Short Docking of Sheep: A Cruel Fad in the Show Ring

This type of short dock, whereby the animal's tail is cut off entirely at the body wall, is typical in the show ring.The sheep industry is locked in a serious debate over the extreme docking of sheep tails for shows and livestock exhibitions. In the United States, shepherds typically cut lamb tails to a length of 1 or 2 inches to prevent wool maggots later in life. The practice of short docking for the "show circuit" is different—the entire tail is cut off right at the body wall, along with one or two vertebrae of the spine. It is well known within the sheep industry that short docking is an unnecessary practice that can cause serious health problems, pain and suffering. Seven national veterinary, scientific and animal science organizations recommend the practice of short docking be stopped.

In 2003, faculty from five state universities studied the effect of short docking on the health of sheep.1 The "Thomas Study" found an increase in rectal prolapses in sheep who were short docked (a picture comparing short, medium and long docking can be found in the Thomas article on page 2728). The researchers concluded, "Ultra short docking is a cosmetic fad promoted in the show ring that compromises the health and well-being of sheep. The practice should be abandoned."

Short docking policies and practices at universities participating in the Thomas study.1

  University Sheep Flock Cooperative Extension (4-H)
Iowa State University No written policy, lambs short docked (2007). No policy. ISU sheep program selling short docked "club" lambs (2007).
Ohio State University Written policy banning short docking (2000). Photo of short docked sheep on university sponsored website (2006). No policy. Short docked sheep at 2006 fairs.
Oregon State University Policy banning short docking (2000). Included in Standard Operating Procedures (2006). Written policy (2001) made optional (2004). No policy at State Fair (2005).
Texas A & M University No response to our request. Short docked sheep on university website (2007). No response to our request. Short docked sheep at 2006 livestock shows.
University of Wisconsin at Madison No written policy, practices medium docking. Photo of short docked sheep on university sponsored website (2007). No policy. Short docked sheep at 2006 fairs.

There are several causes of rectal prolapses. Short docking is particularly a problem because the caudal vertebrae of the spine and the cords that stabilize the rectum and anal sphincter are removed. Destroying this support system increases the chance that any straining (such as coughing) can push the rectum out of the body. Fixing a rectal prolapse is painful. With valuable show lambs, a prolapse may be amputated or sutured. In some cases, a torturous series of iodine injections is given to try to build up enough scar tissue to re-stabilize the rectum.

The Show Circuit's Role

Short docking only exists in the show circuit. At fairs, sheep are judged on how much meat they could produce at market. Like a body builder flexing to display muscle angles, sheep exhibitors use techniques in the show ring to highlight muscle definition. By removing the animal's entire tail, competitors want to create the illusion of the level back and full leg of a better meat lamb. Why? A winning sheep can sell for as much as $14,000, and winning builds up the breeder's reputation.

4-H and Future Farmers of America (FFA) offer youth hands-on experience through club projects that end with demonstrations at fairs and expositions. 4-H is a US Department of Agriculture (USDA) program administered by Cooperative Extension at each land grant university. County Extension Agents staff local 4-H programs and are employees of the university. FFA, in the US Department of Education (USDOE), is authorized by the National Vocational Education Acts. Leaders are agriculture teachers in local school districts and universities. Surprisingly, there is no national 4-H or FFA policy on tail docking, and Cooperative Extension Services in only 10 states ban the practice in sheep projects.

AWI Gets Involved

In June of 2006, the Animal Welfare Institute (AWI) wrote to the president and Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) chair at each campus that sponsored the Thomas Study. Our goal was to see how these institutions carried out the recommendations published by their faculty. We asked about policies for university sheep flocks and Cooperative Extension 4-H Sheep Projects.

We found that only two campuses ban short docking, and all five states still allow short docking in 4-H sheep projects. AWI also contacted the national 4-H and FFA headquarters, calling for leadership to stop the practice. Universities, the National 4-H Headquarters and the National FFA Organization all deny authority over what happens in the show ring.

Who Can Change this Policy?

The show ring today is more than a place for kids to display their skills—it has become a business. Some universities breed club lambs for sale; some private breeders educate youth on the care of sheep. Responsibility for change rests with administrators who design protocols and educational tools for sheep programs, including IACUC and Cooperative Extension faculty at universities. Ultimately, "[Cooperative] Extension will have to decide if it will promote and educate based on what the research base tells us, or whether it will promote and educate based on what some club lamb producers tell us. These are often two divergent trains of thought."2


On Campus: Take pictures of show lambs at fairs and university agriculture schools. Send them to the campus IACUC and ask for written policies that ban short docking in all university programs. (Send us a copy too so we can help!)

At the Fair: Encourage the Cooperative Extension Service to ban short docking in 4-H sheep projects. Ask the USDA and the USDOE to establish a national standard for 4-H and FFA projects.

Public Policy: Add short docking to animal welfare laws. Work with fair boards to strengthen animal cruelty policies at the fairgrounds.

Ally Building: Support commercial sheep producers calling for responsible improvements in docking practices in the show ring.

AWI is interested in working with activists organizing to stop short docking in their states; if you need help, please let us know. If you would like to join our work in Iowa, Ohio, Oregon, Texas or Wisconsin, please contact the AWI office.

We commend the US Animal Health Association, the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners, the American Veterinary Medical Association, the American Sheep Industry Association, the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Institute for Animal Agriculture, and the National Lamb Feeders Association for taking a stand against short docking. We also thank Cooperative Extension departments within universities, agriculture educators and industry leaders for their efforts to ban short docking in California, Idaho, Maryland, Nevada, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oregon, Utah, Washington, West Virginia and Wyoming.

1 Thomas, et al. (2003) Length of docked tail and the incidence of rectal prolapse in lambs. J. Anim. Sci. 81: 2725-2732.

2 Goodwin, J., et al. (2003) Development of objective lamb tail-dock measurement device.

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