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Itchy sheep skin caused by irritating parasites in wool

Published: Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Updated: Thursday, March 3, 2011 16:03

Dear Answer Girl,
Why is wool itchy?
Sheepishly concerned
First of all, let me just say that I am extremely impressed that you are aware of this little-known problem affecting sheep worldwide.
Itchy wool, or itchy skin, as is a bit more accurate in this instance, can be caused by a number of different parasites. Obviously, the sheep are bothered by these itchy irritations, but those shearers of sheep are also pretty annoyed because parasites can turn what was the perfect protective covering of the sheep into something that the shearers no longer find worth shearing. Hmmm ...
Anyway, the most economically significant of these parasites is the Damalinia ovis, or sheep biting louse. I think that is a literal translation.
I wonder if "Damalinia" means sheep louse, or sheep biting, or biting louse, or just sheep. It's kind of strange because I would think that "ovis" had something to do with eggs because it sounds suspiciously like ovum or ova, but those crazy Romans always do weird stuff when they name things, don't they? But I digress.
We were discussing the most economically significant sheep parasite, which causes a sheep to have itchy wool. By the way, even though the Damalinia ovis, or sheep biting louse, is the most economically significant parasite, the other annoying parasites are just as personally significant to the sheep.
See, pretty much all sheep parasites do the same thing: Irritate the sheep's skin. So, the sheep try to scratch their itches. But since sheep don't have fingernails or handy dandy wooden stick back-scratcher devices, they have to resort to using their teeth or any available solid object with a scratch-friendly texture.
Sheep shearers watch in horror as their wool is "self-traumatized," and of course no responsible sheep owner likes to see his or her sheep in discomfort.
What makes the Damalinia ovis so economically significant, then, is that it is relatively expensive to cure.
Ever hear of sheep dip? It's not something to put on chips or assorted fresh fruit. It's roughly equivalent to a flea dip you would prepare for your dog. Sheep that are infected with the sheep biting louse and/or mites are often dipped in sheep dip to relieve them of their discomfort and simultaneously protect their woolly wool.
When I say "relieve them of their discomfort" I do not mean "euthanize them, but without saying so in obvious language." Rather, I mean "relieve them of their discomfort" as in "stop the itching and irritation."
One final cause of wool itchiness is the sheep's unusual tendency to stand near to other sheep. Close contact of sheep is the major mode of transmission of sheep parasites.
I would think it would be rather hot standing around in all that wool. Apparently, sheep like to be encased in wool.
It would seem rather itchy, to me ... But who am I to judge a sheep and its preferences? Why, I'm the Answer Girl, of course, so send me your questions to Thanks!

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