No matter what sort of livestock you keep, diarrhea, also known as scours, is bound to be a problem at one point or another. Sheep, unfortunately, seem to suffer from it more than most.
Aside from being terribly nasty, it can spread disease and parasites, resulting in dehydration, electrolyte imbalance, and even death, especially for young or already compromised sheep.
The good news is that it is possible to identify the cause of diarrhea and treat it directly, comforting your sheep and helping them to get better.
Intervention also has the effect of preventing the spread of infectious agents. It’s a dirty job, for sure, but your flock is counting on you to take care of them.
Keep reading, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know about the causes and cures for diarrhea in sheep.
Caution: Bacterial and Viral Causes of Diarrhea in Sheep Can Infect Humans!
Before we dive in, you need to know that many of the infectious agents that cause diarrhea, specifically bacteria, viruses, and protozoa along with some parasites, can infect humans! This could make you sick in turn, and sometimes devastatingly so.
Accordingly, it is imperative that you always glove up and try to stay as clean as possible when dealing with sheep that are impacted by diarrhea, or when working in any areas where they have been kept.
Always make sure you wash up, and avoid getting fecal matter or other contaminated material around your face, eyes, mouth, and any cuts. Use common sense during and after treatment!
Prevention is a Matter of Clean Conditions and Good Food
When it comes to the blanket prevention of diarrhea, it’s mostly a matter of reducing the likelihood that your sheep will come down with it in the first place.
This is accomplished by maintaining clean and hygienic conditions for them at all times, quarantining affected sheep if necessary, and providing the correct kinds and amounts of food that they need according to their stage of life.
But, take it from me: no matter what you do at least some of your sheep are bound to come down with scours at some point. When that happens identification and, if necessary, treatment is most important.
That’s because diarrhea is often symptomatic of infection that might have far worse consequences, including death!
Don’t assume the diarrhea is the worst thing they’ll be facing until you know for sure.
Common Causes and Treatments of Diarrhea in Adult Sheep
Adult sheep don’t suffer from diarrhea nearly as often as lambs, but it does occur and often the root cause is communicable between members of the flock, necessitating prompt diagnosis and action to prevent a major outbreak.
Now let’s talk about the most common causes of diarrhea in adult sheep…
GI Tract Parasites
All kinds of parasites can cause diarrhea in adult sheep, including such perennial pests as brown stomach worms, hairworms, intestinal worms, threadneck worms, and barber pole worms, though in the latter example, diarrhea is not a common symptom of infection.
Luckily, in adult sheep, once diagnosis is made by a vet or certain specialty tests control is easily done via commercial or holistic deworming treatments, and you can reduce parasite infection in sheep by testing your pasture for the presence and populations of these dangerous little critters.
Once one sheep has been infected, preventive measures should be administered to other members of the flock and clean-up strategies implemented to reduce exposure to waste and transmission chances.
Any nutritional imbalance, from a sudden change in macronutrient ratios to an improper balance of dry to wet matter or fluid, or even a change in the type of food that sheep even if it is nutritionally equivalent can cause a serious stomach upset and scours.
Turning your sheep out to eat from dewy or rain-soaked pasture is also highly likely to instigate it.
Happily, this is one of the most common but least serious causes: Generally, as long as their diet stabilizes, this will resolve itself. But you can make things worse by swerving back too quickly in the opposite direction!
You can treat nutritionally-induced diarrhea in affected individual sheep by administering kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol and, in severe cases, using specialty probiotics or even plain yogurt to help reestablish disrupted gut flora.
Believe it or not, nothing more than pronounced stress can induce diarrhea in adult sheep. Moving them too much and hassling them is possible on the human-centric side, as is a constant threat from predators or overly-domineering and aggressive rams.
Although this is not necessarily communicable, per se, from sheep to sheep, if they are kept in close confines it can result in outbreaks of other kinds of pestilence (and subsequent diarrhea) as a consequence.
Reduce stress and improve living conditions to mitigate, and if necessary administer diarrhea suppressants like kaopectate or Pepto-Bismol.
A completely incurable bacterial infection that affects the intestinal tract, Johne’s Disease is far more likely to cause major diarrhea in cattle, but a lot less likely to do so in sheep.
That said, anywhere from 20% to 25% of sheep infected with the disease will show major diarrhea as a symptom.
A bigger problem is that a continuous thickening of the intestinal walls will prevent the absorption of nutrients that sheep need to survive and thrive, resulting in wasting and eventual death.
Absent other symptoms, it is easily confused for some other instigating cause early on in the infection cycle and so is commonly overlooked. Infected sheep will need regular diarrhea suppressants.
