When people think of sheep they think of a woolly, white, rather tailless animal, but this is not accurate. Most lambs are born with tails down to their hocks, roughly six (15 cm) – eight (20 cm) inches long. Learn more about tail docking in sheep and lambs.
The reasons for docking a lambs tail are plentiful, however not every keeper of sheep (including myself) docks their lambs tails.
Why Tail Docking is Done on Lambs
Long tails can become covered in feces, this attracts flies. When flies become a problem they can lay eggs on the sheep which hatch into maggots – and they even threaten to kill a sheep by eating it alive and causing infection. This is known as fly strike.
In ewes the fecal matter on their tail can be a slight problem for lambs who may try (briefly) to nurse on the tail or to nurse from behind the ewe herself. As well if she is having udder problems her woolly tail may make it harder to spot.
The main reason the tails are docked is because when sheep are shorn the feces on their fleece lower the quality. As well when sold to be butchered the tail needs to be removed which takes a slight bit more time.
One of our lambs with a natural tail
How Tail Docking is Done
Tail docking can be done in several ways, none of which are without pain to the lamb, nor without risk.
Probably the easiest method is the use of a thick elastic band specially made for this purpose (and castration). The elastic band is applied to the tail with a tool known as an elastrator (it stretches the elastic band). This is done when the lamb is at least 1 day old, but no more than a week old, usually 3 days old is a safe age for this procedure. The lamb feels a pinch of pain before the tail goes numb, eventually dying and falling off after a week or two.
Electric Tail Docking systems are used to cauterize the stump of the tail at the same time as cutting it off. This method can be used on lambs up to 5 weeks of age as well as those at least 48 hours old.
Emasculator tools cut the tail and crush the blood vessels at the same time.
photo source - note the elastic bands on the lambs tails.
Risks or Concerns
Rectal prolapse is more common in sheep who have had their tails docked excessively short.
If not done properly infection can occur.
Tetanus (lockjaw) can be a risk for animals whose tails are docked with the elastic band system, as such vaccinations for this are very important.
Bleeding can be a problem with the Emasculator tool if not kept on long enough (less than 30 seconds).
Barbado Ram whose tail was not docked.
Why Not Dock
Some breeds of sheep simply do not need their tails docked. The hair breeds do not have a problem with wool and some have shorter tails anyhow. Some other sheep breeds, such as the Icelandic, have a naturally short tail and docking is seldom done.
If kept in clean, and uncrowded, conditions problems such as fly strike are less of an concern.
When the diet is good the feces are not runny, it is runny feces that accumulate on the tail of sheep and become a problem. Internal can also give a sheep loose stools so proper health management will reduce this problem.
For the record while some of my pet sheep had their tails docked before I got them, I have never docked any other sheep’s tail, and never had any problems. We have begun keeping a hair sheep ram so the lambs are either full or part hair sheep, thus reducing any physical need for docking.
Blackie has a natural tail you can see its white tip just above her hocks.
If I had to suggest any method, it would be the use of the elastrator (which can also be used for castration too, although not before 3 days of age).
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Published in: Pets