A Veterinarian’s Perspective: 
The Importance of a Flock Veterinarian

Heather J. Ludlam, DVM
Reprinted from the NASSA News July 2004

 

            My phone is ringing very late on a Sunday night.  This is not unusual - as a rural veterinarian my clients know how to contact me at all hours.  I have been asleep for about an hour, so I’m pretty out of it when I answer the phone.  “You don’t know me,” the caller begins, and introduces himself.  Apparently he is a friend of a friend of a client, and I come highly recommended as a small ruminant veterinarian.  “We have been losing lambs in our sheep operation for about two weeks now.  They start off just great, but right around weaning time we have problems with diarrhea, bloat, and sudden death.  What is going on with my flock?  I don’t need you to come out and see them, just tell me what’s wrong and give me the medication I need to fix them.”

I am still groggy, and feeling a bit perplexed.  If this problem has been going on for two weeks, why did this person call me at this hour on a Sunday night?  Does he really expect me to diagnose and treat this problem without ever seeing his animals?  Of course he does.  I try to be patient (it’s difficult at moments such as these) and explain to him that there are numerous possibilities for his flock’s problems, that I would really need to see the sick or dead animals to properly diagnose the disease, and that I cannot dispense medications without a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship.  The caller does not appreciate this answer, but promises to call and set up a farm call during business hours.  He never did set up the farm visit, but this particular person has been calling my clinic frequently for advice over the past four years, and I have never set foot on his farm nor seen his sheep.

            This is a true story.  Now I must add the disclaimer that this person is not a Shetland breeder, nor a friend of a friend of a Shetland breeder.  Every time I talk to this person I try to emphasize the concept of having a regular veterinarian, but he just doesn’t get it.

            Most sheep farmers are perfectly capable of treating their own animals - giving vaccinations, de-worming, hoof trimming, administering medications, and assisting with lambing.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this.  However, the guidance and availability of an established flock veterinarian is invaluable.

            Ideally, this veterinarian has been to the farm and is familiar with the condition of the animals and their environment.  Vaccination, de-worming, and nutrition programs have been developed under the guidance of the flock veterinarian.  The flock veterinarian is familiar with parasite and disease issues in the local area.  A valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship has been established, so medications can be prescribed.  It is very important to note that there are almost no veterinary medications with FDA labeled approval for sheep.  Your flock veterinarian can prescribe medications in an “off-label” manner only if a valid relationship exists.  This veterinarian will also be available for emergencies and for phone consultations and advice.  I have no problem offering advice over the phone to established clients - I see their animals frequently and I trust their judgment.

            It is very important to establish a relationship with a veterinarian before an emergency situation arises.  Finding a good veterinarian is the first step, and I hear many comments and complaints about the difficulties of finding a good “sheep veterinarian.”  My advice would be to keep an open mind - there are very few “sheep specialists,” but there are a multitude of good veterinarians out there!  Talk with fellow sheep producers, goat producers, other food animal producers, the local extension office, and/or the nearest veterinary college for recommendations.  You might be pleasantly surprised and find that the local small animal veterinarian has an interest in small ruminants, or that your equine vet is willing to work with sheep and goats!  The key is to find a veterinarian who is comfortable with small ruminants and has a positive attitude towards them.

            Once a potential veterinarian has been found, the next step is to set up a farm visit to meet the vet in person and have the vet meet your animals.  The veterinarian can observe the environment, discuss vaccination, de-worming and nutritional protocols, and answer any questions you might have.  You can discuss emergency protocols.  You and the vet can “get a feel for each other.”  Trust your instincts - they are usually right.

            Now that you have a flock veterinarian, here are some helpful hints for keeping him or her happy and willing to work hard for you and your flock:

  1. Schedule routine procedures well in advance, so farm calls can be convenient for you and your veterinarian.  Plan for health papers and blood tests for sales, shows, and interstate/international travel about one month in advance.
  2. When the veterinarian arrives for a farm call, be prepared and organized.  Have the animals caught in a small holding/handling area.  Have animal identification and paperwork ready.
  3. Be willing to haul-in animals for emergency or urgent care.  It is usually much easier to “squeeze in” another emergency if it comes in to the clinic.  Shetland sheep are very portable - they fit in dog crates, trucks, and even the back seats of cars!  I have had many a ewe in labor hauled in to the clinic, and many healthy lambs delivered there.  If a surgical procedure is necessary, it is much cleaner, safer, and easier on the patient if performed at the clinic.
  4. Really listen to your veterinarian’s advice and try to follow it.  Second opinions on difficult cases are a great idea, and I welcome them.  However, second opinions should come from a second veterinarian - not your friends, the sheep guy down the street or the Internet.
  5. It is okay to emphasize that a particular sheep means a lot to you, and you are willing to go to great lengths to treat it.  However, try to avoid the phrase “this is an extremely valuable animal and I don’t want to lose him/her.”  That particular phrase can strike fear of future litigation into the hearts of me and many of my colleagues.  Please remember that we did not make the animal sick or cause it injury.  We are trying our best to help, and sometimes we lose a patient.  When this happens we feel (almost) as bad as you do.
  6. Last, but not least, pay your bills.  Veterinary medicine is certainly not about getting rich, but veterinarians also have bills to pay and families to support.  It becomes very difficult to continue to work for a client without getting paid.  If large or unexpected bills are incurred, a regular monthly payment plan is a satisfactory solution for everyone involved.

 

Having a regular flock veterinarian is an extremely worthwhile investment.  Please remember that we are here to help and are happy to answer any questions regarding the health and welfare of your flock.

Back to Articles

©Dr. Heather Ludlam DVM
All Rights Reserved.