Cloudy eyes in Soay sheep – a mostly wintertime issue

Does one of your sheep have a cloudy, bluish-looking eye, what you might call a “walleyed” look? Is the animal behaving as if it might not be able to see well or is bumping into things? If so, it probably has scratched its eyeball or gotten poked in the eye and injured its cornea. There likely is also gooey crud in the eye. If so, the injury has provoked a secondary infection.

Sheep generally do not injure their eyes in the summer and shoulder seasons when they graze freely on pasture grass without much jostling from their buddies and nothing sharp in their pastures to poke their eyes. But in the winter when they are eating hay out of feeders, the sheep stick their heads in and once in a while the hay (or the grit in the hay) scratches an eyeball. And not surprisingly so, since they are standing cheek-by-jowl with their buddies at the feeders, cramming their heads in and jockeying for the tastiest morsel deep within the flakes of hay. It is the winter equivalent of grass-greener-on-other-side-of-fence, but with occasional optical battle scars. You are not likely to have this happen to one of your Soay sheep, but if you do, here is what you can do about it.

First off, if left untreated, an injured eye may result in blindness. In fact, the first time this happened on our farm, we presumed the situation was hopeless because the animal’s eye looked so odd and the sheep was bumping into things as if blind. Thank goodness we consulted our veterinarian, because getting rid of the crusty stuff, and usually healing the cornea and restoring sight, is pretty straightforward. The cornea has a remarkable capacity to recover (think Lazik?). The vet examines the eye under a special light (UV or something similar). If I recall correctly, the vet prescribes antibiotic ointment called neo-poly-bac if there is a corneal injury and infection, and a different ointment (neo-poly-dex) if the cornea is not damaged and there is only an infection, but don’t hold me to these names, please. One of them includes a steroid, and that’s why determining the presence or absence of injury matters.

Whichever kind of antibiotic the vet prescribes, it comes in a little bitty tube. Application is easy once you get the hang of it and you certainly can do it yourself without multiple trips to the vet’s office. The goal is to lay a thin line across the sheep’s eyeball. I will do a EweTube demo of how to do this next week when we are catching sheep to disassemble our breeding groups, but for now, let’s just say the trick is to hold the animal’s head with the infected eye facing up – and open – and then squeeze out the ointment so it barely touches the eyeball. The heat of the eye will melt the ointment in a second or two, almost instantaneously. Do not try to rub it in or do anything with your finger; you will only rile up the sheep. After a few days of twice-daily applications, any infection (crud) will be gone and the sheep’s tears clear. Once the corneal surface has healed, the sheep will slough off the injured layer and in most cases the eye will be clear again and the sheep will see just fine.

As with all issues related to livestock, the decision whether to invest in a visit to the vet and the resulting prescriptions is entirely up to each shepherd. Eye injuries are very rare, and there is always a chance the eye will heal with just an over-the-counter ointment. For us, we will continue to treat any future eye injuries because we have a flock in which every animal has an important role in our conservation breeding program. We also have heard enough anecdotes about blind sheep to give us pause about introducing that kind of flock management issue – a completely blind or one-eyed animal trying to find its way. The problem would be particularly hard to deal with if the blind animal were a ram that the other rams would target as damaged and pick on him, or worse. But once you have seen a cloudy eye or two, you can do what we do – keep the partial tube of antibiotic in your refrigerator and go ahead and administer the antibiotic without another trip to the vet if it is hay-feeding season or you otherwise are pretty sure your animal’s cloudy eye is a hay scratch or other eye poke. For an unusually valuable single animal, we might take it to the vet or at least double-check with her over the phone about the particulars of how the eyeball looks to us.

Cruddy eyes in lambs. None of our Soay lambs have had a cloudy eye, thank goodness, but once in a while we have a lamb with cruddy eyes. The cause remains a mystery to us, but it seems to happen towards the end of lambing, perhaps because in the unavoidably wet late winter/early spring conditions here in Oregon, bacteria build up in the lambing area throughout April – who knows? What we do know is that a couple of applications of an over-the-counter antibiotic (tetracycline) ointment (our brand is called Terramycin), together with the sunshine and drier weather later in the spring, clears up the occasional crusty eye just fine and dandy.

Good grief. Surely I could have found a more pleasant topic for the holidays than “sleepy crumbs” or “fairy dust” or whatever you called it in your childhood. Oh well, happy new year from all the critters – human, ovine, canine, feline, and camelid – at Saltmarsh Ranch!

For now …

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