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When The Rumen Goes Awry


By Baxter Black, DVM

©2005 By Baxter Black
Used By Permission

I am a student of the sheep. I have come to conclude that sheep lead a fairly boring life. When I am giving sheep their sporadic check, I think it’s probably the high point of their day.

They graze their lives away and if they are not grazing they are chewing their cud. This cud is part of a magnificent ruminant digestive process that allows them to digest foodstuffs that are virtually inedible to simple-stomached animals like people.

For instance, sheep derive nutritional benefit from lettuce! Who’d a thunk it? Now, I’ll grant you that people eat lettuce but they eat lettuce because it is the next best thing to eating nothing. If you’re on a diet, we all know that the best way to lose weight is to eat -?-. No, not lettuce: Nothing! But nobody wants to eat nothing, so they eat the next best thing, which is lettuce.

The cud is chewed, then swallowed into a vast fermentation vat called the rumen. It can hold 30 to 50 pounds of water and feed. It is nasty, green, and when you get rumen contents on your hand you have to sleep with your arm hanging off the bed for at least a week. The cud takes a soak in the vat and is regurgitated, swallowed, then regurgitated, and remember, it’s not always the same cud!

One of the byproducts of the digestive process is that sheep give off enormous quantities of carbon dioxide and methane. Horse people are aware that the horse’s exhaust is in the rear. But sheep don’t do that! They belch off the gas. But on occasion a wrench is thrown into the works that prevents the gas from escaping; i.e., an occlusion of the esophagus or a diminution in rumen motility. This gas then collects and distends the rumen, creating a condition we call bloat.

You may be driving by a field of sheep and notice one is football shaped. On closer examination, her feet may actually be levitating slightly above the ground. As confirmation of this phenomenon, recall those times you’ve been checking sheep, following their tracks, then suddenly … the tracks disappear.

Since bloat is a life-threatening condition, good sheepmen and vets sometimes carry a delicate veterinary instrument called a “bloat hose” (imagine hand tire-pump air hose) which is passed down the throat to relieve pressure. Or, if you’re on your way to church and don’t have your bloat hose in your purse, you might whip out your trocar (a sharpened screwdriver with a sleeve) and puncture the rumen through the left flank.

Finally, when treating a sheep for bloat, there are some precautions:

  1. Regarding the bloat hose… blow, don’t suck.
  2. Don’t attempt to peer into the inserted sleeve after removing the trocar.
  3. Wear a protective moustache cover when smoking around bloats, as methane will burn.
  4. If you are tracking a suspected bloat and suddenly the tracks stop, don’t forget to look up.

Baxter Black is America’s foremost cowboy poet/storyteller. A former large-animal veterinarian, he knows livestock growers and their habits so well that his stories, songs poems and books make us reel back and laugh as hard at ourselves as we do at him! Be sure to check out his website at www.basxterblack.com for many great gifts for the livestock operator in your life, or get a catalog from Coyote Cowboy Company, P.O. Box 2190 Benson, Arizona 85602 Phone: (800) 654-2550, (520) 586-1077

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