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Show Lamb Tail Docking - An Animal Welfare Issue

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Market animal show and sales are common place across Wisconsin. These meat animal projects are a great venue to teach many valuable life lessons to the youth involved. Local businesses support the youth by buying their animals at elevated prices in the auctions. The prices paid for the champion animals is usually many times market price. The financial rewards of these projects have spurred youth participation and increased the competitive nature of the projects. But sometimes good intentions can run amuck. The allure of winning and receiving big payouts at the auction can over shadow the original goals. Teaching, which includes good husbandry practices and character development, was a priority of the projects initially. Now it seems that winning takes precedent; in this case, at the expense of animal welfare.

Docking lambs soon after birth is a routine management practice which is a generally recognized strategy to reduce fly strike later in the sheep’s life. In the past several decades as youth market lamb show and sales have become more popular, there has been a trend to dock show lambs shorter and shorter. The impetus for this shortening of the docked tail is to give the appearance of a more muscular rump and rear leg of the lamb, making it more competitive. Over this same time frame many in the sheep industry observed an increase in the incidence of rectal prolapses in these ultra-short docked lambs and suspected dock length to be a contributing factor. By this time, though, the UK already had established laws requiring that docked tails cover the genitalia of ewes and the anus of rams for health and animal welfare reasons.

Because of these developments, the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners submitted a resolution to the AVMA in 2000 recommending that lambs be docked no shorter than the distal end of the caudal tail folds. The resolution was adopted. However, there were many skeptics in the sheep industry at that time because there was limited research on the subject. So, the practice of ultra-short tail docking continued, based solely for cosmetic reasons to enhance show ring competiveness.

In 2003 Dr. Dave Thomas, an animal scientist at UW-Madison, published a study of the relationship between lamb tail dock length and the incidence to rectal prolapses. The study included over 1200 lambs at five university flocks in the US with lambs’ tails docked at three different lengths. Lambs were docked 1. Long (at the distal ends of the caudal tail folds) 2. Medium (at the middle of the caudal tail folds) and 3. Short (by putting the elastrator band as close to the body as possible). The results showed 2% incidence in long docked lambs, 4% in medium docked lambs and 8% in short docked lambs. This large-scale study clearly showed that tail dock length played a significant role in the incidence of rectal prolapses.

The AVMA has reaffirmed the lamb tail dock length resolution several times since 2000, most recently in 2104 when it published a research summary of the issue. The WVMA Executive Board adopted the AVMA’s current lamb tail docking resolution at our October meeting. It states:

Lambs' tails may be docked for cleanliness and to minimize fly strike, but cosmetic, excessively short tail docking can lead to an increased incidence of rectal prolapse and is unacceptable for the welfare of the lamb. We recommend that lambs' tails be docked at the level of the distal end of the caudal tail fold and at the earliest age practicable. Because tail docking causes pain and discomfort, the WVMA recommends the use of procedures and practices that reduce or eliminate these effects, including the use of approved or AMDUCA-permissible clinically effective medications whenever possible.

Practicing veterinarians work at the intersection of this issue in Wisconsin. Most show lambs in Wisconsin are still docked too short and are at increased risk of developing a rectal prolapse. Rectal prolapses are very painful. Doing procedures to correct a lamb’s rectal prolapse are painful, short-lived and generally ineffective. It is recommended that affected lambs be slaughtered as soon as possible. While such a resolution of a youth project is an emotional and economic tragedy, doing so instills a high animal welfare ethic in the participant. As an advising adult, we need to remember that the project’s focus is on youth character development, not winning.

The WVMA has sent letters indicating our recommendation for proper lamb tail docking to Debbie Gegare the director of fairs at DATCP and to Bernie O’Rourke, the state youth livestock extension leader. Our goal is to raise awareness of this animal welfare issue. Debbie has oversight of county fair livestock judges who need to be updated on best practices of lamb tail docking. Bernie is in position to educate producers and youth to dock their lambs distal to the caudal tail folds.

I hope that when given the opportunity to teach youth or sheep producers of proper lamb tail docking that you seize the opportunity.

For those interested, the 2014 research summary by the AVMA can be viewed here
The AVMA has produced a lamb tail docking You Tube video that can be viewed here.

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Presidents Message

Planting Seeds - Growing Tomorrow's Veterinarians

Growing up on a farm in north central Wisconsin, I had a natural affinity to animals. My first passion was horses; my Dad used draft horses in the woods for making maple syrup. Later I became enamored with cows, and enrolled in 4-H and showed them at the county fair for many years. This innate preference for animals was no doubt a significant factor that contributed to my career choice of a veterinarian.

As a 12-year-old boy, I was amazed at the abilities and insights of our veterinarian as he attended to our animals. I was amazed at his ability to determine the pregnancy status of our cows by rectal examination. Given the challenges of artificial insemination, the rectal examination results were sort of a “report card” so to speak of our efforts. I always eagerly awaited the diagnosis, and when the cow was not pregnant appreciated advice and/or treatment to help achieve that goal. Additionally, I valued his ability to solve problems. From sorting out why a cow was sick and how to make her better, to delivering a “stuck” calf, the veterinarian left the farm in better shape than when he came. While this type of practice is considered “fire engine” practice, it was the norm back then. The preventive health programs that are common today were just being developed at that time. The notion of helping people with their animals appealed to me.

My curiosity in veterinary medicine lead me to seek job shadowing opportunities while I was in high school and college. Our veterinarian graciously allowed me to ride along several times. I learned quickly what a large animal veterinarian’s day was like and decided to pursue that career.

Aside from my affinity to animals, my job shadowing experience ranks as the next most important factor that focused my efforts to become a veterinarian. Recognizing the importance of job shadowing, I have returned the favor to many youths considering veterinary medicine as a career. The majority of those that rode with me while I practiced were high school or undergraduate college students. I always discussed the wide spectrum of opportunities that exists in veterinary medicine with them and enjoyed their conversation.

School organized Career Days are another venue to tell young people about the opportunities in veterinary medicine. My practice associates and I have participated in many of these programs at our local high schools over the years.

At the other end of the spectrum, I’ve had great fun going into kindergarten classes to share some of the things I did as a cow doctor. I always got loud gasps when I showed them a cow aspirin and a hoof nipper, the bovine version of a fingernail clipper. Young children are fascinated with animals, and frequently rank veterinary doctor as what they want to be when they grow up.

I encourage you to embrace the opportunities to nurture young people’s interest in veterinary medicine. We have to plant the seeds that will grow into the next generation of veterinarians.

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