A Veterinarian’s Perspective:
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.”
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:
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.
©Dr. Heather Ludlam DVM