Ohio State program comes in on tail end of sheep docking, health issue

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COLUMBUS – Producers, livestock exhibitors and youth will be introduced to optional methods of tail docking sheep during the Ohio State Fair in August.

Ohio State University researchers with the department of animal sciences and College of Veterinary Medicine have joined forces to implement a tail docking educational program designed to give Ohio producers and exhibitors the opportunity to observe the recommended industry practices of docking the tails of sheep.

Educational. “The program is meant to be an educational demonstration of industry-recommended practices, and by no means meant to be instituted as policy,” said James Kinder, chair of Ohio State’s Department of Animal Sciences.

“It’s just a way of demonstrating to producers and youth that this is what industry recommends and allow them to make their own decisions.”

Necessary practice. Tail docking, or shortening the length of the tail, is common management practice in sheep, utilized mainly to help improve hygiene and control diseases.

While those in the sheep industry have recognized tail docking as a necessary practice, questions have surfaced over just how much of the tail should be removed.

Over the past several years, some livestock exhibitors and show lamb producers have adopted the practice of “severe” tail docking, whereby the tail is surgically removed at the point of attachment to the body wall. Docking the tail at such a short length presumably enhances the physical characteristics of show sheep, which gives them an edge in competition.

However, severe tail docking has been shown to be a contributing factor to an increased incidence of rectal prolapse, a painful condition caused from the severing of nerves that hold the muscles supporting the rectum in place.

Increased concern. “Over the past few years, we’ve heard increased concern regarding the incidence of rectal prolapse in lambs being exhibited in fairs and shows in Ohio,” said Henry Zerby, an Ohio State animal science researcher.

“We’ve heard similar reports from other folks in states throughout the country. Ideally, we want that target number to be zero.”

As a result, animal organizations around the country have developed resolutions and several states have adopted policies that encourage a longer tail length for sheep. The Ohio State tail docking educational program is just one more way to help reduce the incidences of rectal prolapse.

State fair demonstration. The Ohio State tail docking program, approved by the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences Agricultural Animal Care and Use Committee, will be demonstrating sheep at the state fair whose tails have been docked at three different lengths: the distal end of the caudal fold; slightly shorter with approximately two vertebrae left past the end of the body wall; and where the base of the tail meets the body wall.

“Our push is not to say that producers need to make the docks longer, but to explain why,” said Henry Zerby, an animal science researcher. “But the challenge is going to be explaining to producers what the distal end of the caudal fold actually means. Producers may not understand that terminology.”

“But that is not for us to tell producers what they should do. We are trying to put ourselves in the position of educators from an animal welfare standpoint and a medical standpoint. If people choose not to follow the practice of longer tail docking, that is their choice,” said Bill Shulaw, an Ohio State veterinarian.

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