Just recently we tackled the large job of performing health checks on the main flock of Santa Cruz sheep. Rescued in 1997 from one of the Channel Islands, these animals remain essentially wild despite having lived 12 years at the farm. Because of this, we use different medical examination procedures with them than we do for our domestic sheep herd, and find unique health problems among the Santa Cruz flock due their old age.
The porch of the Sheep and Goat Barn is the most convenient spot on the farm to perform health checks, which means we had to move the entire flock of more than 75 sheep from another barn all the way across the farm where they had been residing and enjoying a change of scenery and a fresh pasture with the main cattle herd. Luckily, this feat is easily accomplished because we move the animals through the barnyard as a flock often with necessary gates closed and people strategically placed to show them the proper way and coax them along as they stop to snatch up any last morsels of green grass.
Health checks began the day after the move and took a large team of caregivers, interns and volunteers nearly two days to complete. We break the large flock down into smaller groups and then pull individuals out for examination. Though we do these extensive health checks on the animals multiple times a year, the beginning of summer is a perfect time for this task since the sheep have been shorn not too long ago, making it easier to spot any lumps or bumps that could otherwise easily hide beneath their wooly coats. More importantly, we can better assess their weight and assign each individual a body condition score, which is a number between 1 and 5 that measures the amount of fat and muscle they have. A score of 1 denotes a very thin animal, while a 5 indicates someone who is carrying a lot of "extra baggage." Weight loss is the number one health problem we find in these sheep who are now more than 12 years old, and we often end up moving individuals who have lost significant weight from the main flock into a smaller one (a group of approximately 30 sheep) so they can receive special treatments and feed.
In cases of severe weight loss, the first possible cause we examine is dental problems. Just like some older people, many of the Santa Cruz herd have lost their teeth or simply worn them down to the gum line, making it hard to chew the dry and tough hay that is a staple of their diet. We integrate these sheep into the smaller flock and give them a mash of special feeds that they don’t have to chew but which guarantees they receive the proper nutrients they need to thrive. But when their teeth are healthy, it is time for us to look more closely for the causes of weight loss by performing blood work, radiographs and other necessary diagnostics. Unfortunately, due to the age of the Santa Cruz herd, one disease we do find in these elderly animals is cancer, which we begin to work with veterinarians right away to treat and keep those in early stages healthy and active for many years. For those with more severe cases, we take every measure possible to keep them comfortable and happy, and closely monitor their quality of life.
Thankfully, despite their age, we find amazingly few problems overall in the sheep during these body checks. Their hooves remain nice and short from all the running they do, and they form strong emotional bonds with one another which bolster both their physical and mental fitness. Once health checks were done, we moved the flock back to their barn and pasture to enjoy their freedom to roam with the cattle and donkeys.