How and when should I dock my lambs?


Lambs should generally be docked as soon as management allows and preferably before they are six weeks of age. The most common method of tail docking is to stretch a rubber ring around the tail using an elastrator. The dead tail will eventually fall off, though some producers will cut it off before this happens. Banding should be done when lambs are 1 to 7 days of age.

There are several other tools that can be used to dock lambs’ tails. The Double Crush Emasculator cuts and crushes the tail simultaneously. A Burdizzo crushes the tail and seals the blood vessels, but a knife must be used to cut off the tail. The pain and discomfort of banding can be reduced if the Burdizzo is applied across the tail immediately below the band. A hot iron or electric docker simultaneously cuts the tail and cauterizes the wound. It is considered the least painful method of docking and is the most appropriate for older lambs.

Tails should not be cut off with a knife (alone), as this method is the most painful and can cause excessive bleeding. It is important to note that all methods of docking are painful and pose some degree of risk. Unfortunately, there are no over-the-counter pain relief options available in the US. Aspirin does not provide sufficient pain relief.

The tail should be removed no shorter than the distal end of the caudal tail fold. The tail stub should be long enough to cover the ewe’s vulva and similar length in the male. Very short tail docking, common with many show sheep, is unacceptable. No tail or a very short tail increases the risk of prolapsing. Pain and distress are more pronounced in short-docked lambs. Very short docking compromises the welfare of sheep without providing any benefits.

Regardless of docking method, it is important that lambs be protected against tetanus either through vaccination or passive immunity via colostrum. While tetanus can enter through any wound, elastrator bands pose the greatest risk because they create an anaerobic (oxygen-free) environment in which the tetanus organism thrives.  

Docking is generally considered to be a best management practice. According to the most recent NAHMS study, over 90 percent of lambs in the US are docked. Docking is done for reasons of health and hygiene. It is done to prevent fecal soiling and flystrike. Docking also facilitates shearing, crutching, and slaughter. It is good for food safety because it keeps carcasses cleaner. It is easier to observe the vulva and udder of a ewe that has been docked.

Lambs from some breeds do not need docking. Hair sheep are not usually docked, though some producers dock Dorper tails. Some sheep have naturally short tails and may not require docking. These include breeds from the Northern European short (or rat) tail variety:  Finn, Icelandic, Shetland, Soay, Romanov, Gotland, and East Friesian.

If you market your lambs young and/or can keep their backsides clean, you may not have to dock. Some producers only dock their replacements. Some ethnic buyers prefer unblemished (undocked) animals.

It is recommended that docking and castration be done at the same time.


Additional reading
Animal welfare consideratons for docking and castration - Alberta, Canada