Bloat is a hideous way to lose sheep. If the information on this page can
help prevent the loss of a sheep to bloat, it will have been worth my time to put
this information here. In the simplest of explanations, bloat is an excess of gases
in the rumen of sheep. But it should always be considered an emergency
situation. When sheep consume lush pastures heavy in legumes - clover, alfalfa -
the gases in their rumen cannot escape fast enough. These rapidly fermenting
foods produce gases more quickly than sheep can digest. Sheep can also bloat on
grain, which is very dangerous if they consume too much grain, especially in the
hot, humid weather, or when not acclimated to grain.
From Dr. Henderson's "The Veterinary Book for Sheep Farmers" we learn the
clinical signs of bloat: "If bloated sheep are still on their feet when found, they
may stand very stiffly with their legs wide apart. They may pant excessively
and stagger about if moved. They urinate and attempt to dung frequently. A
swelling will be seen in the animal's left flank and also on the right side in
advanced cases. The pressure of the swollen rumen presses on the diaphragm,
causing difficulty in breathing and finally suffocation and heart failure."
Dr. Henderson goes on to say: "Prevention is difficult, since many of the
methods advocated are impractical. Restricting grazing time or total avoidance of
suspect or obviously dangerous pastures is the safest approach."
However, those unsafe pastures, rich in alfalfa which can nourish lactating ewes
in the spring, so that they produce abundant and rich milk for their lambs, is
something that can be managed if the shepherd has the time to turn sheep out
several times per day, for very short periods of time. It takes about 10 days to
change over the bacteria in the rumen (especially crucial when going from winter
hay feeding to putting sheep on fresh spring pasture). Keeping that time frame
in mind, one approach is to try to get sheep to fill up on hay in the early a.m.
and turn them out onto the pasture for periods as little as ten minutes, several
times a day. Gradually increasing the exposure to pasture will give their rumens
time to adjust to the new, lusher feed. This is of course time consuming, and
moving sheep back in when they are eager to eat that fresh green grass is not
easy to do. That was one of the reasons we acquired our Icelandic sheep dog - so
that she could help me round up the sheep from the fields.
From a wonderful sheep book written in 1947 called "Sheep Science" we read:
"Certain individuals bloat to some extent on almost any kind of feed. Bloating is
characterized by great distention of the upper left side of the abdomen....
Nursing lambs seldom bloat seriously (but bottle fed lambs can bloat, see
remedy at right)."
It's important to know that sheep can bloat on hay too, especially risky is a
sudden change to a heavy alfalfa hay. In making any changes to sheeps' diet,
always make the changes slowly and gradually, including feeding them corn and
Prevention is obviously desired, but even the most vigilant shepherds lose sheep
to bloat. Knowing that some individuals are prone to bloat, makes this perhaps
one of nature's ways of culling, as gruesome and sad as it can be.
One shepherd suggests putting out pans of baking soda next to the free choice
minerals in the spring and that the sheep eat it up as they get used to the spring
pastures. I have not tried that here yet. There are commercial bloat
preventatives, but most are formulated for cattle and may contain too much
copper, which is not safe for sheep.
Treatment of bloated sheep consists of measures that will stop the
formation of additional gas and will assist in the removal of the gases
already present. Sheep can also bloat on grains; recommended
treatments for both grain and frothy (pasture) bloat are not the same.
You can buy a commercial "bloat guard" to keep on hand to administer
orally to the sheep in an emergency. If you don't have any of this on
hand, you can try the following:
Bloat Remedy #1
Using a syringe, squire 3-4-5 cc of CASTOR OIL down the throat. After
administering this successfully, you will have to feed the sheep 1/2 cc
of Neomycin Sulfate (an antibiotic) to restart the rumen.
Bloat Remedy #2 (Grain Bloat)
1/2 cup water
1/2 cup vegetable or mineral oil
2 tbsp baking soda. Mix well and put into a soda bottle. Use one cup
for a full grown sheep.
Bloat Remedy #3 - Dill Weed
My friend Char from Darn-it-Chars has successfully used dill weed to
treat bloated sheep. This is her recipe:
3 cups water
2 tsps of dill weed (dried)
Get water boiling and steep dill weed in a tea ball or you can strain dill
after boiling. Leave dill for about 5 minutes in the hot water, and then
cool tea down. Strain dill out before administering dill weed tea orally
to sheep. Give the tea to the sheep via a large 60cc syringe (this will be
2 oz. of the tea at a time), letting them swallow as normally as possible
so they don't choke. Give more as needed (until sheep begins to burp
up the excess gas, relieving pressure on the bloated rumen.
If you don't have dill weed, you can boil dill seed -- use about 1/2 cup of
dill seed to 3 cups water to make the tea.
Juliette de Bairacli Levy in her book "The Complete Herbal Handbook
for Farm and Stable" writes that dill is used as a "treatment of all
digestive ailments, including colic, diarrhoea, fevers." She
recommends one handful of the seeds to be fed raw, mixed with bran,
twice daily. The leaves are also useful. (p63)
Char also has had good luck using "human" Gas-X tablets to treat
Bloat Remedy #3 Frothy Bloat
(for lambs on bottles)
1/2 tsp. ground ginger in 2 tbsp. water and shoot it down the throat with
NOTE: To PREVENT bloat in bottle fed (milk replacer) lambs, one
veterinarian recommends to put .5ml of penicillin in the milk bottle
to prevent bloat, especially in the 4 week stage when it seems to
happen more often. Put the penicillin in the bottle for the first bottle
of the day, although I'm not sure for how many days!
Be sure to consult your sheep books or your veterinarian. They will
recommend other methods that may include more difficult remedies to
administer such as forcing a hose down the gullet and in extreme
emergency situations, a hole can be made in the rumen to let gases
Here are some Internet resources on the subject of bloat and sheep:
Preventing pasture bloat in sheep
Manage grazing to beat bloat
Please note: Bloat caused by lush pastures (rich with
legumes like alfalfa and clover) is different than bloat
caused by overeating of grain, which is more appropriately
titled: "Grain Poisoning." Grain poisoning can take over
24 hours after consumption to show that the animal is very
sick and it is much more difficult to treat. Click here to
read a good pdf file about grain poisoning. The treatments I
outline here have worked for us to treat pasture bloat, not
grain poisoning.Unfortunately we lost a very nice ewe to
grain poisoning when she got into the barn and knocked
over a container of corn. We did not know she was sick
until it was too late to treat her.