Tail Docking of Sheep
November 5, 2021
The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) holds that tail docking of sheep is a painful procedure but may be necessary to enhance animal health and welfare when there is a risk of flystrike and alternative management strategies are inadequate. The CVMA recommends that when tail docking of sheep is required, it is performed at the youngest age possible with the use of local anaesthesia, systemic analgesia and appropriate technique.
- Tail docking of sheep may be necessary to minimize the risk of flystrike.
- Only competent trained personnel should perform the procedure.
- Tail docking with a hot iron is preferred as it induces less discomfort compared with other techniques.
- Tails should never be docked shorter than the distal end of the caudal fold.
- Under a valid VCPR, analgesic and anaesthetic protocols for the tail docking of sheep should be used to mitigate the associated pain.
The CVMA encourages the development and implementation of practical analgesic and anaesthetic protocols for the tail docking of sheep to mitigate acute and long-term pain and distress associated with this procedure.
Flystrike is a serious welfare issue in sheep and in circumstances where animals are at risk, tail docking can reduce that risk by reducing faecal soiling of the breech area (1).
Under some conditions, management techniques to reduce the risk of flystrike might avoid the need for routine tail-docking (2-4).
When necessary, tail docking should only be carried out in consultation with a veterinarian as part of an animal health and welfare plan under a valid Veterinarian-Client-Patient-Relationship (VCPR).
Tail docking should be performed at the youngest age possible after ewe-lamb bonding (which has normally occurred by 24-48 hours after birth).
Tail docking is performed using a variety of techniques, that include surgical removal (i.e., caudectomy), hot iron removal, and other techniques that result in the necrosis of the distal tail (e.g., rubber ring, combined rubber ring, and clamp) (5-8).
Tail docking with a hot iron simultaneously cuts the tail and cauterizes the wound. This method is preferred as it induces less discomfort compared with other techniques (5).
Tails should never be docked shorter than the distal end of the caudal fold (9).
Regardless of the tail docking technique chosen, all sheep benefit from the use of systemic analgesia (e.g., a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug – NSAID), and a local anaesthetic (5, 6, 10). The CVMA supports further research in analgesic and anaesthetic protocols for tail docking in sheep
Tail docking of sheep should only be performed by competent personnel using well-maintained equipment and accepted techniques.
As tail docking is a surgical procedure, the provisions of the CVMA position statement on surgical procedures are applicable (11).
Veterinarians should encourage sheep producers to adopt the National Farm Animal Care Council Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Sheep (12). The Code specifies that for surgical removal of the tail or if the lamb is older than 6 weeks of age, docking must be performed by a licensed veterinarian with anaesthesia and analgesia.
- French NP, Wall R, Morgan KL. Lamb tail docking: A controlled field study of the effects of tail amputation on health and productivity. Vet Rec 1994;134:463-467.
- Wall R, Lovatt F. Blowfly strike: Biology, epidemiology and control. In Pract. 2015;37:181. Available from: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Fiona_Lovatt/publication/277615715_Blowfly_strike_Biology_epidemiology_and_control/links/5683e05d08ae051f9af03611/Blowfly-strike-Biology-epidemiology-and-control.pdf. Last accessed February 2021.
- Lihou, K., & Wall, R. Sheep blowfly strike: The cost of control in relation to risk. Animal 2019;13: 2373-2378. Available fom: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1751731119000831?via%3Dihub. Last accessed February 2021.
- British Veterinary Association. Policy Statement. Sheep castration, tail docking, and pain management (2020).Available from: https://www.bva.co.uk/media/3364/sheep-castration-tail-docking-and-pain-management-final.pdf. Last accessed February 2021.
- Graham M, Kent J, Molony V. Effects of four analgesic treatments on the behavioural and cortisol responses of 3-week-old lambs to tail docking. The Vet J 1997;153:87-97.
- Lester S, Mellor D, Holmes R, Ward R, Stafford K. Behavioural and cortisol responses of lambs to castration and tailing using different methods. N Z Vet Journal 1996;44:45-54.
- Grant C. Behavioral responses of lambs to common painful husbandry procedures. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2004;87:255-273.
- Price J, Nolan AM. Analgesia of newborn lambs before castration and tail docking with rubber rings. The Vet Rec 2001;149:321-324.
- Thomas DL, Waldron DF, Lowe GD, et al. Length of docked tail and the incidence of rectal prolapse in lambs. J Anim Sci 2003;81:2725-2732.
- Kells NJ, Beausoleil NJ, R Godfrey AJ, E Littlewood K, Ward RN, Johnson CB. Effect of analgesic strategies on pain behaviour associated with combined ring castration and hot iron tail docking in Merino lambs. Appl Anim Behav Sci. 2019;222:104914
- Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA). Surgical Procedures Performed on Animals – Position Statement (2021). Available from: https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/documents/surgery-performed-animals. Last accessed February 2021.
- National Farm Animal Care Council (NFACC). Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Sheep. Available from: http://www.nfacc.ca/codes-of-practice/sheep. Last accessed February 2021.