Welfare Implications of Tail Docking of Lambs

Literature Review

February 18, 2010

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The tail of lambs is shortened, typically using a constricting rubber band, docking iron (hot blade)1 or a combination of the rubber band and a bloodless castrator,2,3 to reduce fecal soiling1 and fly strike. Fly strike is a painful condition caused by blowflies that lay their eggs on the sheep. The maggots then burrow into the flesh and poison the sheep with the ammonia they secrete. As the sheep's skin becomes irritated, additional flies are attracted to the site. A sheep can die within three to six days of onset of fly strike.4


Tail docking induces considerable discomfort in young lambs.5 Short docking of the tails of lambs has also been linked to increased incidence of rectal prolapse.
Short docks—Docking of the tails of show animals may sometimes involve amputation of the entire tail to give a fuller appearance to the rump (short docking). Short docking may contribute to a higher rate of rectal prolapse, although other factors have also been implicated (raising in feedlots6, coughing, gender [females at higher risk]7,8). One study has demonstrated increased rectal prolapse in lambs with short- or medium-docked tails (i.e., from the tail base to within the region of the caudal fold8) while another study found docking had no significant effect on prolapse incidence.9

It has been suggested that studies of rectal prolapse are affected by confounding variables.8,9,10,11 A minimum length of tail to qualify for showing has been proposed11 and implemented in some states. The appropriate length for docking is variously expressed as exhibition of 0.7 inches of tail, docking at the third or fourth coccygeal vertebrae, or docking at the end of the caudal fold/hairless under-tail area.

Pain—Active behavioral responses indicating pain are restlessness, rolling, easing quarters (the hind quarters are moved slowly and alternately without locomotion), stamping, kicking, head turning and vocalization by the lamb. 2,3,11 High concentrations of cortisol in the blood are also associated with pain and distress. 2,3,12 Increased active behavior, as well as elevated peak blood cortisol concentrations are seen in lambs undergoing tail docking. 2,3,12


Rubber ring—One technique for docking tails is use of an elastrator to apply a tight latex band (rubber ring docking). The use of latex bands produces highly variable responses, not only among lambs, but within the same animal if the band is removed and then replaced. Rubber ring docking produces highly variable levels of pain within the first hour after application.5,12,13 Pain is typically estimated to be mild14 or moderate based on abnormal postures and behaviors indicating discomfort.12,13 This suggests that some band placements are more painful than others. For example positioning a band on the vertebra might be expected to be more painful than positioning one over an intervertebral space.5 Cortisol concentrations in blood may also be elevated.12 The ring subsequently produces an inflammatory lesion and sloughing of the tail (most slough by 28 days after rubber ring placement15), which may be associated with a longer term pain response. Docking with a rubber ring, however, does not typically affect live weight gain.15


Hot blade—The hot blade method involves severing the tail and cauterizing it, using a heated anvil scissor docking iron. The cut end of the tail is held against the heated blade for approximately 1 second to improve hemostatis.3 Tail docking performed with a heated docking iron has been shown to produce levels of pain behavior and blood cortisol concentrations that are not significantly different from handled lambs whose tails are not docked.3

Rubber ring followed by crushing—A rubber ring may also be applied as described above followed by application of a bloodless castrator across the full width of the tail for approximately 10 seconds. 2,3 The rubber ring generally rolls into the groove made by the bloodless castrator.2 It has been shown that the application of a bloodless castrator in addition to rubber ring placement did reduce active behavioral pain responses (see section on pain above) and increases in blood cortisol concentrations associated with docking. 2


Oral aspirin was not found to be an effective analgesic when adminstered immediately after application of rubber rings.13 Another study found that neither suckled sucrose nor administration of carprofen altered behaviors indicating discomfort (e.g. restlessness, vocalization, tail wagging, etc.) associated with rubber ring tail docking. 16 One research group found that 2% lignocaine applied locally reduced peak blood cortisol concentrations and behavioral pain responses (see pain section above) to tail docking with a rubber ring.2 Bupivacaine administered subcutaneously immediately before rubber ring application has also been effective in reducing active painful behavior and peak blood cortisol concentrations.3


Genes associated with short tails exist in sheep and offer a potential alternative to docking, via selective breeding toward a tail of the desired length.17 Fly strike might also be managed in some cases by removal of fleece (i.e. crutching) and increased application of chemical preventatives (i.e. jetting). However the use of a slow release capsule of a benzamidizole (albendazole) was not found to be as effective as docking in preventing flystrike.1



Fly strike is a cause of serious suffering in lambs. Subjective monitoring of behavioral responses and objective monitoring of cortisol concentrations in blood indicate there is pain and distress associated with tail docking, no matter the technique used. Short-docked tails have been associated with increased incidence of rectal prolapse in some studies. Though there is pain associated with tail docking, fly strike can lead to discomfort, pain and eventually death of the lamb.


