Dead Ram Walking: Treating Sick Sheep Symptoms

Drenching Sheep: An Unconventional Approach Saved My Ram's Life

Dead Ram Walking: Treating Sick Sheep Symptoms

Reading Time: 8 minutes

By Laurie Ball-Gisch – One day, the ram was walking around and looking totally healthy — the next, he was just standing under a tree with his head hanging down. I approached him, hoping he’d lift his head and move away from me, but he didn’t. I knew I’d have to examine him for sick sheep symptoms.

I looked him in the eye and exclaimed, “Hoss, what’s wrong?” He just collapsed, looking as if he’d already given up and was going to soon be a dead ram. My husband Daryl and I had to drag him into a barn stall — he could no longer walk — and where we could more easily treat and feed him. We went through our usual sick sheep symptoms checklist to try to assess what was wrong.

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Sick Sheep Symptoms Checklist

  1. Check eye membranes to look for signs of anemia and hence parasites. Eye membranes were nice and red, but we wormed him anyway, as he’d not been wormed since earlier in the summer.
  2. Nasal discharge? No.
  3. Coughing? No.
  4. Diarrhea? No.
  5. Raspy, labored breathing? No. But there was severe lethargy, weakness and lack of appetite.
  6. Injury? Possibly, but no outward signs of bleeding. His ribs didn’t feel broken. No swelling anywhere.

What to do for treatment?

After all, the ram in question was eight years old and it had been a brutally hot summer. Maybe “just” old age?

Of course, we wanted to treat him; we will always continue to assist an animal as best we can as long as it’s still breathing. But at this point, I also braced myself to lose him because he showed no will to live.

So we went with the proverbial “refrigerator” treatment to treat his sick sheep symptoms, which means pretty much give him everything we have and hope something will help.

I am sure many who read this might cringe, but we have to be realistic. There are few veterinarians nowadays available with experience in small ruminants. And it seems that these situations always arise on weekends when veterinary offices aren’t open anyway.

So we gave Hoss an antibiotic; we treated him for parasite species outside of the normal realm we usually see here on our farm, including meningeal worm and lungworm (just in case!) and we gave him vitamin shots: B complex, A, D and E, and also BoSE.

Although he wasn’t grinding his teeth, we also gave him an anodyne, in case the ram was in pain. (Check with your sheep veterinarian on the possibility of obtaining and using fast-acting pain relief and anti-inflammatory drugs. Some have reported success with items such as Flunixin—trade name Banamine®—a prescription medication with no FDA-established withdrawal/withholding times for sheep. As with any extra-label drug usage or “ELDU,” each use of such medications legally requires supervision of a licensed vet.—Editor.)

I put fresh hay and water in his pen, but he showed no interest in eating. We gave him a 60cc oral drench of Gatorade for the sugar energy and electrolytes and hoped for the best.

I checked on him every few hours throughout the day, but no change. In fact, he just laid there with his head down and flies swarming him.

At that point, I started to worry about flystrike because he was so still. Several times a day, I kept up with the oral drenches, switching between fresh water and electrolytes. I tried giving him yogurt to restart the rumen, but that didn’t help.

Five days into his not eating or drinking, I was getting nearly frantic. Every time I walked out to check on him, I was expecting to find a dead ram. I even told my husband it was probably time to get the hole dug.

It was turning very frustrating because it seemed there was nothing I could do for my ram. It’s awfully hard to watch an animal lie there and starve to death. Sometimes we can treat the presenting issue/illness (i.e. parasite overload, pneumonia, etc.), but getting the sick animal to start eating again is an entirely different issue. The longer its rumen is empty, the harder it is to get it started again. And if that sheep doesn’t want to drink or eat, it can quickly become dehydrated as well.

Brewing Up a Cure to Treat His Sick Sheep Symptoms

On day six of my poor ram just lying there — and after having done all we could think to do (including having consulted with my veterinarian who had nothing else to offer me) — I suddenly decided to give him a beer. I’m not really sure where that idea came from other than I knew that to restart a rumen, you have to introduce “healthy” micro-flora. What about yeast? Since the daily spoonfuls of yogurt weren’t working, I decided maybe beer would be something that might help — and probably wouldn’t hurt.

I rummaged through the basement to see if we had an old can of beer in the root cellar and found some we used to keep around for Papa Willie before he departed this life.

Soon enough, I walked out the door with the beer, a jar, and a 60cc drenching syringe. My 12-year-old daughter saw me and said “Mom, what are you doing with a beer?” I told her I was going to give it to Hoss and that it might make him better but if it didn’t, maybe he’d die happier.

I sat down next to Hoss and loaded my syringe: Two ounces of beer at a time (tricky because of the foam). I forced open the side of his mouth and put it up over the tongue and made him swallow. By this time, he was so weak he no longer was even fighting me over his daily oral treatments. I gave him the whole can.

The next day, he was still alive, and was actually sitting up, rather than lying with his head on the ground.

I gave him another beer.

The next morning when I went out, he was standing up! I put some fresh hay in front of him and he actually started to nibble on it. Later that day, he was wandering around the large paddock he was sharing with the alpacas and was nibbling at grass.

Dead ram walking!

I gave him a third beer on day four of the beer treatment for his sick sheep symptoms, and from then on, he was eating and drinking on his own! Within two weeks, he was strong enough to go back into the rams’ pasture. (We knew it was time for his transfer back to the bachelors’ fields because he was trying to bust down the gates to get in with my Leicester ewes.)

