Trouble with Raphaela

Warning: photos in this post contain blood and open wounds.

This is Raphaela, mother of two ewe lambs (photo taken two weeks ago, she has a belly full of hay and is NOT pregnant despite her roly-poly body).

Icelandic Ewe

Two days ago, Raphaela somehow acquired a nasty puncture wound in her neck. I say “acquired” because we really aren’t sure what happened. I discovered her when I went out to check on the sheep just before dark. Typically, when I step into the pasture, all of the sheep crowd around to be first in line if I have treats. That’s what happened this time, but Raphaela wasn’t among them. She usually hangs back anyway… she has never warmed to me the way most of the others have, and is always the most difficult to catch when it is time for hands-on treatment. That’s ok, she’s allowed to be shy.

I noticed her stance was all wrong, though… she had her legs spread wide, her head lowered. Normally she has her head up, eyeing me with an “I’m-ready-to-run-if-you-come-near-me” look. This was more of a “I’m-not-moving-a-muscle-if-I-can-help-it” sort of expression. When I walked around to her other side, I was totally horrified to see the entire side of her neck was bloody. My immediate assumption was it was a coyote or dog attack.

Bloody Wound

After carefully checking her out, I determined she wasn’t bleeding heavily and began slowly herding her toward the barn. She was walking steadily, which was a relief. Her two lambs followed along, and I was able to close them in a stall together. Soon the vet was on her way and I began preparing things like water and hay to keep busy while I waited.

Raphaela was fully in shock at this point, so she wasn’t moving around too much – yet. I held her head while Dr. Kat began shaving the wool on her neck (she was shorn a month ago, so it was still pretty short to begin with) and cleaned up the wound. It was an inch or more in diameter, with muscle torn in several places, and was deep enough that she could feel Raphaela’s vertebrae when she put a finger in to check the damage.

Puncture Wound

After doing a bit of puzzle-piecing to figure out what flaps needed to go where, Dr. Kat stitched the muscle back together. Normally a puncture would be left open to heal, rather than closed, but because this one went to the bone she decided to put in a drain and close the wound. The picture below is blurry, but you can see the three knotted sutures in a vertical line. The yellow plastic is the drain – Dr. Kat made two small incisions in Raphaela’s skin near the wound and threaded the surgical plastic through, which will help keep the wound semi-open and allow fluid to drain out. The ends are tied just to keep it in place and out of the way.

Sutured Wound

Once Raphaela was all put back together, Dr. Kat dressed the wound with disinfectant (that’s the blue stuff) and a wound sealant (the silver stuff).

Wound Dressing

After the major work was done, we checked Raphaela over and treated a few more places on her back and sides that had gotten scraped up. Yellow iodine, blue disinfectant, silver sealant, and of course red blood… this girl was turning into a rainbow!

Sheep Wounds

The last thing to do was to load her up with antibiotics to keep her in good shape while she heals. I brought out a big bucket of warm water and molasses for her to drink (it’s like the ovine version of getting ice cream when you’re sick), then it was a matter of crossing our fingers and going to bed.

Morning came and I was ecstatic that Raphaela was still with us! Stress can be an unpredictable slayer of sheep – I have heard of them dropping dead after something as routine as shearing, so who knows what effect trauma like this would have? But 24 hours later, Raphaela was still doing all right. Her neck was swollen, but her appetite was healthy, and I heard her baaing to her lambs as I was walking into the barn.

Wounded Ewe

Since she was stuck in a stall (for her own good!) with only hay to eat, I went out in the mornings and hand-picked a trug full of alfalfa, clover, dandelions, plantain, and grass.

Ewe Eating

48 hours later she still appears to be doing well. I let her out with her lambs for a half hour or so into a paddock that has not been grazed, so there was lots of long grass and weeds for her to eat.


A silver lining to this whole ordeal is that I’ve been able to get a lot friendlier with Raphaela’s lambs. Storm, the lighter gray one, eats out of my hand, eagerly comes up to me for scratches under her chest, and allows me to pet her on her back.

Icelandic Ewe Lamb

Rhapsody is still a bit timid, but will nose around in my palm for treats and does not immediately jump away anymore when I touch her. I count that as a success!

