When I got my first sheep, I was mostly thinking about their food and shelter, I didn’t really consider their feet. Now that I’ve been raising hair sheep for the past 6 years I have learned there is something else that is just as important to consider, regularly trimming their hooves.
Sheep hooves become overgrown due to neglect, soft soil conditions and an abundance of rich foods. Some environmental factors, such as rocky surfaces, can file hooves down a bit, but any breed of sheep will need regular hoof trimming as part of the animal’s maintenance.
However, unlike human toenails, untrimmed sheep hooves can be more than just unsightly — they can cause physical pain to the animal and make them more susceptible to infections and disease. This is why it is important to regularly trim sheep hooves.
What Do Overgrown Hooves Look Like?
The sides of a sheep’s hooves are the first tell-tale sign of overgrowth. The middle of a sheep hoof is softer, but the outer part of the hoof can become long and begin to curl in, covering this soft ‘sole’ or making the foot uneven for walking.
When you clean your sheep’s hoof and remove mud and dirt, check and see if the sides of the hooves are extended or uneven. If they are, then you should trim the hooves.
Overgrown hooves can be painful and pack dirt against the soft inner ‘sole’ of the hoof, this is ideal breeding ground for disease and infection. Also, overgrown hooves can cause sheep to walk unevenly and in the long term, affect their joints. If you ever see your sheep limping, immediately check the hoof for overgrowth.
How Often Should You Trim Sheep Hooves?
How regularly you should trim your sheep’s hooves depends largely on your climate and environment and how your sheep are housed. If sheep are allowed to graze and regularly walk on rough surfaces, you can greatly extend your time between trims. Sheep restricted to barns or who only have access to soft grassy areas may need their hooves regularly trimmed.
The biggest risk factors for overgrown sheep hooves are diseases that affect the hooves which are primarily spread in warm, moist conditions. Mud, manure, and soggy, wet grass are some of the worst culprits.
If you live in the tropics, you may not be able to entirely avoid the warm and damp environment that is perfect for infections to spread. Your best option, then, is to trim your sheep’s hooves every six to ten weeks.
If you live in a dry, rocky environment and your sheep regularly walk on rough surfaces, nature may help you file down those hooves a little. In such cases, you may be able to extend trimming sessions to every twelve weeks.
If your sheep live in a very soft pasture and eat a nutritious diet, their hooves may grow more quickly, as well. Keep an eye on how fast their hooves grow and trim accordingly.
When To Trim Sheep Hooves
Save yourself a little work and trim sheep hooves after a good rain. When it’s hot and dry (or very cold, for those in temperate climates) sheep hooves are firmer and therefore more difficult to trim.
While it’s not ideal to have sheep standing on wet ground for a long time, if there has been a good rainfall the day or night before, trimming hooves will be an easier task.
How to Trim Sheep Hooves
At first, the task of trimming a sheep’s hooves seemed daunting to me, but after doing it a few times I wonder what I was so worried about. There are few things you should have ready for trimming hooves, but the task mostly just takes some patience and persistence, not sweat or tears.
Some things you should have ready for trimming sheep hooves include:
- Sheep harness
- hoof paring shears
- a blunt kitchen knife or other utensil
- an old cloth for dusting/wiping
- astringent and cotton wool (in case you accidently draw blood)
Hoof paring shears are a must-have for the task. Do not try to trim sheep hooves with any other tools, as you could hurt the animal. They also make the job of trimming so much easier, I don’t know why you would want to use anything else!
Sheep hoof trimming shears (sometimes called paring scissors) can be found at most agricultural or farm supply stores and are not expensive, but are a great investment for any sheep owner.
If you are inexperienced with sheep, there are some great videos online that show how to trim sheep hooves. If you still are not feeling confident, ask your local veterinarian to show you next time he or she comes for your sheep’s routine vaccinations.
You can trim hooves alone, but if it’s your first time, you may want a partner to help hold the sheep or maneuver its leg.
- Place a harness around the sheep’s head and neck and tie it securely to a wall or stand.
- Firmly hold the sheep’s foot and bend the ankle so you have a clear view. Use your entire hand to hold the foot, so that you will not lose your grip.
- With your other hand, use the shears to trim the hoof, starting at the widest, back part of the hoof and gently moving towards the narrow ‘toes’ of the hoof. Cut the outer sides first, and pay attention to not hurt the tender inner sole of the sheep.
- As you trim you will expose more of the space between the two hooves. Use a stick (or kitchen knife) or even the tips of the shears to remove any stuck dirt or dried mud. You may need to use a damp cloth to remove some debris.
- You will see a lighter colored, new hoof exposed as you cut away the overgrown hoof. Trim away the hoof until it becomes flush with the inner-sole.
- Be careful not to cut close enough to the blood supply to draw blood – stop when you see any pinkish color beneath the hoof.
- Repeat trimming for all four hooves.
