Sheep are a favorite at petting zoos and farms. My kids love seeing and petting them. But do sheep like to be petted? I asked around and did some research – and here’s what I found about if sheep like to be petted.
Sheep that are accustomed to people enjoy being petted by their humans. However, sheep that are unaccustomed to people do not like to be petted and their fight or flight response is activated. Sheep approached by strangers may react favorably or not, depending on their level of socialization to multiple people.
Keep reading for more information – and some cool research findings on petting sheep!
Do Sheep Like to Be Pet?
While we don’t own any sheep, we sure like seeing them at the local farms. And my kids sure love petting them any time they can. But what about the sheep? Do they like being petted?
I dug into the research – and asked for stories from my mother-in-law, who was raised on a farm with a herd of sheep. The short answer, based on what my mother-in-law had to say, is yes: sheep enjoy being petted. At least, the herd that she grew up with enjoyed it!
In a 2015 study, Marjorie Coulon and associates studied the reactions of lambs to being petted. They found that lambs who were petted on a regular basis had better heart rates, better blood pressure, and better overall stress levels than the lambs who weren’t petted at all (the control group). The test group that was petted reacted more favorably to humans, too.
Talking to friends and family that have owned (or still own) sheep, they had similar, anecdotal evidence that sheep do, in fact, enjoy being petted – provided they are accustomed to people.
There are sheep who aren’t raised or socialized with people, and those sheep get stressed out by people – but we’ll talk more about them later on in this article.
These sheep develop a strong bond to one particular person – especially if they’re bottle fed as lambs. In that case, the person who bottle feeds a sheep is, in that sheep’s eyes, their surrogate mother. If a sheep is socialized to multiple people, they will likewise enjoy being petted by multiple people – and may enjoy pats from strangers, too.
Do Sheep Like to be Stroked?
Petting and stroking are two different actions. Petting may or may not involve stroking. But it definitely involves pats! So if sheep enjoy being petted, do they like to be stroked, too?
The anecdotal and research evidence both that sheep also like being stroked.
More precisely, stroking mimicking intraspecific allogrooming, in particular when applied under the neck, has been shown to elicit a calming, anti-stress response including relaxed body postures, increased approach towards humans, and lower heart rate.Marjorie Coulon et al, 2015
So go ahead and pat, pet, and stroke your sheep. It will help them socialize and is a normal part of the domestication process. There are, however, times when sheep do not like to be touched.
When Sheep Do NOT Like to Be Petted or Touched
Sheep who haven’t been raised around people aren’t as trusting of humans in general. Seeing a person will be far more likely to trigger a fight or flight response. And since sheep are better at fleeing humans than fighting people, they’ll probably opt to run.
If you do manage to sneak up on them and pet a sheep that hasn’t been raised around people, you’re probably some type of sheep ninja and that’s amazing. Once they figure out you’re there, they’ll still probably run away, though.
Sheep that have been raised around people may also not like being touched by strangers. This is going to depend on how they were raised and socialized.
I’ve heard lots of stories about lambs being raised and bottle-fed by people. Some of these lambs grow into sheep who like all people – and some grow up to only like a few people. In either case, though, these sheep show a clear preference for whoever did the bottle feeding.
A Note on Petting Sheep that Aren’t Yours
As with any other animal you aren’t familiar with, it’s best to ask the owner before you approach and touch a sheep.
That way, they can direct you towards a more people-friendly, petting-loving sheep rather than the one that’s skittish of people and might try to run away or even nip at you. The owner may even be able to separate the sheep who want to be petted from the rest of the flock (or herd) to minimize any possible risks or issues.
If there isn’t an owner visible or easily accessible, please stay on your side of the fence. The sheep aren’t likely to crowd you, but they will probably feel safer with a barrier between you.
Then, you can still watch the sheep through the fence. And if any sheep come up to you at the fence? Those are most probably the well-socialized animals who would be okay with a few gentle pats.
This way you can look at or even pet a sheep safely – and avoid any issues with trespassing or trampling. Of the two, trespassing is the far more likely issue. But still – staying on your side of the fence keeps everyone (including the sheep) safer.
How to Raise Sheep Who Enjoy Being Pets
The best way to raise sheep who enjoy being pets (and being petted) is to raise them yourself. Bottle feeding a lamb is a sure way to become its favorite person. In fact, bottle-fed lambs will follow whoever feeds it because to them, you’re its mom!
My mother-in-law bottle-fed and raised lambs – and her stories are fantastic. She doesn’t recommend trying to raise more than a few orphaned or abandoned lambs at once, though. Trying to save hundreds was overwhelming for her. And the memory caused her to tear up.
Instead, if you’re raising sheep as pets, then you may only want to focus on raising one or two lambs at any given time. That will result in far less heartache – or risk of losing any lambs.
But once you’ve raised that lamb, they’ll love and follow you. And if you spent a good amount of time petting, holding, and/or stroking them while feeding them, those sheep are going to be great pets. They’ll still enjoy being petted even as a grown sheep.
If you aren’t able to raise the sheep as a bottle-fed lamb, you can still have a sheep as a pet. Just give that sheep plenty of time to adjust to you – and to overcome its natural instincts to run from anything that’s a potential danger.
And if you want your sheep to enjoy being around multiple people? Make sure that you socialize it to lots of people. That way, your sheep is far more likely to enjoy being pet by more people. They may even go up to strangers for a pat that way, too.
Can I raise a sheep in my backyard? Sheep make great pets, provided they have enough room in your backyard and your local laws or city code allow them. As sheep are a social animal, keep in mind that you will need at least two – and preferably 5-6 for your small flock.
Are sheep intelligent? Sheep are herd animals with an intelligence just below pigs and on par with cattle. They are able to recognize and remember specific faces and emotions, including that of humans. Sheep can be trained.
Can you train a sheep like a dog? Sheep can be clicker trained and/or trained to be led by a halter for shows or other events. Training may take time and patience. Like dogs, sheep can be trained to respond to their names.
- Coulon M, Nowak R, Peyrat J, Chandèze H, Boissy A, Boivin X (2015) Do Lambs Perceive Regular Human Stroking as Pleasant? Behavior and Heart Rate Variability Analyses. PLoS ONE 10(2): e0118617. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0118617
- Interviews and stories with my mother-in-law, who was raised on a farm and her father kept a flock of sheep.
- “Sheep.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 28 Jan. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sheep#Intelligence_and_learning_ability.
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