If you have sheep, you must understand the importance of hoof care. Good shepherding involves vigilance in checking hooves for excessive growth, damage, injury and signs of disease. In this article, we discuss good hoof care in sheep and provide step-by-step instructions on how to trim sheep hooves. Read on to learn more.
What You'll Learn Today
- Effective Sheep Hoof Care Is Variable
- What Do You Need For Sheep Hoof Trimming?
- How Do You Trim Sheeps’ Hooves?
- How Often Do Sheeps’ Hooves Need Trimming?
- Watch Out For These Hoof Problems
- Frequently Asked Questions
Effective Sheep Hoof Care Is Variable
Just like dogs’ claws, horses’ hooves and humans’ toenails, sheeps’ hooves grow and need to be trimmed and shaped on a regular basis. The rate of growth is affected by a number of different factors, including:
- Soil characteristics
- Herd management
- Soil moisture
Sheep whose nutrition comes primarily from hay and grazing will need less vigilant hoof care than those receiving lots of rich grain. Sheep that are kept on gravely, dry soil will need much less hoof care than those kept on soft, moist pasture.
Those that live in areas with high rainfall will need more frequent hoof inspection and trimming than those living in a dry climate. Sheep living indoors need very regular hoof inspections and trimming.
What Do You Need For Sheep Hoof Trimming?
It’s very important to have the right tools for sheep hoof care. You’ll need a good set of foot paring (aka: foot-rot) shears in order to do a quick, efficient, effective job.
Manual shears are very economical and completely adequate for shepherds with only a few sheep. If you have a large flock, you may wish to invest in air compressor driven shears.
You will also need a good, sharp paring knife to clear away pockets of debris and infected areas on hooves. A sharp paring knife is a good finishing tool for hoof work.
A standard hoof pick or an old-fashioned church-key bottle opener can be used to remove debris from between the sections of the hooves.
A hoof rasp or standard rasp is helpful for smoothing rough edges on freshly trimmed hooves and/or around damaged areas on the hoof.
There are a number of different types of sheep handling equipment you can purchase to make sheep hoof trimming easier. Among them are:
- Turn or tilt tables (automatic or manual) can be used to hold the sheep in position.
- An elevated platform (similar to a goat milking platform) with a head gate can be used to restrain the animal.
- A “deck chair” designed especially for sheep is affordable and effective at positioning and holding sheep for a trim.
How Do You Trim Sheeps’ Hooves?
If you have a lot of sheep, hoof trimming can be an arduous task. Unlike horses, you cannot simply lift a sheep’s hoof and trim it. Instead, you have to lift and flip the whole sheep, as demonstrated in this video.
Sheep Hoof Trimming For Beginners
Once you have the sheep in position, you are ready to begin trimming. Follow these five steps:
1. Take a firm hold on the sheep’s leg.
2. Examine the hoof carefully for signs of damage or infection. A very bad smell indicates hoof rot.
3. Use a hoof pick to remove debris, manure, mud and rocks from the crevices of the hoof.
4. Use your hoof shears to trim excess hoof material from around the pads of the hoof. Trim smoothly from the back to the front of the hoof. Be careful not to cut too deeply as this will cause pain and bleeding and will make the hooves more susceptible to infection.
5. When you are finished, the hoof should look well-squared and flat, like the hooves of a newborn lamb.
TIP: Keep an eye on the weather forecast. Try to time hoof trimming so that it takes place after a rain when hooves are softer and easier to cut.
How Often Do Sheeps’ Hooves Need Trimming?
Healthy sheep should have regular trims at six to ten week intervals, depending on the season, the weather and other factors mentioned previously.
It’s wise to keep a consistent schedule of hoof inspection and trimming. Remember to also schedule other care to take place simultaneously so that you can get vet visits, vaccinations, wound treatment, shearing and other activities out of the way while you have your sheep subdued and contained.
Doing everything at once is good time management and causes less stress on your animals.
Watch Out For These Hoof Problems
You should observe your flock daily for any signs of trouble and address problems promptly when they arise. Lameness is always a sign of trouble. It may be caused by something as simple as a stone wedged in the hoof, or it may be caused by serious injury or illness.
No matter what the cause, it is important to investigate and deal with lameness as soon as it is observed.
Some serious causes of lameness are:
1. Blue Tongue
This condition is a virus that is not spread from sheep to sheep. Instead, it is spread by biting insects, such as mosquitoes. If you notice a brown or reddish band around the hoof coronet (the top of the hoof) suspect Blue Tongue. You must report instances of this illness to your state department of agriculture.
2. Hoof Abscess
An abscess is typically caused by an untreated injury to the hoof. Without proper cleaning and treatment, injuries become infected causing swelling and inflammation within the hoof and in the ankles.
If left untreated, abscesses become filled with pus, rupture and drain on their own, but this is not an end to the problem. Without anti-biotics, infection is very likely to become systemic and cause your sheep to become very ill or even to die.
If one of your sheep’s hooves and lower legs are swollen and hot, you must contact your vet right away for proper treatment.
3. Founder Or Laminitis
As in horses, this condition is the result of poor blood circulation to the hooves. It is caused by digestive problems following the intake of large amounts of grain. This is also known as acidosis or grain overload and can be fatal. If the animal survives, the hooves may be permanently affected.
4. Foot & Mouth Disease (FMD)
This viral disease is spread from sheep to sheep, as well as between other animals, such as:
Animals affected by this serious illness develop blisters in and around the mouth and on the nose or snout. Blisters will also appear on the teats of nursing animals and above the hooves. These signs are very obvious in pigs and cattle but are more subtle in goats and sheep.
