Docking Lambs’ Tails: How Short is Too Short?

In a new video, Dr. Joe Snyder, a member of the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners and immediate past chair of the American Veterinary Medical Association’s (AVMA) Animal Welfare Committee, explains the proper techniques for lamb tail docking, what can be done to avoid complications resulting from improper docking, and alternative practices that can reduce or eliminate the need for docking.

The AVMA recognizes that docking of lamb’s tails is an effective way to reduce sickness and death resulting from fly strike. Fly strike is caused by blowflies that are drawn to the sheep by fecal soiling around the tail area. Flies lay their eggs on the sheep’s hindquarters, and the maggots from these eggs then burrow into the sheep’s skin, poisoning the animal with the ammonia they secrete. As the sheep’s skin becomes irritated, additional flies are attracted to the site, creating a vicious and painful cycle. A sheep can die within three to six days of onset of fly strike. To avoid jeopardizing lamb health and welfare, lambs’ tails should be docked no shorter than the level of the distal end of the caudal tail fold, and at the earliest age practicable. Tail docking itself causes pain and discomfort, and therefore the AVMA encourages the use of practices that reduce or eliminate pain, including, but not limited to, the administration of local anesthetics. Low-stress handling, the use of appropriate equipment, and well-trained personnel are also important to ensure good welfare.

Ultra-short tail docking is often performed only for cosmetic reasons. A shorter tail makes the sheep’s hindquarters look fuller; making it more likely the sheep will score well in competitive showing. Ultra-short docking of lambs’ tails is associated with an increased incidence of rectal prolapse, which is a painful and potentially life threatening condition.

The AVMA supports continued development of alternatives to docking lambs’ tails, including genetic selection for shorter tails, use of insecticides for fly control, and frequent shearing around the tail head for small flocks.

7 thoughts on “Docking Lambs’ Tails: How Short is Too Short?

  1. I cannot think of any reason docking a tail to short could predispose a ewe to rectal prolapse unless it is do so low that it severs that caudal nerves at the sacrococcygeal
    junction as what can happen with tail
    fractures. It seems this would be highly unlikely unless one is extremely aggressive when doing a tail dock. I think the problem with rectal prolapse is not related to tail docking as undocked ewes also get it. Similar to the problem in cattle who are also undocked.

  2. Dear Dr Cia,
    In Iceland, the land of sheep, many tails are not docked at all, and all the sheep do fine. Is docking really necessary, or is just the American biblical attitude that we can surgically manipulate our animals as we please, as one commenter noted? Americans are wont to inappropriately surgically intervene to alter their animals natural anatomy, more so than other civilized agrarian societies. The tail docking of horse is an inhumane inconsiderate practice, illegal in Britain and most other countries, glorified in American by Budweiser and their tail docked Clydes, a disgrace to animal sensitivity. Tail docking of dogs is also forbidden in Europe. Tails are essential for insect management in horses in particular, cows as well, perhaps sheep and dogs, less so. The tail is also an essential locomotion device, and a communication tool.
    American and the AVMA seem to be quite a bit behind the welfare standards implemented throughout the rest of the world. Please formulate a position on equine tail amputation, please. Sid Gustafson DVM

    • Hi Sid,

      The AVMA endorses the American Association of Equine Practitioners policy, Tail Alteration in Horses, which opposes equine tail docking. I have copied the policy text for you below. You can also find the policy on AVMA’s website at: https://www.avma.org/KB/Policies/Pages/Tail-Alteration-in-Horses.aspx.

      Tail Alteration in Horses

      The AVMA endorses the American Association of Equine Practitioners’ (AAEP) position statement on “Tail Alteration in Horses,” which reads as follows:

      “The American Association of Equine Practitioners is opposed to the alteration of the tail of the horse for cosmetic or competitive purposes. This includes, but is not limited to, docking, nicking (i.e., cutting) and blocking. When performed for cosmetic purposes, these procedures do not contribute to the health of the horse and are primarily used for gain in the show ring (nicking/cutting, blocking and docking) or because of historical custom (docking). When a horse’s tail becomes injured or diseased and requires medical or surgical intervention for the health of the horse, it should be performed by a licensed veterinarian.

      The AAEP encourages all breed associations and disciplines to establish and enforce guidelines to eliminate these practices. Members of AAEP should educate their clients about the potential health risks and welfare concerns involving these procedures.”

      Thank you.

  3. I am a dedicated sheep breeder and showman. I do not have a degree in veterinary medicine however it doesn’t take an expert to figure out that a ewe with a longer tail docking can prolapse too! It all comes down to experience and if you haven’t spent enough time in the lambing barn to figure that out, then maybe you should keep your opinions to yourself! If junior members really want to educate themselves about the sheep industry then they should probably take their advice from someone who knows enough to win a big show. These “outrageous judgements in the show ring” are actually quite admirable to some people. You need to understand what it takes to win and then figure out just how bad you want it. If you want to raise sheep with 4″ tails you are barkin’ up the wrong tree. There is a standard in the show industry and trying to get that standard lowered would be a fools battle. I am first and foremost a breeder and then a showman. In my experience prolapsing is a genetic affair and ewes that display such symptoms should be culled.

  4. Short tail docking is a huge problem and the judges need to be the first ones educated on this along with the producers. There are many shows where the judges give the lambs a participation ribbon and do not consider these lambs is they have any kind of a tail. This is outrageous. You don’t eat the tail! Please send information to these FFA teachers and the extension offices. These people need to be educated properly. Thank you.

    • Also, if you don’t eat the tail then cut the whole thing off and continue with your business. The bottom line is we all have our own sheep and we are free to do with them what we choose, but you can’t market your own sheep by nocking down another’s. It’s bad sportsmanship! Everyone walks into a show ring hoping to win. But if you don’t then you can’t blame the judge for not picking you because your lamb’s tail is longer than average. Have you ever thought that a breeder who docks their lambs’ tails too long might also lack knowlege about selection based on structure and
      quality?

  5. Great video- very informative . What is being done to educate the judge, exhibitors, breeders, & farmers about the hazards of Ultra-short tail docking. Can the Judging Standards be changed?