What Happens When Sheep Get Wet?

Most people have had an unfortunate experience of carelessly tossing a wool sweater into the laundry, only to find a half-sized shirt when they pull it out of the dryer. 

If wool comes from sheep, does this mean the sheep also shrink after getting wet and drying off?

Sheep can get wet, but issues arise if sheep are damp for a prolonged period. Sheep’s wool will not shrink like wool clothing due to structural differences. It’s a good idea to bathe your sheep when they’re dirty or to treat skin conditions. Just make sure they have fully dried off afterward. 

We’ll go into more detail about why wool clothing shrinks but sheep don’t. 

Then we’ll cover how different breeds deal with rain and reasons to bathe your sheep. 

can sheep get wet

Why Doesn’t Sheep’s Wool Shrink? 

Let’s return to the example of a wool sweater being shrunk in the washing machine. 

This process is called felting. 

Before we dive into why wool clothing shrinks but sheep don’t, there are a few key terms to know. 

  • Felting: The process of connecting individual fibers and turning them into an interlocked fabric.
  • Keratin: The type of protein found in hair and fingernails. 
  • Lanolin: A natural water repellant oil sheep produce.

Wool is a type of fiber made of amino acids, the building blocks of protein. 

As the fibers grow, they go through the process of keratinization. 

They harden like the keratin found in our fingernails and hair.  

Wool fibers have flat, overlapping scales on them. 

These scales naturally grow pointing outward, away from the follicle. 

When a sheep is sheared, and the wool is processed, the wool’s scales end up facing in any and all directions. 

Washing these wool fibers, typically clothes, will lead to the scales interlocking and holding the fibers in a static position. 

The fibers won’t be able to slide to their original positions, giving the appearance of a smaller garment. 

This process is called felting. 

Sheep, however, do not have this problem because the scales still face the same way. 

When their wool gets wet, the scales don’t get locked into place, so there is no felting. 

Sheep also have the benefit of lanolin, which covers their wool fibers. 

The lanolin repels water and prevents fibers from locking together. 

When a sheep is rained on, this also helps prevent them from becoming soaked and waterlogged. 

How Getting Wet Affects Different Types of Sheep

There are two main classifications of sheep: hair sheep and wool sheep. 

Different breeds with different coats will not react to rain the same way. 

Regardless of the breed of sheep, sheep should not be left out in bad weather because it can lead to illness. 

Wool Sheep 

You probably picture the stereotypical sheep with thick wool fleece when someone mentions this common farm animal. 

These creatures need to be sheared to remove the wool as it grows out, and the wool is then turned into clothes and other products. 

The wool contains lanolin, an oil with waterproof qualities. 

Water will bead off the wool instead of soaking through. 

Because of this, as well as body heat insulation from their warm fleece, wool sheep can handle wet weather and colder temperatures well. 

In the summer, shorn sheep handle hot weather better. 

Common sheep breeds with wool are:

  • Leicester Longwool 
  • Shetland 
  • Cheviot
  • Hampshire 
  • Lincoln sheep

Hair Sheep

The differences between hair sheep and wooly sheep are obvious when looking at them. 

Hair sheep have fur similar to other animals, like cats and dogs. 

They naturally shed their coat during the year when the temperature rises, so they don’t require shearing like wool sheep. 

Since they don’t produce high-quality wool like the ones we typically think of, they are used more for meat production. 

While hair sheep benefit from not needing to be sheared, their coats do not offer the same protection from the elements as heavy wool coats. 

Their hair does not contain the water-resistant oil wool coats used to guard against rain. 

Because of this, hair sheep are at more risk of becoming drenched and chilled. 

If their body temperature drops too low, they risk hypothermia. 

Hair sheep breeds include: 

  • Dorpers 
  • St. Croix
  • Wiltshire Horn 
  • Royal White
  • West African Dwarf sheep

Sheep Skin Conditions Caused by Rain

Excessive moisture can cause poor skin conditions, affecting your animal’s health. 

Even though sheep’s wool repels water, it is still possible for heavy, sustained rain to seep through the wool to the skin. 

The wool then acts as a barrier, preventing the moisture from leaving. 

Dermatophilosis (rain rot, rain scald, and mud fever) is caused by bacteria absorbed into moist skin. 

Once absorbed, it causes scabs, irritation, and discomfort.

Monitor your livestock during rainy seasons for signs of dermatophilosis, even if you provide them adequate shelter. 

The most recognizable sign is scabs clustered in one area. 

To treat Dermatophilosis, use a medicated shampoo, iodine solution, or apple cider vinegar until the area clears up. 

To help prevent this skin condition from occurring in the first place, make sure your animals have a shelter from rain to protect them from wet and cold weather conditions, as well as cold wind. 

Reasons to Bathe Your Sheep

Sometimes you will need to get your wooly friends wet on purpose. 

Sheep need to be bathed for various reasons, including animal health, which we’ll discuss next. 

After bathing, use a blow dryer to completely dry the wool. 

If you don’t, the moisture can lead to Dermatophilosis. 

Remove Dirt and Clean Their Fleece

Sheep are typically outdoor animals, so they are constantly subjected to dirt and mud. 

During wet conditions, this is especially true. 

Dirt and mud can get trapped in their fleece, and washing them is the only way to get them out. 

Use shampoo and conditioner specifically made for sheep and other livestock. 

Use whitening shampoo if you want your sheep to look their best for a show at the fair.

If you need help finding one, we recommend Weaver Leather whitening shampoo for livestock found on Amazon. 

You get a lot for the price, and it’s specifically designed for livestock. 

Further Reading: Sheep using dog shampoo: Is it bad?

Preparing for Shearing

Shearing should take place one or two times a year, typically in the spring months, to keep the sheep cooler during the hot weather of summer. 

If you don’t shear your sheep, their wool will grow indefinitely, leading to discomfort from their giant fleece. 

Dirt clumps in a sheep’s wool make the shearing process notoriously different. 

The razor will tug on the wool, pulling at the skin and making the sheep uncomfortable. 

If your sheep already doesn’t like staying still for shearing, this exacerbates the issue. 

A docile sheep will also be more likely to struggle if their coat is dirty during shearing. 

If you are selling the wool, it also just doesn’t look as nice if it’s not clean. 

Make sure to bathe your sheep a week or so before shearing to ensure they are fully dry by shearing day. 

Wet wool is also harder to shear and can become moldy if bagged and stored damp. 

Treating Skin Conditions

In addition to Dermatophilosis, sheep can develop sheep scab. 

The culprit behind sheep scab is a mite biting the sheep’s skin and causing issues. 

Fleas also infest sheep, causing similar issues. 

Washing the sheep with a medicated shampoo helps alleviate symptoms and eliminate the bacteria or pests causing your sheep discomfort. 

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Growing up amidst the sprawling farms of the South, Wesley developed a profound connection with farm animals from a young age. His childhood experiences instilled in him a deep respect for sustainable and humane farming practices. Today, through Farmpertise.com, Wesley shares his rich knowledge, aiming to inspire and educate others about the joys and intricacies of rural life.

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