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Sheep Won’t Eat Hay? Here’s What to Do

When I worked at a veterinarian’s office, I often saw customers paying bills $3,000 and up (and that was for cats and dogs!). The cost and concern for their life are two reasons why it’s so worrisome when livestock like sheep won’t eat. Sheep don’t visually show sickness or pain (unless it’s extreme), so it’s tough to know what to do to avoid the big vet bills. So, what should you do if your sheep isn’t eating its hay?

The most common reasons why sheep won’t eat hay are if it ate something bad, has mouth pain, or contracted pneumonia. While some treatments like vitamin B injections, probiotics, and baking soda can help for minor issues, others will require a trip to the vet. When in doubt, the best option is to get a vet’s opinion.

Unfortunately, if sheep are sick, they usually won’t display it. After all, if predators could tell which ones were sick or not, they’d be easier targets. This is bad news for you because it can be harder to tell what’s actually going on with their health. The good news is that if you pay a small amount of attention, there’s usually a symptom or two that you can pick up on to figure out a bit more about what’s going on.

So, why isn’t your sheep eating and what can you do about it? Let’s take a further look.

Why Your Sheep Is Not Eating

sheep turning away from hay feeder

When your sheep isn’t eating, it could be something minor like a mouth sore or something much bigger like pneumonia or cancer. Many factors should be considered such as the climate, feed, pasture, and overall living conditions. Pay attention to symptoms and, if it’s minor, try relevant treatments.

There’s a lot that can happen on a homestead. Your sheep could have gotten into a poisonous plant, contracted a parasite, or could just simply have vitamin deficiencies.

While it may seem difficult to know where to start, there are some general approaches you can to inspect your sheep and see if you can find any signs of sickness or injury.

What to Do if Your Sheep Is Not Eating

In this section, we’ll go over some basic inspections that other sheep owners have used to try to identify any internal or external conditions.

If your sheep won’t eat hay, check the feed for spoiling. Next, check for bloating, especially if you have wild plants. Third, look for any injuries, diarrhea, blood, elevated temperatures, nasal discharge, difficulty breathing, or lethargy. From there, decide if you’d like to try a home remedy or take them to the vet.

The first thing to do when your sheep isn’t eating is to check their feed. Check to see if it’s soaked or rotting. Often times, most livestock animals won’t eat wet hay (like goats). Hay that is spoiled or moldy can be harmful to most livestock.

Secondly, bloating can occur if your sheep got into something spoiled or poisonous. Some sheep owners have said baking soda, probiotics, and even syringe-feeding them beer helped reduce minor bloating and restart their digestion.

Third, try to perform a simple visual inspection if you can. Checking for any injuries, mouth pain, diarrhea (including bloody stools), abnormal temperature (normal rectal temperatures are 100.9-103.8ºF), excessive snot, labored breathing, and fatigue can help identify what the issue could be and provide valuable information for the veterinarian, if you decide to go that route.

Last, with the information you have, consider the options. Is this a common issue you’ve had before and you know a home remedy for it? Or is this a new symptom that’s best left for a veterinarian? Also, consider that some vets can visit on-site in many locations and even provide some assistance over the phone.

Common Remedies

While it’s always best to get a professional’s opinion, there are some cases where the sheep can be experiencing minor discomfort, and you may feel comfortable trying some home remedies.

Some of the most common home remedies for sheep that won’t eat include providing electrolytes, probiotics, fresh grass, beer, baking soda, B vitamins, dewormers, and antibiotics. However, these are generally for minor conditions. For more serious concerns, consult a veterinarian.

You can also try a “shotgun” approach and try several remedies at once. The downside is that if it does happen to work, you don’t know which one helped.

If time and your sheep’s condition allow it, consider sticking to changing one thing at a time that is relevant to the symptoms your sheep is having. For example, if your sheep is simply not interested in the hay, but will eat fresh grass, then providing grass for a while until their appetite comes back may be what they need.

How Long Can a Sheep Go Without Food?

Many animals can go without food for weeks, depending on their health and body fat. While sheep can survive a fair amount of time without food, if they don’t eat for 48 hours or more, it can signal that something serious is occurring. Sheep can go less time without water, so also observe if they’re drinking or not.

If your sheep isn’t eating, you can initially try giving it different food. Sometimes sheep won’t have an appetite for hay but will have one for fresh grass (like dandelion greens).

If your sheep isn’t improving, consider making a judgment call and take them to the vet. The amount of time you’d like to wait it out is of course up to you and the condition of your sheep. Some owners have taken them to the vet after 1-2 days of not eating, while others have waited up to a week, after trying various home treatments. However, the earlier the better.

Which Foods Are Poisonous to Sheep?

Before allowing your sheep to graze a pasture, it’s best to inspect it for any poisonous plants, along with any gaps in fencing or areas predators can climb through.

While sheep can eat most fruits and vegetation, especially if you’re using them to mow your orchards, there can be some plants that are poisonous to them. Here’s a lit of fruits and vegetables that sheep shouldn’t eat.

  • Avocado
  • Broccoli
  • Cabbage
  • Chocolate
  • Nightshades (potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant)
  • Turnips
  • Mustard greens
  • Peas
  • Flax
  • Wild cherries

If you haven’t checked your property for any of these poisonous plants (especially wild or black cherry trees), it may be a good idea to do so. Sheep can become lethargic and sick if they eat any of these foods. If you suspect your sheep got into any of these, contact your local sheep veterinarian.

Final Thoughts

If your sheep isn’t eating hay, you can perform a brief inspection to see if you can spot anything obvious like bloating or a wound. While some sheep owners have had success with home treatments, if you identify anything, or observe any irregular behavior, it’s usually a good idea to take them to a vet (or have one come to you).

While it can be costly, a professional opinion can likely help save the sheep and build your knowledge of handling the issue in the future, in case other sheep develop the same or a similar condition.

Disclaimer: This post is based on recounts of sheep owners administering minor treatments when a sheep wasn’t eating. If you believe your sheep has a serious medical issue, please consult your local sheep veterinarian.