When a sheep is sick, it can be a bit of a puzzle — they have no way to let us know where the problem lies or how they feel. Even worse, as prey animals, they tend to hide their discomfort or illness until they can no longer do so. By the time their human caretakers realize there’s a problem, it is a serious problem that can often lead to death. Probably one of the biggest parts of my job as shepherdess is to identify issues before they become big issues. And unfortunately, I missed the mark with Pip.
We spent last Saturday weaning lambs and moving their mothers to new housing for the week. We handled every lamb, including Pip, although I’ll admit that I don’t remember him specifically. I do have a notation, however, that I did a cursory evaluation and nothing was amiss. I was struck by his exceptional development: although coming from an unremarkable line and born fairly small, he had grown into a big, lovely three-month-old ram lamb. He had been catching my eye for quite some time, showing such fluid movement that I would again and again look over my records to see whether I might decide to keep him with our flock for breeding. He was one of our best this year.
Yet when I came out to the barn on Sunday morning for my usual chores, it was obvious that something was terribly wrong with Pip. The entire flock was out in the West Pasture, grazing the alfalfa, clover, and bluegrass that they so enjoy there. All except Pip, who lay quietly in the corner of the barn with his head down in the straw. Even my approach didn’t startle him — if I was coming to do harm, he no longer cared. I knew this was serious.
The first thing was to take his temperature, and although it was elevated a bit (103.6, where 102-103 is normal), it was in no way responsible for his misery. In order to perform a thorough exam, I needed him to stand, even though I hated to disturb him in his condition. As soon as he stood, I could see what the problem was. His scrotum was enlarged to at least five times its usual size. I could see one testicle clearly, but the other was lost in the swelling of the other side. I called our vet, and based on Pip’s temp, we decided to assume it was an infection and to treat with pain medication and an antibiotic.
When I came out for chores on Monday morning, Pip looked a bit better. He was up and eating, and the swelling had gone down by maybe half — not great but still better than the day before. I felt confident that we were on the road to wellness, and since I knew it still had to be painful, I gave him more pain meds. By the next morning, the swelling was back to five or six times normal, and he was lying in the straw again, grinding his teeth in pain. I quickly called the vet for another consult, and we decided to switch to another antibiotic and to treat with cortisone to take down some of the swelling. That night, I prayed for Pip’s recovery. I knew he was miserable, and at his age, he could easily lose the will to fight. Every time I entered the barn, I expected to find him lying dead in a corner. Every visit left me feeling ill. I began to agonize over whether it was fair to keep him alive. Where does that line lie?
When Pip was no better on Thursday morning, I again called the vet. Unfortunately our usual vet was not in, so I told them I would see absolutely anyone. A friend helped me load Pip into the truck that afternoon. I was afraid he might die from the added stress of the trip, but I knew no other way to help him. The new vet had been working at the practice for only two days. Although I was happy that we had professional help, I also knew that vets generally get very little training about sheep. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.
The new vet is a very conscientious and caring woman, and she decided an ultrasound of Pip’s scrotum was in order. After viewing the results, she thought it might be a torsion, which is pretty rare in sheep (we’ve never had one in over 600 lambs). After discussing the options, we decided I’d bring him in this morning for castration, thereby totally removing the problem. My hope was that after all the pain he had endured this week, perhaps I could place him with a family as a wether (a castrated male, which can produce the very nicest wool). At least he would have a full life as a reward for his week of torture.
When we showed up for surgery this morning, my usual vet, Rik, performed an ultrasound with more accurate equipment. Instead of a torsion, he was able to make out intestines in Pip’s scrotum. Pip had a hernia! After much discussion, we decided on surgery to minimize the opening between the scrotum and Pip’s abdominal cavity. As beautiful as he is, we don’t know what damage his testicles have suffered as a result of the hernia and massive swelling. Therefore, Pip will be wethered (castrated) in a couple of weeks, once he recovers from this morning’s surgery.
He is already feeling much better. With a bit of pain management, he is once again up and about with several of his friends. That is huge! We don’t always know what is wrong with a particular sheep in our flock or how it got that way. Yet as a shepherdess, it’s my responsibility to make sure that each sheep has a good quality of life. Sometimes that means ending the life to eliminate the pain. But my ultimate goal is to treat the pain, eliminate the problem, and return the sheep to a good quality life. Each and every one of them deserve the very best life I can provide. I’m not always successful — and I take my losses hard — but I always try.