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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

Never Say Never

It was Tuesday, November 23, 1982 and I was an intern at the Caine Veterinary Teaching Center in Caldwell, Idaho. The Teaching Center had a faculty of six besides me, and we met after each two-week rotation of senior students from Washington and Oregon State veterinary medical schools to review the students and get updates on state veterinary issues. Among the issues presented by our director, Dr. Stuart Lincoln, was his appreciation for all the cold weather we had just experienced. unbeknownst to me, there was an outbreak of Vesicular Stomatitis in eastern Idaho. Dr. Lincoln was sure we’d be spared in our southwestern corner of the state because mosquitoes, the vectors that transmit the disease, should have died and transmission would stop. That was the conventional wisdom of the day and regulatory veterinarians were reporting that the spread of Vesicular Stomatitis had subsided. Moments later, Delores, one of the Center’s receptionists, quietly slipped into the conference room and handed me a note. The note said one of the dairies we serviced had noticed a few large blisters on the teats of some incoming heifers and they wanted me to come out to take a look. So began the saga of an outbreak of Vesicular Stomatatis, a disease clinically indistinguishable from Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD). Despite the recent twenty-four “vector killing” frosts in Idaho, the event Dr.
Lincoln had just assured us wouldn’t happen… happened!

This turned out to be quite the experience for a young, enthusiastic veterinarian. All of a sudden, I was on the frontline of a new presentation of a disease outbreak. The disease continued to spread within the herd until December 16, despite the fact that there was many more below-freezing days. I observed oral, feet, and teat lesions on the 332 cows that I examined. Nearly two thirds of the cows had lesions, many of them with lesions at multiple sites. Oral lesions were the most common, which resulted in excessive amounts of saliva contamination in the waterers. We were able to isolate the virus from one of the water samples. Animal-to-animal transmission was the means to the spread the virus in this outbreak.

There was a flurry of educational meetings to update practitioners in Idaho about the latest developments with our epizootic of Vesicular Stomatitis. Because I was the primary attending veterinarian of this herd, and had the most experience with the disease, the University of Idaho flew me, with other supporting faculty, to two different locations to meet with practitioners. It was an exciting and memorable time. But there was one “deer in the headlight” moment for me. During one of the question and answer sessions, a practitioner asked e the difference between a Vesicular Stomatitis foot lesion and foot rot. I instantly realized I was in the dubious position of having experienced more Vesicular Stomatitis feet than foot rot. I didn’t have an answer. Thankfully, I was rescued by one of the faculty veterinarians who answered, “foot rot wouldn’t have the vesicle lesions with it.”

This event early in my career came to mind when I noticed the CE event sponsored by the WVMA and the Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP): Secure Milk Supply - Planning for the Unimaginable, on June 15 at Glacier Canyon Lodge in Wisconsin Dells.

Secure Milk Supply is a collaborative effort of industry, state, federal and academic representatives funded by USDA-APHIS. This is a new and important program to help mitigate the disruption of food supply and business while still controlling an outbreak of FMD. The voluntary Secure Milk Supply plan is a workable continuity business plan for uninfected farms in a FMD Control Area. One of the components of the plan is an Operation-Specific Enhanced Biosecurity plan, which herd veterinarians will help design, implement and oversee. This is a very important role in which we maintain the responsibility.

I realize it is hard to get excited about low probability events when we are all busy with high probability challenges every day. However, in today’s world with terrorists looking to disrupt our way of life, some sort of deliberate sabotage is a real possibility. The possibility of a FMD outbreak is just as likely as a vector free outbreak of Vesicular Stomatitis was 36 years ago.

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