Again, there is no cure, so consider quarantining or culling infected sheep to prevent the spread of this disease through the flock.
Common Causes and Treatments of Diarrhea in Lambs
Compared to adult sheep, lambs are sadly far more likely to get diarrhea by any cause and also more vulnerable to all causes.
Lambs can suffer from dehydration or electrolyte imbalance and die in very short order, so any but the most transient diarrhea must be dealt with as quickly as possible.
Just like adult sheep, a nutritional imbalance can cause pronounced diarrhea in lambs.
Very young lambs can get diarrhea from low-quality milk replacers or using the wrong formulation when preparing milk replacer, or from giving them too much of either sheep’s milk (mother or donor) or replacer.
Once they start eating solid foods, particularly lush or high-calorie diets can also easily give them scours.
This is especially threatening for lambs because it often leads to acidosis which is often fatal at this stage of life. Rehydration via the administration of fluids and electrolytes is paramount for offsetting the harm caused by “nutritional” diarrhea.
Apparently, salmonella causes diarrhea for every living thing! This entirely common cause of digestive mayhem can definitely cause serious and life-threatening diarrhea in lambs: it is so dangerous that it can outright kill lambs that are younger than 2 weeks old.
Treatment is, unfortunately, very difficult and consists mostly of keeping the surroundings clean and disinfected and providing fluids and electrolytes as needed.
There are vaccines available for salmonella, but because there are literally thousands of different strains the efficacy of any vaccination program is highly questionable. I recommend you save your time and money on that front.
Giardia is a parasite that is consumed through unclean water or food, and is a very common cause of diarrhea in lambs that are about a month old.
Though the diarrhea usually does not persist too long, it can very easily spread to other animals and people who come into contact with infected feces, and even after symptoms cease the reproductive cysts associated with this nasty critter will continue to persist in droppings and soil.
Luckily, treatment for sheep, including lambs, is possible using various medications, foremost among them being fenbendazole.
If any of your sheep are infected, and you yourself start having stomach pains and serious diarrhea yourself, get to a doctor right away: giardiasis can last for 6 to 8 weeks in humans!
A protozoan infection that results in severe diarrhea, and one that most commonly plagues newborn lambs that are only 5 to 7 days old.
Lambs infected with cryptosporidium usually show no other obvious symptoms and will continue to nurse and remain physically active until dehydration and electrolyte depletion take their toll.
This infection can be easily identified because it causes diarrhea to be almost entirely liquid with an ochre yellow color.
This is an especially troubling cause because it persists in the environment even after you’ve cleaned up infected feces.
Heavy-duty chemicals like ammonia must be used to decontaminate otherwise reinfection can occur. Luckily, most lambs are immune to this naturally as long as their mother is and they get a feeding of colostrum from her.
A notorious cause of diarrhea resulting from poor hygiene and sanitation, it typically strikes lambs that are younger than 2 weeks of age and very commonly presents itself within 2 days of birth.
Again, lambs can benefit from improved immunity thanks to their mothers as long as they get colostrum from her right away. E. coli is known to affect orphan or discarded lambs more heavily because they often miss out on that critical dose of colostrum.
In lambs, E.Coli has distinct symptoms besides diarrhea, including cool or cold lips and tissues in the mouth, and also pronounced salivation. Antibiotics may be used for prevention and preventative control in flocks.
GI Tract Parasites
Just like adult sheep, young lambs may be infected by a wide variety of gastrointestinal parasites as described in the above section.
And also as with adult sheep, specific deworming medications or holistic treatments can be used to expel them and also to provide a measure of prevention in other sheep.
Another parasitic infection, and another protozoa like cryptosporidium above, this is among the most likely causes of severe diarrhea in lambs and can strike anywhere from birth all the way through adolescence and even into adulthood.
However, newborn lambs do enjoy a degree of resistance to it for the first week or two and its appearance is more commonly anticipated after that time.
The good news is that this infection results in immunity for the rest of the animal’s life, but the bad news is that the diarrhea can be quite severe- even bloody! It’s highly likely to disrupt feeding and weaning in lambs, causing additional problems.
Note that if one of your lambs gets it, you must assume that all of them will! It is extremely infectious, so preventative and assumptive treatment is required. Stay on top of cleaning and sanitation when there is an outbreak in your herd…
Tim is a farm boy with vast experience on homesteads, and with survival and prepping. He lives a self-reliant lifestyle along with his aging mother in a quiet and very conservative little town in Ohio. He teaches folks about security, prepping and self-sufficiency not just through his witty writing, but also in person.
Find out more about Tim and the rest of the crew here.