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Do sheep die on their backs?

Species: Other
Breed: sheep
Age: 1-2 years
Hi, there.

We have been having a debate about a sheep we saw in the field behind our house the other day, it was stuck at the bottom of a bankside on it's back and I have heard that they can die if they do not get back up within a couple of hours?? So I went and helped it get back on it's feet.
Now everyone is laughing at my theory and I have no more information than "they die". Can you please confirm if this is infact true or an old wives tale and if so what actually causes their demise.


Online vet, Dr. Marie

Dr. Marie replied:

I normally don't answer questions about sheep as I really don't know much about sheep, but this one had me intrigued!

If you do a google search about this type of thing you will see many posts of people claiming that sheep will die very quickly if left on their backs. It didn't make sense to me though as I remember in school that we did surgeries on sheep and they were on their back and we didn't have concerns about them dying.

So, I spoke to a few vets I know who actually do treat sheep. Their answer to this question is that this is not true. Of the four of them I talked to, none of them had ever heard of a case where a sheep died because it had been stuck on its back for too long.

One vet who has been treating sheep for 30 years says that in theory it's possible that if a sheep was in exactly the wrong position it would be unable to "eructate" (release gases from the rumen) and could die but he's never seen it happen. Another vet said that Suffolk sheep have a higher chance of randomly ending up stuck on their backs. She's seen it happen that when one sheep ended up on its back, the rest of the flock would rush over and flip the sheep back up the right way. But, she's never seen one die because of being on its back.

Another vet said he's seen sheep who died because they got stuck in a feed bunker or fell down into a hole, but never in an open field.

So, despite all of the information you read online I would say that this is an old wive's tale!

---This question was asked in our Ask A Vet For Free section.---



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Dr. MarieDr. Marie is a veterinarian who practices in a busy animal hospital in Ottawa, Ontario. She created Ask A Vet Question as a resource for good, accurate veterinary advice online. Dr. Marie treats dogs, cats, hamsters, guinea pigs, and rats. She has been a vet since 1999.

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