need a high-end cardiac one like I have (in case you were wondering, yes, I do use it on both people and animals). A simple stethoscope from Amazon will do. On a cheapskate note, if you or a family member have been in a hospital where they were being treated for something that they had to be on isolation, ask the nursing staff for the disposable stethoscope before you are discharged home. We have to throw away these stethoscopes as they are not reused between patients. However, they are surprisingly good quality.

To check rumen sounds heart rate, and respiration, you will need a stop watch or a regular watch with a second hand. You can use an analog clock in your barn with a second hand, but try to remember to face your sheep in such a way that you can see the clock. Don't do I what I inevitably always do and try to read the clock behind me from under my armpit or between my legs.

There are three important vital signs for all ruminants:

1. Temperature

2. Heart rate (or pulse)

3. Respiration (how fast we’re breathing)

4. Rumen movements (how many times our rumens contract per minute).

Sheep Vitals and Rumen diagram
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So what is normal? Keep in mind that vitals for baby animals, especially newborns, are normally higher than those of adults.

Temperature: 100.9 to 103.8 degrees F

Heart rate: 60 to 90 beats per minute

Respiration rate: 12 to 20 breaths per minute

Rumen movements: 1 to 2 per minute

Other factors affecting vital signs are physical activity (the heart rate of a sheep that’s been racing around like a banshee will be much higher than that of one snoozing under a tree), stage of pregnancy (our ewes puff like freight trains the last week or so before they lamb), the animal’s surroundings (temperatures taken on really hot days can be a bit higher than the norm) and even the time of day.

Checking a Sheep's Temperature

Taking a sheep’s temperature is easy. You need either a digital or traditional glass thermometer that you can buy from a feed store, a drug store, or a livestock supply catalog. Both types are fairly inexpensive

I prefer digital thermometer's as they have a short read-out timer and beep when ready. The difference in a 20 second timer to a 5 second timer is a life time when you are trying to convince your sheep to stand still with what they consider a stick up it's butt.

Also, be kind. Remember lubricant.

I like to attach a string and a piece of flagging tape to the thermometer so if my sheep squeezes it back out, I can find it in the shavings as my flock tries to trample it in a stampede of sheep craziness. Also, if your sheep sucks it up internally and you have to "fish" that thermometer back out, you have a fighting chance on finding it again. I also label the thermometer so it doesn't accidentally get used by my hubby (or he gives away to the neighbor to use during the pandemic. True story.)

To take a sheep’s temperature, get your thermometer and take the following steps:

  1. Immobilize the sheep by securing in a stanchion, have a helper hold him still, or tie him to a gate or fence.

  2. Lubricate your thermometer with KY jelly or petroleum jelly.

  3. Insert the thermometer a few inches into the sheep’s rectum and wait for the beep.

  4. Slowly remove the thermometer and read the temperature

  5. Record it on the sheep’s health record.

  6. Clean the thermometer with an alcohol swab or a cotton ball moistened with alcohol.

Checking a Sheep's Heart Rate (Pulse)

The normal pulse for an adult sheep is 70 to 90 beats per minute. Lambs heart rates may be twice that fast.

To take your sheep’s pulse:

1. Make sure she is calm and resting.

2. Find the sheep’s artery below and slightly inside the jaw with your fingers.

3. Watch a clock and count the number of heartbeats in 15 seconds.

4. Multiply that number by four to get the pulse rate.

Another method of checking your sheep's pulse by placing your hand on the inside of the sheep's thigh and find the saphenous artery that runs down the inside of the hind leg. Just like taking a pulse on a human wrist, you can feel the pulse in this artery.

Checking a Sheep’s Respiration

The normal respiration rate for an adult sheep is 10 to 30 breaths per minute. For a lamb, it is 20 to 40 breaths per minute. To count respirations, simply watch the sheep’s side when calm and resting. For 60 seconds, count one respiration for each time the sheep’s side rises and falls.

Respiration should be assessed at rest from a distance, before the animal is aware of your presence. Abnormal respiration can best be detected by observing the respiratory rate, pattern of respiration and inspiratory/expiratory effort prior to auscultating the heart and lungs. Marked respiratory effort often means pneumonia. Observe for shortness of breath, nasal discharge, type of nasal discharge, couching, wheezing or sneezing. What is the normal for your sheep?

Checking for Rumen Noises

What does your sheep's gut usually look like? What does it feel like? Depending on the noise surrounding you and your sheep, rumen contractions may much easier to feel than hear. Normal consistency of the rumen and its contents can be best described as doughy with elasticity.

With your stethoscope, listen to both sides of the abdomen. Is it gurgling or rumbling? These are normal sounds. Is there no sounds at all and the gut is firm or hard when pressed with a hand or fist? Is the sheep gut sunk in on either side of the loins? Is this normal or are they dehydrated or have been off their feed?


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