COLUMBUS, Ohio - 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.
"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 within College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental 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." 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 supposedly 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.
"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.
"The bottom line is that we want to emphasize the ideal length to dock a tail so that it's long enough and is not a problem with regard to rectal prolapse," said Kinder.
In a recent unpublished preliminary study by Ohio State, Iowa State and Texas A&M universities and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, researchers found that lambs with short docks (as close to the body as possible) may have a 9-to-10 percent incidence of rectal prolapse.
"The data from this study would suggest that there seems to be a relationship between short docked tails and rectal prolapse," said Zerby, "however, genetics may also influence the incidence." Kinder emphasized that other factors are involved in inducing rectal prolapse, including dietary and environmental factors. "But the goal of the program is to get producers to dock lambs long enough so that tail docking is not one of the contributing factors of rectal prolapse.
"I think people in the industry recognize that docking a tail too short could contribute to rectal prolapse, but just what the appropriate length of the tail should actually be is fuzzy, and that's what's being debated," he said.
The industry-recommended dock length is no shorter than the distal end (farthest point from the body) of the caudal fold. The caudal fold is a flap of skin attached to the underside of the tail near the rectum that is clearly visible when the tail is lifted.
The U.S. Animal Health Association developed a resolution urging that sheep be docked no shorter than this particular tail length and groups such as the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners, the American Sheep Industry Association and the American Farm Bureau Association support the resolution.
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 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 the say that producers need to make the docks longer, but to explain why," said Zerby. "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." Bill Shulaw, an Ohio State veterinarian with the College of Veterinary Medicine, said the caudal fold is a good marker to use because it can clearly be seen in lambs that have not yet been docked.
"The distal end of the caudal fold is an easily recognized landmark," he said. "Others will argue, however, that it is not clearly visible in all breeds and it does disappear when the tail is docked shorter than the caudal fold. So it will be a challenge to distinguish that." Research has suggested that a longer tail length may help reduce rectal prolapse. In the study conducted by Ohio State and other universities, compared to a short dock, a long dock (sheep whose tail were docked where the caudal fold meets the tail) cut the incidence of rectal prolapse by 80 percent.
"It has become a hot issue across the country where the tails ought to be docked," said Shulaw. "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." Sheep producers and youth show officials in states that have implemented longer tail docking policies include West Virginia, California, Wyoming and Washington. Maryland's 4-H program is scheduled to implement a policy as well.