Tips for Trimming
- Tie the sheep very close, so they don’t have enough room to walk around or sit down.
- Having the sheep’s neck extended limits their mobility, so try to tie the sheep so that it’s neck is straight and long, but not to a point of over-extension, which would be uncomfortable for the animal.
- If you have a stand, for either milking or shearing sheep wool, this is ideal and will make it easier on your back, so you don’t need to bend much to reach the hoof. Otherwise, try using an old table.
- Remove any pressed-in dirt or dried mud from the hoof, using a stick or dull utensil, such as a blunt kitchen knife.
- Sheep aren’t known for kicking, but they can! Make sure to stand aside the animal so that they cannot directly kick you. I usually press my shoulder against the sheep’s side while trimming hooves. This also allows the sheep to lean against me for balance, since I am lifting up one of their legs.
- Trim little by little, instead of cutting away large amounts. You are less likely to injure the sheep by cutting away small bits of the hoof.
- As soon as you see a tinge of pink, stop. Don’t cut any further, only ensure that the hooves are even.
- Trim from heel to toe. When cutting, start from the widest part and then move gradually to the narrow, pointed ends of the hoof.
- Avoid trimming the hooves of a heavily pregnant ewe, as this could cause stress or make it difficult for the animal to stand on three legs. Trim earlier in the pregnancy.
- If the sheep’s hoof has a foul, rotten smell, even after you have removed dirt and mud then it may have hoof rot. If so, contact your veterinarian for treatment as soon as possible.
Hoof rot is highly contagious and if untreated, can cause lameness in members of the flock. Other symptoms of hoof rot to look for include red, inflamed hooves or hooves which are unnaturally black in color.
- If you do accidentally cut too close and draw blood, wash with an astringent such as witch hazel or styptic treatments to stop the bleeding.
More About Hoof Rot
Hoof Rot is one of the most common diseases affecting sheep’s hooves. I didn’t know about it until I started raising sheep, but I learned soon on that every sheep owner wants to avoid hoof rot.
Once it gets to your sheep, hoof rot is a serious headache to address and takes a long time to make sure it’s truly gone from each one of your sheep. It’s better to take precautions and never get a case of hoof rot to begin with. Unfortunately, the bacteria for this disease lives in soil and thrives in areas that receive a lot of rainfall – like Hawaii.
The infection can be confusing because there are two, connected bacteria; Dichelobacter Nodosus (let’s call it DN) and Fusobacertium Necrophorum (or, FN).
FN is present in the soil of nearly all farm environments, so it’s sort of unavoidable for sheep. That’s why it is important to regularly trim sheep’s hooves as a preventative measure.
When you have a real problem is when DN appears. FN sort of facilitates the way for DN to access the sheep’s hooves and cause destruction. DN is a powerful bacteria that can actually eat away the thick structure of the sheep’s hoof (hence, the name ‘hoof rot’).
If left completely untreated, the entire hoof could be destroyed to the extent that the hoof actually detached from the foot of the sheep, but that’s pretty extreme. What sheep owners are likely to see are severely overgrown, cracked hooves, sheep walking on their knees from intense pain and being unable to get to feeding troughs, which will eventually affect their health and nutrition.
The good news here is that hoof rot is treatable and somewhat preventable. One of the most important preventative measures for ensuring this infection doesn’t impact your flock is regular foot trimming. Hoof trimming can help you spot the infection early on, and treat it quickly.
However, there are some other precautions you can take as well:
Watch What Your Sheep Stand On
The ideal environment for this infection to spread is warm, moist soil or mud. Unfortunately, that sounds like my backyard on most days.
Because of this, I have to make sure my sheep have a clean, dry surface to walk on. If you have an area of your pasture that is muddy or damp, make sure that sheep have plenty of dry places to access, as well. If most of your pasture is damp and muddy, consider adding some gravel or sod so that there are more dry places for the sheep.
Another preventative measure I take is that I clean the ground and floor of my barn regularly. Removing excess manure isn’t my favorite chore, but it’s important to make sure that the sheep have a clean place to stand and reduce disease chances. It also makes it smell nicer, which is a plus, all around!
Quarantine New Sheep
Just because FN is in your soil doesn’t mean that DN is, too. However, DN can travel with new sheep to your farm and introduce it to your entire flock in a very short amount of time.
DN survives in the soil for approximately 2 weeks, so it’s recommended to quarantine any new animals from the rest of your sheep for at least 14 days. This is enough time for you to identify if the animal has hoof rot and begin to treat it before the rest of your flock is infected.
Keep this in mind, too, if you have a visiting ram to breed your ewes. Separating any new sheep for two weeks will save you a whole lot of time and money in the long run.
Proper sheep care includes hoof trimming. Regular trimming prevents overgrown hooves and is the best preventative measure to quickly catch diseases that affect sheep’s feet. It can feel daunting at first, but it will become a regular part of caring for your flock with proper shears and some practice.