The Farm Animal Welfare Council (FAWC) recommends that docking should be avoided whenever possible.18 The FAWC also concluded that tail docking of lambs up to 7 days old is best done with a rubber ring; that lambs between the ages of 1 and 8 weeks old should be docked with a docking iron (hot blade) or a clamp; and that acute pain of tail docking can be alleviated using locally applied anesthetics.18


1 Webb Ware JK, Vizard AL and Lean GR. Effects of tail amputation and treatment with an albendazole controlled-release capsule on the health and productivity of prime lambs. Aust Vet J. 2000;78:838-842.
2 Kent JE, Molony V and Graham MJ. Comparison of methods for the reduction of acute pain produced by rubber ring castration or tail docking of week-old lambs. Vet J. 1998;155:39-51.
3 Graham MJ, Kent JE, and Molony V. Effects of four analgesic treatments on the behavioural and cortisol responses of 3-week-old lambs to tail docking. Vet J. 1997;153:87-97.
4 Morris MC. Ethical issues associated with sheep fly strik research, prevention, and control. J Ag Envir Ethics. 2000;13:205-217.
5 Graham MJ, Kent JE and Molony V. The influence of the site of application on the behavioural response of lambs to tail docking by rubber ring. Vet J 2002;164:240-243.
6. Anderson DE and Miesner MD. Rectal prolapse. Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice 2008; 24: 403-408.
7 Luther J. Causes, prevention and treatment of rectal prolapse in sheep. NDSU Extension Services September 2008. AS-1388.
8 Thomas DL, Waldron DF, Lowe GD, Morrical DG, Meyer HH, High RA, Berger YM, Clevenger DD, Fogle GE, Gottfredson RG, Loerch SC, McClure KE, Willingham TD, Zartman DL and Zelinsky RD . Length of docked tail and the incidence of rectal prolapse in lambs. J Anim Sci 2003;81:2725-2732.
9 Zanolini WF. The effects of dock length on the incidence of rectal prolapse in lambs. Master's Thesi, Texas Tech University. Available at: http://hdl.handle.net/2346/999 Accessed February 18, 2010.
10 Windels H. Factors causing rectal prolapse in feedlot lambs. Proceeding 62nd annual sheep and lamb feeders day, University of Minnesota. 1990;10-13.
11 Goodwin J, Murphy T and Jacobson R. A path to resolution regarding the show lamb taildocking controversy. J Extension 2007;45:Article 4FEA8.
12 Molony V, Kent JE and McKendrick IJ. Validation of a method for assessment of an acute pain in lambs. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2002;76:215-238.
13 Pollard JC, Roos V and Littlejohn RP. Effects of oral does of acetyl salicate at tail docking on the behavior of lambs aged three to six weeks. Appl Anim Behv Sci 2001;71:29-42.
14 Mellor DJ and Murray L. Effects of tail docking and castration on behaviour and plasma cortisol concentrations in young lambs. Res Vet Sci 1989;46:387-391.
15 Kent JE, Jackson RE, Molony V, and Hosie BD. Effects of acute pain reduction methods on the chronic inflammatory lesions and behavior of lambs castrated and tail docked with rubber rings at less than two days of age. Vet J 2000;160:33-41.
16 Price J and Nolan AM. Analgesia of newborn lambs before castration and tail docking with rubber rings. Vet Rec. 2001;149:321-324.
17 Scobie DR and O-Connell D. Genetic reduction of tail length in New Zealand sheep. Proceedings of the New Zealand Society of Animal Production 2002;62:195-198.
18 Farm Animal Welfare Council. FAWC report on the implications of castration and tail docking for the welfare of lambs. FAWC, London, England. June 2008. Available at: http://www.fawc.org.uk/pdf/report-080630.pdf Accessed February 18, 2010.

This information has been prepared as a service by the American Veterinary Medical Association's Animal Welfare Division.