How can you tell whether a sheep is happy?

A tricky thing to do, apparently. As a prey animal, sheep don’t like to give a lot away to potential predators. The Ministry of Primary Industries latest Welfare Pulse newsletter (December 2013) has some pointers however. It’s all in the ears, according to CSIRO Australia’s Else Verbeek, who says researchers have identified the following main ear postures.

  • Forward and raised – Ears forward and raised mean that the animal is alert and attentive, maybe separated from other flock members, which is very stressful for sheep. It could also be a sign of increased attention when placed in a novel situation, or it could be a sign of distress.
  • Neutral to backward – Ears neutral (perpendicular to the head-rump axis) or backward when they are standing calmly and quietly. The proportion of time spent with their ears in the backward position increases even further during positive situations such as feeding or being groomed voluntarily by their handler.
  • Asymmetrical – One ear pointing back and the other forward (asymmetrical) has been observed when sheep are distressed in situations such as when separated from group members. It may also be a sign of frustration. Sheep showed this posture more frequently when they were given a smaller food reward than expected.
  • Changed frequently – Sheep will change their ear postures very frequently when they are stressed and will be in a negative state.

However, it is important to note that ear postures are context dependent. Some of Else’s colleagues had observed the backward ear posture when merino sheep are in pain and this posture is often combined with a hunched back and behavioural apathy.

“So please bear the context in mind before you interpret the backward ear posture of a sheep in pain as a sign of positive emotion!” she says.

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