goats & sheep

Goats – The Great Horns versus No Horns Debate

Want to start a heated argument on social media?  Ask whether you should disbud/dehorn your goat or leave horns intact.

Horns on goats are a very touchy subject that impacts everything from management practicalities to human safety to animal welfare.  Just as with my post on vaccines, I will not suggest what your approach should be.  I will share what I have learned, my own experiences, and my own approach.  I encourage you to do your own research.

Photo copyright Wikipedia.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horn_(anatomy)

Goats may have horns. Goat horns are a keratin sheath around a bone core that grows from the skull.  The horns have a blood supply and nerves at the base.  The horns grow from the time the kids are a few days old, and are never shed.  Some goats are polled, meaning they are born without horns and will never grow horns.  Goats can also carry a different “spur” gene that produces a very small horn loosely attached with no bony core.  Horns do help the goat cool off in warm weather via the blood supply in the core.  Horns can be quite majestic and impressive, and many feel that a goat just doesn’t look right without a nice set of horns.  Some folks feel that the horns are also pretty handy for wrangling goats (I disagree – horns can fracture with extreme rough handling).  Here is an excellent blog post from Our Mountain Hearth discussing the reasons to keep horns.

Now the downside of horns.  Horns can be used to poke, butt, prod and stab other goats and people. Horns can become entangled in fences and feeders. Horns can be used to break another goat’s legs, and can become hooked on other horns.  Some 4-H clubs ban horns on goats.

Deciding whether to have horns or not is up to each goat owner.  When deciding, my suggestion is look at your market if you are selling.  Horns may be preferred by some meat buyers, breeders, show homes.  Other buyers will be opposed, or will be so inexperienced with goats that they are looking to you for guidance.  I would offer that if someone is brand-new to goats, dealing with horns may be an extra challenge.  Also, are there young children?  One careless turn of a goat head, and a child is at the perfect height for facial damage or worse.

At Oak Hill, we made the decision to disbud any kids born with horn buds.  Our buyers are mainly pet buyers and folks looking for breeding stock for small homesteads.  I feel removing the horns gives my goats the best shot at having a forever home without horn accidents.  I will leave horns on at a buyer’s request.  I do breed for polled kids, and sidestep disbudding as much as possible that way.  We have not seen any increase in birth defects from breeding polled to polled.

Goats born with horn buds can be dehorned. As kids, within the first few days only, the horn buds can be burned off. You can learn to do this yourself or find a local goat farmer who freelances doing horn removal. Fias Co Farm has an excellent discussion of the procedure and equipment. I prefer to use my goat vet, to give the kid a shot of painkiller. There is an excellent discussion of disbudding methods, as well as pros and cons, at the Pairodox blog.

Fias Co Farm also has an excellent section on disbudding goats.  
I do not suggest using disbudding/dehorning paste.  The caustic paste can easily end up in places other than the horn buds and cause significant pain and damage.
A relatively new experimental approach is injecting clove oil into the horn bud.  Here is the published study.

Adult horns can be surgically removed, which involves a vet, anesthesia, and removing a layer of skull as well as post-surgical wound care. Surgical horn removal leaves a large hole into the sinus cavity, which takes a couple months to heal.  This is not a procedure for the faint of heart.  In my opinion, it is also not a procedure to be done without painkillers and anesthesia.  There are many nerves, and a very strong blood supply.  A goat can easily bleed to death from incorrect surgical removal.  I have had one adult buck surgically dehorned.  He nearly bled to death a couple hours after the surgery.  He was in pain for days, and didn’t trust me for several weeks.  He did grow back small scurs.  Having experienced the process first-hand, I cannot imagine a situation where I would put an adult through that again.

Adult horns can also be removed by banding with castration bands.  Done correctly, this is very effective. Done incorrectly, this is painful and the horns grow back, often deformed.  I have used banding to remove horns.  I will not do it again.  The goats were obviously in distress.  If you choose to band horns this is a good article.  The key is to place the bands at the very base of the horn, over the skin, hooked beneath the rim of the horn. ​

I encourage you to do your own research and decide what approach best fits your philosophy and farm management style.

Copyright ©2016 Carrie Eastman.

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration or American Veterinary Medical Association, and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. Always consult your veterinarian about any changes to your animal’s health program.

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