[Explained] Can Sheep Swim At All?

Although sheep don’t much seem to like being in water, they do need to be kept near an ample source of fresh water. Like all animals, they need to have plenty of good, clear water to drink to survive and thrive. For reasons that may include safety, sheep seem to prefer to drink still water rather than running water.

This is understandable, especially for sheep in full fleece. Imagine falling into running water while wearing a heavy wool coat. It would be very difficult to battle against the current and keep afloat with this heavy burden. Read on to learn what you need to know about sheep and water.

Can Sheep Swim At All?

So back to the main question – can sheep swim? Sheep (including Bighorn sheep) don’t swim for fun, but like most mammals, they can swim if they need to. If water rises around sheep on pasture or in their barn, they will gather together and swim to safety as a flock.

Reasons a sheep might need to swim include:

  • Escaping danger
  • Getting to greener pastures
  • Getting to a prospective mate

Additionally, a shepherd and/or a herding dog can impel sheep to swim to get from one place to another.

Are Sheep Good Swimmers?

It’s not surprising that sheep are not especially good or graceful swimmers, but if they must, they will swim using a basic horse-trot or dog-paddle stroke. They are also able to simply relax and float if need be.

Even young, healthy sheep who are not in full fleece are not long-distance swimmers. They are simply not built for swimming and would tend to tire out and drown if they could not get to safety quickly.

Does Water Hurt The Sheeps’ Wool?

While you might think that swimming or even being out in the rain would spoil a sheep’s wool, the fact is (unlike alpaca fleece) sheeps’ wool is impervious to water damage because it is coated with a rich, natural oil called lanolin.

In addition to fleece, meat, milk and hide, lanolin is another valuable product which humans harvest from sheep. Lanolin (aka: wool grease, wool yoke, wool wax) is used in many personal care products and in products intended to preserve and care for leather and wood.

While the lanolin is still on the sheep’s fleece, it protects the wool from shrinking or otherwise becoming damaged. After the sheep is sheared, the lanolin is extracted from the wool.

Without the protection of lanolin, wool becomes subject to water damage because it will absorb any water with which it comes in contact. When saturated with water, a wool garment may weigh thirty percent more than it did when dry.

Does Getting Wet Hurt Sheep?

Although a sheep’s fleece will not become that much heavier when it gets wet, it can still cause a lot of problems for a soaked sheep. If the weather is cold and wet, and the sheep cannot dry off, the persistent dampness and chill can cause hypothermia.

A sheep that is suffering from this condition may :

  • Experience low body temperature
  • Shiver strongly and intermittently
  • Feel cold on exposed skin areas
  • Lose circulation in the legs
  • Seem weak and lethargic
  • Experience brachycardia

Young, healthy animals and/or those that have recently been sheared are less likely to have trouble with hypothermia after becoming soaked. Very old or young sheep; those experiencing ill health and/or those in heavy fleece are far more likely to suffer from hypothermia.

Pregnant ewes are also more susceptible to this hypothermia and to drowning if they become stuck in water. In addition to added weight, a heavy fleece can get caught on underwater hazards and prevent the stricken sheep from being able to escape the water.

Watch As These Amazing Dogs Save Their Sheep From Drowning

Nicky Ellis
Nicky has been an editor at Farm & Animals since 2019. Farm animals have been in her life from her earliest memories, and she learned to ride a horse when she was 5. She is a mom of three who spends all her free time with her family and friends, her mare Joy, or just sipping her favorite cup of tea.

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