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Sheep are the same as goats except their tails point down instead of up right…? Pretty close and as most of the illnesses and basic care of the two animals are the same, there is one hidden danger that sheep owners need to be aware of.While copper to goats is very important, it can be deadly for sheep. The tricky part is that sheep do need a small amount of copper in their diet but can easily consume more than their needs and will result in toxic levels for them. An article from Purdue University explains how copper affects sheep (article).

Copper toxicity can be of two types: chronic or acute. The acute form of copper toxicity occurs quickly, shortly after ingestion of high amounts of copper. The chronic form occurs when sheep are fed diets over a period of time that are marginally higher in copper content relative to level of copper antagonists in the diet. This could be over a period of weeks or months, depending on actual copper intake by the sheep. What happens is that sheep bind absorbed copper very tightly in the liver. Copper buildup in the liver occurs because sheep do not excrete copper from the body as efficiently as other animal species. When the liver becomes saturated with copper, tissue damage occurs in the liver and large amounts of copper are released into the bloodstream. This causes the death of red blood cells and subsequent tissue damage. Often, the first very noticeable sign of copper toxicity is dead sheep. This many times may follow some stressful event for the sheep.”

They are basically saying, sheep can either overdose on it quickly, lets say if they indulge themselves in a barrel of horse feed or of another source of grain with high amounts of copper in it or they can slowly over time intake copper and it just sits in their liver waiting to be released. You don’t know when it’ll be released but it most likely happens when the animal becomes stressed or sick and causes death.

There doesn’t seem to be much to do to prevent it with the exception of keeping feed out of reach and not knowingly feeding them treats that contain copper. We unfortunately were feeding “Goat Treats” from Farm and Fleet as a nightly snack to get them to come into the barn at night. The bag was given to us from the humane society where I picked up Mr. Beasley. I should have known better and on the back it even says DO NOT FEED TO SHEEP. But I never looked, I assumed since they gave it to me and were feeding it to him it was fine. It does seem in some cases you can drench the sheep or feed them ammonium molybdate, sodium sulfate and penicillamine for a few weeks under veterinary supervision. But again, the best way to prevent an overdose is to avoid it all together.

Now, we did give our sheep the treats that had copper in them, however, it was fairly low and they have enough grass and other things to forage on that will hopefully offset some of the copper levels. It is a “wait and see” game that we are playing. So far, no signs of toxicity, but it will take some time for their systems to slowly work through the copper that was in the treats. Hopefully over the next several months, they stay healthy and their bodies will keep absorbing it slowly and wont release it all at once.

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