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Nature's Nutritional Advice

When I’m not caring for patients at the office, I can usually be found at home on our little farm caring for a mish-mash of assorted sheep, goats, ducks, and chickens, along with a cat and a pack of rescued dogs. People often wonder out loud why I bother given the time and expense associated with their upkeep; but for me, it isn’t about the money. I have learned quite a few life lessons while watching over this little group and the value these animals provide goes far beyond financial considerations.

Nutritional Supplement Advice From a Sheep

This past summer I noticed that a female sheep we had recently purchased from another, much larger farm, was looking a bit thin. It can sometimes be hard to spot weight loss in sheep because well with all that wool, they’re generally always pretty fluffy and round. If you aren’t putting your hands on them and checking for various signs of low weight, you would have a hard time recognizing it. I try to lay hands on all my animals on a regular basis; I would rather prevent a problem BEFORE it starts but somehow, with a busy period at the office, this sheep, Molly, had escaped my notice. She had surprised us with a lamb shortly after arriving on our farm and I thought perhaps that the stress of the move to a new home, plus lambing had put her a bit behind nutritionally. After confirming that she didn’t have a parasite, we decided to keep an eye on her and make sure she wasn’t being bullied and kept away from the feed by the rest of the herd.

A day or two later I went out and found poor Molly laid out on her side in the pasture, a position a healthy sheep would not be in. When lying down sheep will normally remain upright on their chest, with legs folded underneath them. I called my husband out to help and we carried her into the barn where we could keep a closer eye on her and make sure she was getting feed and water. Oddly enough, she had no fever, no signs of illness what-so-ever; she was eating and drinking normally, but fully and completely unable to get herself up unassisted. And this went on for days. The veterinarian came out and was also stumped, “give her an extended course of a medication to get rid of a parasite” was the formal recommendation. “I just treated her for parasites,” I said, “and the tests we ran indicated she doesn’t have any; won’t more of that medication be bad for her?” I asked. The vet shrugged me off; in her mind, this sheep looked unlikely to make any kind of recovery, a toxic dose of de-worming medication was not going to make a difference at this point.

I knew Molly was sick, but I was not going to make the situation worse by pummeling her system with a dose of a medication we had already proven she did not need. As I know we all do when conventional medicine cannot provide an answer, I of course turned to the internet and an on-line sheep-owners support group (bet you didn’t even know those existed!). Explaining the symptoms I asked the group for other suggestions and shortly thereafter received a direct message from a sheep owner in the mid-west; “I don’t normally reach out to people directly” the message started, “but I went through the exact same thing with several of my sheep before my vet diagnosed selenium deficiency. It takes a while for them to recover but you’ll see; she will get better once you start giving her extra selenium”.

Now, I am in NO way advocating for taking random medical advice from strangers off the internet, however, I took the information and did some research of my own. Selenium, for those who may not know, is a mineral which is critical in both animal and human health. Selenium in humans is required for proper functioning of the immune system, the heart, proper function of muscles and bone, as well as the thyroid, and the brain and neurological system. Having it in adequate amounts in the body prevents several types of chronic illnesses and several forms of cancer.

In animals it has much the same purpose, and selenium deficiency specifically in goats and sheep is known as White Muscle Disease, a condition whose description almost identically matched the signs we were seeing in Molly the sheep; inability to stand and loss of muscle (leading to her looking thin).

A quick search of the internet showed that our county in Massachusetts rates among the counties with the most selenium deficient soil in the country. Most of New England in fact, falls at the “deficient” end of the spectrum; Meaning anything that grows in our soil including the grass and hay that feed the livestock, as well as the fruits and vegetables that we eat and feed to our families, are ALSO deficient. So if the beef, pork, lamb, fruits, and vegetables that you eat locally are deficient in selenium, how do you suppose YOU are doing? Do you think there’s a possibility that you too perhaps, might have some risk of deficiency?

The good news end to my story is that with careful supplementation, Ms Molly the sheep, has gotten better. As with most health conditions, I don’t think that the selenium deficiency was her sole problem. It appears that she also had been infected with a tick-borne illness called Anaplasmosis. The combination of nutritional deficiency plus infection made the symptoms of each much worse; a 2+2=8 scenario. Molly is on the mend but it will be some time before she is back to normal.

Nutritional supplements are a hotly debated topic in this country. The belief that,“This is the United States, therefore, vitamin and nutritional deficiencies do not exist” is no longer supported by research or science. They can exist and do contribute to a variety of illnesses, both chronic and acute, in this country. Our healthcare system however, as with many things in this country, favors that intervention which is the newest, flashiest, fastest, most advanced, most highly advertised and most heavily promoted. Vitamins and minerals from whole foods grown by local, conscientious, and sustainable farming practices do not often fit this description. It seems too simple; too easy; too “old-school” to start with nutrition. On the flip side as was the case with Molly, vitamins and minerals may not be the whole solution. Often, the condition is complicated; multiple therapies, conventional, nutritional, and alternative, may all need to be utilized to achieve an optimal recovery. The mistake we as providers make, is to disregard a therapeutic option simply because of our own personal biases. Chronic illness and autoimmune disease are on the rise in this country, as is the cost of healthcare. It’s time to take a sheep’s advice; don’t ever ignore the role that nutrition and nutritional deficiencies could be playing in your health.

Curious about selenium deficiency in your area?

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