A Sick Sheep is a Dead Sheep?

When the world feels full of battles beyond your control sometimes the best thing is to concentrate on even the smallest of wins.

This is Glenn, the ram lamb who is to be our newest herd sire. He is sweet, friendly and just a wonderful little fellow. And he has also been very, very sick for the last three weeks.

An old adage in the shepherding world is “There are no sick sheep, just live sheep and dead sheep”, a reference to the fact that sheep tend towards dying very easily from even the most minor of ailments. Fighting their way through illness is not something sheep are known for.

But thankfully, so far, Glenn never heard that he wasn’t supposed to fight.

It started at the beginning of January when I found him spraddle-legged and unwilling to walk in the barn. A quick inspection found no broken, swollen or otherwise inoperable limbs but a pair of very (VERY) swollen testicles. Poor Glenn had that very worst of dude problems: Ouchy Balls.

A call to the vet and we concluded he either had endured some sort of trauma to the region or suffered from a disease that (of course) sheep can get: Epididymytis…aka a testicle infection that is weirdly common in sheep. Either way the treatment was mostly the same—supportive care, anti-inflammatories and waiting it out.

And so we did those things and Glenn got better…until he didn’t.

Sheep are very sensitive to diet changes (like when you don’t eat well for several days because your balls hurt)…diet change causes rumen (stomach) upset which in turn causes key bacteria to become imbalanced…which means they can’t process Thiamine (Vitamin B1). And lack of Thiamine? Well if you are a sheep, that will kill you and very quickly.

Thiamine deficiency in sheep causes polioencephalomalacia, a fancy word for the degeneration and swelling of the brain and it strikes with ruthless viciousness. I left a Glenn who was eating, walking and drinking fine and came home to a ram who was flat out on his side, cold and nearly unresponsive.

The only cure is injecting Vitamin B1 and a lot of it and so I got to work. The first step was warming him up because nothing works if you die of hypothermia first. So I brought him into our tack room and covered him in horse blankets with hot water bottles packed in around him. It just so happened that the tack room was being heated because the kitten Evie insisted in giving me for my birthday was not fully acclimated to barn life and so I tucked Glenn in, gave him his first round of shots and hoped for the best. “Climby” the kitten thought this was just fabulous and used Glenn and his blanket pile as her new bed, purring all the while.

The first 24 hours are critical—the brain swelling has to be stopped and the Thiamine injections need time to work so I was out there every 6 hours to boost his anti-inflammatories and B shots. At first Glenn couldn’t even hold himself sternal–his brain was so zapped that he couldn’t coordinate even that amount of balance. But at about 30 hours in, we regained that function…the first step on the road to recovery.

Encephalitis is just like a traumatic brain injury or a stroke-it can injure parts of the brain that have to be repaired and rewired once the acute stage is over. And so it was with Glenn.

Like any brain repair, it’s about the incremental steps—being able to hold himself sternal while leaning on a wall for support, then no wall, then being able to stand while leaning, then with no wall, then walk with leaning, then no wall. Nothing happens fast but each literal step feels like the biggest win when it finally happens.

Every night for the last two weeks, after the rest of the family went to bed, I have went to the barn to do “physical therapy” with Glenn. We worked on getting up, getting limber and getting moving each night. Some nights I didn’t want to and some nights he didn’t want to but we kept at it anyway. And tonight, I came him to him up, about and so near normal, I nearly cried.

I am proud that this little dude never gave up–that’s what sheep are “supposed to do”. Nor has he held all the shots, all the prodding, all the forcing him to get up and try against me–he is happy to see me each and every time I walk in his stall. Of course, this has been helped by the fact there are few more food motivated animals than an Icelandic sheep!

And the little kitten that used him as a bed when he first went down? Well Climby has absolutely claimed Glenn as “hers” and has been a partner in his entire recovery–she walks the barn aisle with him for PT time, sits in his hay pile to purr in his face while he eats and snuggles into his wooly back for a bed each night.

And so here I am, celebrating my walking (albeit still a bit wobbly) little ram and his friend the black kitten, while the world rages outside. Count your little wins in life…more often than not, they matter more than the “big” ones.

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