Sheep are grazing animals, and their diet consists mostly of grass. In the wild, the challenges associated with survival mean that they usually don’t have unlimited access to food.
However, when sheep are domesticated and kept in captivity that isn’t the case: they are often fed unlimited if varied diets of hay or grain, and often have as much grass as they can stand.
This begs the question: Can sheep overeat?
Yes, sheep can overeat, and it’s a common problem in domesticated sheep. When a sheep overeats, it can cause bloat, a dangerous condition that can lead to weight gain, obesity, and, sometimes, even death.
It sounds impossible, almost, for grass-grazers like sheep to overeat enough to cause harm, but I assure you it can happen.
In fact, health issues and injuries related to overeating are surprisingly common.
You’ll need to know all about it if you want to keep your flock safe and healthy, so keep reading to learn more.
What Do Sheep Eat?
Sheep are herbivores and their diet consists mostly of grass. In the wild, they would spend most of their day grazing on whatever plants are available.
Domesticated sheep, however, often have a more varied diet. They may still eat mostly grass, but they may also be given hay or grains as well.
This is especially common in cold weather when there isn’t as much grass to be had.
Can Sheep Overeat?
Yes, they can. Sheep are able to overeat just like any other animal. When they do, it can cause problems.
How Can Overeating be a Problem for Sheep?
Overeating, either in overall quantity or a specific type of food, most commonly results in bloat of one kind or another.
Bloat is a general term that describes a buildup of gas or fluid in the rumen. It can be caused by different factors, but it always has the potential to be dangerous.
Weight gain is another side-effect, even if you are trying to fatten sheep up.
Health Risks of Overeating
The most common kind of bloat, called frothy bloat or pasture bloat, usually occurs when sheep graze on lush, green pasturage that is high in legume content.
Bloat is a serious condition that can affect sheep, particularly during the spring and summer months.
Bloat occurs when the stomach fills with gas, causing the sheep to become bloated and uncomfortable. In severe cases, bloat can lead to death.
There are several factors that can contribute to bloat, including feeding high-grain diets, lush pasture growth with lots of legumes, and waterlogged soils.
Each of these factors increases the amount of gas that is produced in the sheep’s rumen and digestive tract.
In addition, bloat can be exacerbated by hot weather, which causes the gas in the stomach to expand.
As a result, affected sheep may display signs of distress, such as panting and restlessness, along with kicking at their own stomach.
Treatment for anything but mild bloat is done on an emergency basis, and typically involves removing gas from the stomach using a needle or a tube down the throat.
Much of the time these techniques serve only to further stress an animal already on the brink.
However, prevention is always the best approach, so shepherds should take care to avoid conditions and routines that promote bloat.
Bloat can Cause an Agonizing Death for Sheep
Sadly, bloat that proves fatal will result in a prolonged, agonizing death for an affected sheep.
The animal will become increasingly bloated as gas accumulates in the stomach, and eventually the sheep will suffocate.
I say this only as a warning to take the issue of overeating seriously if you are raising sheep.
Sheep don’t necessarily know what is best for them and are generally simple animals that are entirely likely to act, inadvertently, against their own best interests.
Your sheep are depending on you to look out for them!
Weight Gain and Obesity are Not Out of the Question
Now, assuming your sheep don’t suffer from bloat when they overeat, what will happen to them? Like most animals, sheep can and will gain excess weight when they eat too much.
This can eventually lead to obesity, which carries with it a whole host of other health problems.
If you are trying to raise sheep to a suitable weight for slaughter then a little extra weight might be fine, but you probably don’t want that to happen otherwise.
Are Any Foods Especially Dangerous for Sheep When they Overeat?
While there are many different types of grasses and other plants that sheep can safely eat, there are also some that can be dangerous if consumed in large quantities.
For example, ryegrass and fescue are two common types of grass that can cause bloating in sheep, and even death if the animal is not treated quickly.
Another food that can be dangerous for sheep when eaten in excess is clover. Although it is relatively harmless in small amounts, clover contains large amounts of proteins that can cause problems for sheep if they eat too much of it.
Grains and legumes are probably the single, biggest worry for sheep, though. Essential for protein and calories, it is easy for sheep to overindulge, especially when early in the season.
As a result, it is important for farmers and other sheep owners to be aware of these dangers and take steps to prevent their animals from overeating.
What Should You Do if Your Sheep Overeat?
If your sheep have overeaten, the first thing you should do is take a deep breath and relax. It’s not the end of the world, and chances are they’ll be just fine. However, there are a few things you can do to help them out.
First, reduce the amount of food they have access to overall but continue to let them eat. It sounds weird, but it is better to keep them fuller so there is less room for gas to accumulate in their rumen.
Generally, if they don’t show signs of serious bloat within about 30 minutes of overeating they should be fine. Just let them keep on grazing!
If they were pigging out on hay or other grains, move them to a pasture that you know is good for them.
This will help them to digest their food more slowly overall while staying fuller and prevent them from becoming bloated or sick.
You should also keep an eye on their food’s moisture level. Too much moisture can disrupt the bacterial balance of the rumen and that can lead to a domino effect of problems.
Finally, keep an eye on their stool. If it’s loose or runny, it’s a sign that they’re having trouble digesting their food.
However, if you have any suspicions or are just uncertain it’s always best to consult a veterinarian.
How You Can Prevent Overeating in Sheep
The best way to prevent overeating in sheep is to be proactive about it.
Don’t let them have access to tasty, high-calorie but bloat-prone foods like grains and legumes unless you are sure they can handle it.
When first introducing these foods, do so slowly and in small amounts to give their digestive system time to adjust.
Similarly, make sure they have plenty of access to fresh, clean water. This will help them to stay hydrated and prevent overeating due to thirst.
Also, remember that sheep are grazers and tend to eat for much of the time they are awake.
Don’t let sheep get so hungry they gorge themselves rapidly, as this will greatly contribute to bloat and other issues if their stomachs are empty.
By keeping sheep fuller more of the time you reduce the chances they will overeat in the first place.
Tom has built and remodeled homes, generated his own electricity, grown his own food and more, all in quest of remaining as independent of society as possible. Now he shares his experiences and hard-earned lessons with readers around the country.