Why Do Sheep Owners Dock Lambs' Tails?

To some, it comes as a surprise to learn that lambs are born with tails and that the tails are docked (cut off) at a young age. What is the reason for this?

For the most part, tail docking is a sanitary measure. Wool tends to collect foreign matter rather easily, and the tail is particularly notorious. Not only is this unpleasant for all concerned, but a dirty tail attracts wool maggots and poses a serious risk of infection to the lamb.

Since tails are perceived as unsanitary and are just so much waste in meat animals, this can translate into lower prices at sale time. An old adage cited in the 1927 K-State bulletin Sheep Production in Kansas observed:

Dock your lambs or the market will.

This rule is still largely true, but there are exceptions. For example, if you direct market to an ethnic group, you will need to know whether your customers prefer their lambs docked or undocked.

Other reasons sometimes given for docking include:

  • Making shearing easier.
  • Making udder inspection easier.
  • Keeping the milk clean when dairying with sheep.

To ensure that docking is done humanely, sheep owners dock lambs at a young age, when the operation will be less painful and less likely to cause complications. They also do not remove the entire tail, just enough to avoid the sanitary problem.

Hair sheep are not typically docked, since their tails do not pose as much of a sanitary risk. Fat-tailed sheep breeds are not docked because their tails are used to produce fat for cooking and for making soap. Also, a few breeds of wool sheep from northern Europe are born with naturally short tails, and these do not have to be docked, either.