For the most part, this disease has been eradicated in North America, but there was an outbreak in the United Kingdom (UK) in 2001.
It is very important to be vigilant about this deadly, highly contagious disease. Quarantine any new animals you acquire for several weeks before introducing them to your other livestock. Contact your vet immediately if you suspect FMD.
5. Contagious Ecthyma (Aka: Soremouth)
It looks something like FMD in that symptoms include blistering around the hooves and mouth. The difference is that blisters will also appear on other parts of the animal’s body, and blistering is more severe around the mouth than around the hooves.
There is an effective vaccination for sore mouth, and the blisters can be effectively treated with topical antibiotic ointment.
6. Foot Rot
In the United States, this disease causes a great deal of damage, disruption and expense in the sheep industry.
It is not a deadly disease, but animals that have it must be culled from the herd to prevent its spread, so you may find yourself slaughtering animals early or slaughtering animals that you had intended to keep for breeding and/or wool production.
This disease is caused by two types of anaerobic bacteria working together:
- Fusobacterium necrophorum is a common presence in the manure and soil found in areas where cattle, goat and/or sheep are kept.
- Bacterioides nodusus is typically brought into these environments by infected animals. There are twenty different types of this bacterium, so the likelihood that new animals may be carrying it is very great.
When the conditions are conducive, the two forms of bacteria work together to create a formidable bacterial foe.
If sanitation is poor, and F. necrophorum is present, V. nodusus will also take hold. Warm (40 – 70 degrees Fahrenheit) muddy conditions are particularly ideal for anaerobic spread of these bacterium.
Although B. nodusus only lives in the soil for a couple of weeks, it can easily be transported from place to place by infected animals or even by healthy animals that have been transported in a conveyance which recently carried infected animals.
This is why thorough disinfecting of all trailers and consistent quarantine of new stock are extremely important steps to take.
Once foot rot is detected, the entire flock should be treated. If you only have one or two sheep, you may be able to deal with the problem by carefully disinfecting your sheeps’ living quarters, trimming the hooves and providing regular hoof soaks in a solution of 10% zinc sulfate.
Affected animals should be kept off the soil and treated regularly for at least two weeks. During this time the contamination will die in the soil, and your sheep should recover.
If you have a large flock (and/or if you live in the UK) isolation, hoof trimming and soaking are not the answer. Instead, see your vet to arrange for injections of antibiotics and to purchase antibiotic sprays to be applied topically.
There is also a foot rot vaccination that can be used preventatively, but it does not provide an absolute guarantee of immunity. This vaccine is a bit pricey and is not always available.
Proper care and hygiene, regular hoof trimming and consistent quarantine are actually more affordable and better protection against hoof rot.
If left untreated, the infection will resist treatment and sheep will become quite ill. These animals should be culled and slaughtered.
Another layer of protection against foot-rot involves choosing breeds of sheep that are less susceptible to it. European and British breeds are typically less susceptible. Generally speaking, sheep who have dark colored hooves are less susceptible than those with white hooves.
You can develop less susceptible sheep within your own herd by keeping good records and avoiding breeding sheep who have had foot-rot.
To prevent infection, be sure to carefully examine any sheep you are thinking of buying. Buy directly from the breeder, and inspect the premises before purchasing. Don’t buy from auctions and sale barns.
When you purchase new sheep, quarantine them for a full month. Trim and treat their hooves as soon as you get them home, and keep a close eye on them throughout the quarantine period.
7. Interdigital Dermatitis (Aka: Foot Scald)
This is F. necrophorum is the only culprit in this disease, which causes lesions between the toes. This usually occurs on the front hooves and causes lameness.
Foot scald causes the skin between the toes of the front hooves to become extremely sensitive and inflamed. The skin may look very pale or it may be swollen and red.
Foot scald is caused by prolonged exposure to wet, muddy footing. Moving the sheep to a dry setting may resolve the problem. Footbaths with a solution of copper sulfate can also be helpful.
Frequently Asked Questions
Just like our fingernails, sheeps’ hooves are made of keratin. This is the protein that also makes up skin, hair, wool, feathers, etc. It is continuously growing, and it will grow faster in a well-fed creature. This is why hoof trimming is an important part of overall good sheep care.
Sheep need a very specifically balanced combination of: Vitamin A; Vitamin D; Vitamin E; Biotin; Zinc …and a number of other nutrients and macronutrients. This is why it is always a good idea to feed a high quality of specially formulated sheep feed designed for the type and purpose of the animals you have, in addition to ample high-quality grazing and/or forage.
Sheep are cloven-hoofed animals, meaning that each hoof is made up of two parts separated right down the middle. Other animals that have cloven hooves include: Deer, gazelles and antelope; Alpacas and llamas; Cattle and buffalo; Goats; Pigs. Note that all of the animals listed except pigs are grazing/browsing ruminants that “chew the cud” so would be considered “clean” according to the book of Leviticus. Pigs are cloven hoofed, but they are also omnivorous and have a digestive system quite similar to our own. Therefore, they are not considered “clean” by this standard.
In the wild, these animals typically live on rugged terrain and are able to get out of damp, soft, soggy soil as they need to. This sort of life provides natural hoof trimming and care. Domestic animals often do not get the amount of exercise needed to keep their hooves in trim. Furthermore, they are often kept on smooth, soft surfaces that simply do not wear the hooves down.
The bacteria that causes hoof rot in sheep and goats is not the same as that which causes hoof rot in horses and cattle. In sheep and goats, it is Bacteroides nodusus which causes problems. In horses and cattle, it is spirochete bacteria.