Icelandic Ewe Lamb

So what happened to Raphaela? Could be an animal attack. The wounds on her back and bruising around both sides of her throat certainly make sense. The puncture wound itself does not seem like a bite, however. Additionally, I had briefly checked on the flock about two hours before I found Raphaela, and had been home in the meantime, but I didn’t hear any unusual noises (if nothing else, the donkeys tend to bray whenever anything shows up, whether it’s a person or an animal). It’s possible Raphaela got caught around the neck somehow and panicked; thrashing about would have done a lot of damage. I wonder if she somehow got her horns tangled with another ewe. That’s a grim thought to ponder. Either way, we didn’t find any clues to help us out. The fencing is all intact, so it doesn’t seem like she got caught on that. None of the sheep appeared to have bloody horns. It was dark by the time we finished taking care of Raphaela, and it rained overnight, so any blood in the pasture (which could have at least indicated where she was injured) would have been washed away.

It is a mystery to us, but certainly a learning experience. I am thankful that we were able to help her so quickly; she is not out of the woods yet, as she still has a bit of a fight ahead of her while she heals. She’s got a whole team cheering for her though, and Dr. Kat has proclaimed: “I’ve decided Icelandic sheep are tough wee buggers!”

Update 7/20/2015:

Three days after Raphaela was injured, around 5 p.m., Justin came running up to the house to let me know that another ewe looked hurt, in the same way. It was Belle, who didn’t look quite as bad as Raphaela did, but definitely a problem. I herded her into the barn with her lambs and called the on-call vet, Dr. Dansby.

Wounded Ewe

When Dr. Dansby arrived, she sedated Belle and we brought her outside where light was better. She shaved the area around the wound and cleaned it up, letting me take a picture before she began to stitch her up.

Wounded Ewe

Poor Belle’s tail had also been crushed, possibly broken, and she had a number of scrapes on her backside.

Wounded Ewe

She got the blue-and-silver treatment and was back in the barn with her lambs before long.

Wounded Ewe

At this point we are confident that it was one of the donkeys. After reaching out to the online community of Icelandic sheep breeders that I belong to, I was told a number of similar stories about donkeys and horses shaking lambs, ewes, even calves by their necks. One related that she had mysteriously lost a lamb to an injury like this and, like me, assumed it was a coyote or barbed wire, but several days later caught a guard donkey in the act of shaking another sheep by the neck.

Lest you think Daisy and Delilah have somehow acquired a taste for lamb, this behavior is not totally unnatural for donkeys – it is how they would deal with a threat such as a coyote or dog (assuming they didn’t chase it off first). Somehow the sheep became a threat, though we will probably never really know why, after almost a year without incident, the situation changed. Maybe the excessively hot and rainy summer caused them to be more agitated than usual. Maybe the sheep bumped up against them one too many times. Maybe the donkeys were coming into heat and the hormones made them a little wacky. Maybe they had accepted the original flock but the arrival of lambs in the group was just too overwhelming.

Daisy and Delilah have now been moved to their own paddock, where they still have fresh greens to eat, plenty of hay and water, and no annoying little animals underhoof.

As for Raphaela and Belle, they are on the road to recovery, and rejoined the flock over the last few days!

Icelandic Ewe

Icelandic Ewe


  1. . . . with regrets, I must suggest that you get rid of your donkeys. They are harshly aggressive, in spite of the many popular myths about “protecting sheep.” Our experience with sheep (Corriedales, which are sweet) taught us that the very best protectors are the white mastiff descendants: Maremmas, Pyrennees, Polish Tatra or Owczareks, and other large, mostly white dogs. They are sheep guardian dogs, not herders, and should be raised from puppies with the sheep. They are big and intimidating, and they do not worry or nip at the sheep. Donkeys and llamas appear to enjoy harrassing the sheep they are supposed to protect, while our Maremma shared our sheep’s grain. And we were the only folks for miles who lost zero lambs to coyotes . . .

    • Yes, their time as guardians is definitely over. We are not getting rid of them, since we are fortunate to have enough space so they can be kept separately, and they are otherwise friendly to humans.

      I don’t think I agree that guard donkeys are a complete myth – in the course of talking the situation over with vets and other sheep breeders, I have heard more than a few testimonials from those who have found it to work fine. Our donkeys were rescues and were probably not raised around sheep, and it appears they bonded more to each other (not a surprise, they are mother/daughter) than to the flock. We knew from the start it might not work out with them as guardians.

      Getting a livestock guardian dog has always been our plan, though, so this certainly moves up the schedule a bit. 🙂

  2. I had to return a llama that I really liked because I came in to the barn just as he was chasing my sheep, and trying to stomp them…it was a hard decision..but had to be done….thanks for news about your sheep..and dr. Kat takes care of my flock too …and is a wonderful vet Linda

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