Emily is one of my best girls. She is a total sweetheart and an excellent mother. She has raised me some of the prettiest babies and has earned herself a place in my heart. Emily had developed a problem though: she was losing stinky green cud all down her chin.
Sheep are ruminants. They chew their cud like a cow does. Except Emily would often lose part of the half-way fermented green stuff all down her chin from out of the sides of her mouth. It was a nasty surprise when you went to give her medicine or pet her and ended up with a green, wet, smelly hand. Gross. Just saying. Sometimes the dried up and caked on remains would reach all the way down to her chest. She was turning into a picky eater, especially over the winter when there was no grass and it became more noticeable. If something wasn't appetizing enough, she didn't want to bother. Occasionally, if she was drooling especially badly, the other sheep would refuse to share a feed pan with her! Well, that's one way to have more grain for yourself I suppose. This past winter Emily had a harder time holding her weight. She wasn't super skinny or anything, just not in the condition she should have been. Birthing seemed more difficult for her in early spring. Her twins this time were healthy, but didn't weigh quite as much as her two babies had the previous year. Despite all this, she still loved her babies and gave them everything she had. (They have since caught up fine too.) She didn't seem to act like she was in any pain. There were no signs of infection. The problem would come and then seem to get better for a few days and then return. And once the grass began to grow again, she picked up her weight and recovered fine. She would still often lose her cud though. I knew I needed to figure out something before the next winter hit.
Now before you go all postal on me and call me a bad farmer for not finding out what was wrong with her sooner, bear in mind that I could find no information on any of this besides discovering that apparently a small number of sheep occasionally have this issue. Finally I decided to have my horse vet examine her. (There are no vets in our area that specialize in sheep. I am grateful that my vet has been so helpful to me.) He stuck his fingers into the side of her mouth and emphatically declared that her teeth were sharp. I know this probably sounds like a rather obvious assessment should someone stick their fingers into any animal's mouth that has teeth, but what he meant was that they needed "floating." For any of you that have horses you will know exactly what I'm talking about. For the rest of everyone I shall explain.
Sheep's teeth, like horses' teeth, grow continuously like our fingernails do. Because they spend so much time eating grass though, they naturally wear them down so it's not like they get overly long or anything. Horses are notorious for wearing their teeth unevenly into sharp points that cut the insides of their mouths, creating the need for filing or "floating" the rough edges out so the animal can chew and eat his food normally. Sheep spend even more time chewing than a horse does because they chew their cuds. Theoretically speaking therefore, a sheep would be less likely to have problems requiring dental assistance. (See Hobby Farms Magazine article entitled, "Animal Dentistry: The Truth About Livestock Teeth" December 11, 2017)
"I can fix this for you," explained the doctor, "I just don't have the right sized float!" Needless to say, a sheep's mouth is quite a bit smaller than a horse's. Emily would need a tiny sized mini float you might use on a miniature horse. The vet recommended I call equine dental technician Tommy Kerr.
Tommy, as he prefers to be called, has been working on horses' teeth for 44 years. He learned the trade from a vet while he was working at the racetrack. He passed on his skill to both of his sons too. In fact, one of his sons took care of the Clydesdales' teeth for Anheuser-Busch for many years until the company sold and separated from Busch Gardens in 2009.
Tommy quickly ascertained the offending molars and was able to file down the sharp edges with special metal hand files that work a bit like fingernail files. He told me that her cheek on that left side was pretty sore from being cut by her sharp teeth. I felt bad knowing now that she wasn't being picky for no reason, her cheek was hurting! I expect that some days were worse than others depending on if she had recently bitten her cheek particularly badly.
Tommy helped me lie her down on her side and I sat on her and held her as best I could for the procedure. He filed both sides to get everything as correct as possible, but it was really just two molars on the upper left side that were the problem. Tommy explained to me afterwards that upper molars are going to curve out with wear and cut the cheek, while lower ones are going to curve in and cut the tongue. She held perfectly still on the right, but when it came to that left side she kicked a couple of times because it was so sensitive.
So how is it that I've never heard of anyone floating a sheep's teeth before? (Emily was Tommy's first sheep patient ever!) Is it that uncommon for them to actually need this type of dental service? The answer I believe is two-fold. First, as previously mentioned, sheep just don't have the same propensity towards having this issue as much as horses do. Secondly and perhaps even more importantly is the matter of simple economics. Sheep are a livestock bred for meat and or wool, and when an animal doesn't perform up to snuff, she is simply culled from the herd, often before finding out exactly what the problem actually is. I fault nobody for this; these are just the facts.
For me, Emily is both loved by me and a valued member of a registered breeding flock. She has demonstrated excellent mothering and shown great parasite resistance, passing down that resistance to her nicely conformed offspring. That being said, for me it was well worth the reasonable fee to have her teeth fixed. It was easy and fast and I am happy to report a marked improvement! It has been three weeks now and no more nasty green chin! Of course there remains the possibility that it may need to be done again in the future, but with horses anyway, it can sometimes be several years before that need arises again.
Here is Emily about to get a bath and a scrub to remove all that dried on cud. Smoke the horse and Elliot the ram are looking on. (So is this a little like when King David saw Bathsheba taking a bath on the roof and wanted her? Just a question.) Elliot minded his manners, but probably only because I was watching.
Have you ever dealt with dental issues in your sheep? I'd love to hear your experiences in the comments below.
I'm Debbie. I love listening to chickens cackle and sing. I love Lindt chocolate truffles, a good cup of coffee, and a good book.