Hoss at eight years old, fully recovered and having successfully bred his quota of ewes.

A Beer A Day Keeps The…

We all know the downside to drinking beer, but there was obviously something positive about it that helped my ram recover so well.

After his pretty miraculous recovery, I decided to do some research into the health benefits of beer. I found out that beer was first used as a homeopathic remedy during the time of the Egyptian Pharaohs.

I found an online article on the Fox News website dated March 15, 2012:

“Despite beer’s bad reputation, it actually has a number of natural antioxidants and vitamins that can help prevent heart disease and even rebuild muscle. It also has one of the highest energy contents of any food or drink….

“If you’re worried about dehydration, keep in mind that beer is 93 percent water. Also, according to a Spanish study, beer may actually provide better hydration than H2O alone when you’re sweating it out under the sun.

“…For health benefits, a dark beer is the better choice. Dark beers tend to have the most antioxidants, which help reverse cellular damage that occurs naturally in the body. A recent study published in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture has also found that dark beer has higher iron content compared to lighter beers. …Iron is an essential mineral that our bodies need. Iron is a part of all cells and does many jobs including carrying oxygen from our lungs throughout the rest of our bodies.

“Another good choice is microbrews, which are healthier than mass-produced cans, because they have more hops. Hops contain polyphenols, which help lower cholesterol, fight cancer and kill viruses.”

Imagine if I’d given Hoss an expensive microbrew instead of an old can of beer! He’d probably have recovered a couple of days quicker!

Another online resource written by Lisa Collier Cool, January 9, 2012, on the website reported:

“A Dutch study, performed at the TNO Nutrition and Food Research Institute, found that beer-drinking participants had 30 percent higher levels of vitamin B6 levels in their blood than their non-drinking counterparts, and twice as much as wine drinkers. Beer also contains vitamin B12 and folic acid.”

After reading these reports, I decided that beer might be the drench of choice for any sheep that is sick and off feed, with one exception: One that has eaten too much grain. Adding a fermented drink to a grain-poisoned or bloated rumen would not be a good idea.

I also would recommend that a smaller sized sheep (Hoss weighs about 200 pounds) receive less than the 12 ounces I was giving to Hoss.

One more website gave a cheerful assessment of the health benefits of beer, offering the following information:

B-Vitamins = Improved Vital Systems—Another of the more plentiful vitamins and minerals in craft beer is its range of B vitamins. In addition to being a rich source of potassium, craft beers contain folic acid (great for vascular health) and B12, which plays a key role in the formation of blood and the normal functioning of the brain and nervous system.

Carbohydrates + Fiber = Bodily Balance—Because it’s packed with carbohydrates and dietary fiber derived from barley, oats, etc. beer is often referred to as liquid bread. In the end, carbohydrates can provide easily obtained energy…”—

After getting Hoss back to health this fall, I had several inquiries about treating sick sheep symptoms. One friend had a lamb that had gotten highly parasitized and was thin and sick; even though she had been treated with dewormers, she would not eat. I suggested that they try beer after relaying my experience with Hoss’s recovery. She reported to me a few days later that her ewe was up and eating again and doing very well.

I got an e-mail from a lady in Australia that had read my article about apple cider vinegar as a treatment for sick sheep symptoms. Though she’d tried that on her sick ewe, the ewe would still not eat or drink. There ended up being other issues wrong with her ewe that were beyond repair, but she did give the ewe a beer and reported back to me the following:

“My sister and I decided on Wednesday to do the beer drench. We did it three days in a row, and we both concluded it really works. It does stimulate their appetite; the poor baby was grazing around where she was sitting, on her last morning. And she was actually hungry…And she was chewing her cud constantly.”

The next day I got the following note:

“Just thought I would give you an update on my poor patient. Sad news: She had to be put down yesterday. I am beside myself, but she lost total use of her hind legs, could not get up by herself at all.

“…Even though we did not get a positive outcome, we both feel the beer drench is a success. She just had other problems, on top of not eating. Thanks Laurie, for sharing your thoughts with me. Very much appreciated. We will incorporate the ‘beer solution’ from now on. Very useful.”

As always, I want to make sure everybody knows I’m no veterinarian and that these experiences treating sick sheep symptoms are purely anecdotal and not scientific in nature. But anybody who has watched an animal starve to death after treating it with all they can think to do (and all their veterinarian can think to do), may well admit that giving the sheep a swig or two of beer might trump teetotal abstinence if it revives its appetite and buys it time for a real recovery.

As for Hoss, he recovered enough to have his own group of ewes for sheep breeding season, and the clean-up ram showed none needed to be rebred. Not bad results from a “dead ram walking.”

What unconventional treatments have you used to treat sick sheep symptoms?

Originally published in the July/August 2013 issue of sheep!

One thought on “Dead Ram Walking: Treating Sick Sheep Symptoms”
  1. The longer I raise sheep (this being my 30th year), the more I am amazed, not at the response of animals to treatment, but the creative ways shepherds learn about treating their sheep!
    I do appreciate your adventurous spirit and your explanation of the experiment with Hoss. I have a ewe that we have seen through the first several days of post milk fever but she still is not hungry, and appears dehydrated. I am going to try the beer. Since this is COVID-19 days, I think I will buy her a Corona!

    Patrick from Idaho

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