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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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The Challenges of Animal Welfare Discussions

Over the past decade I’ve been on the frontline of some interesting animal welfare discussions. I was part of the team that drafted the WVMA’s original five guiding principles for food animal welfare that were adopted in 2008. In December 2013 Mercy for Animals released a video of improper handling of disabled dairy cows from a northeastern Wisconsin dairy farm. In response to that, I made over 20 presentations for the WVMA in 2014 across the Midwest educating producers about humane handling of down and disabled dairy cows. In 2010, the arrival of HSUS at the WVMA’s doorstep inquiring about our support for legislation banning dairy cow tail docking set off a flurry of activity to draft a position on that issue. It was the dairy cow tail docking debate that really opened my eyes to the complexity of engaging in meaningful discussions with farmers and colleagues about animal welfare issues.

At the root of the difficulty engaging in these discussions is the delicacy at which we handle exchanges of our moral consciousness. The Judo-Christian teaching in Genesis that god has given man dominion over all the creatures of the earth establishes a firm ethos for kind care and oversight of animals. In our daily lives the care, management, and treatment of animals fulfills that moral obligation subconsciously. Good animal care becomes one of our core moral bearings.

This dimension of animal welfare dialogue came to light to me as I was engaging in various conversations in the spring of 2010 with dairy farmer clients about tail docking. In private, one on one conversation, I could sense a bit of unease with farmers when we spoke about the tail docking issue. That March, I was asked to give an update on animal welfare concerns for the local Technical College Farm Class awards dinner which gave me a chance to test the idea of the connection between moral consciousness and animal welfare. I knew at least eighty percent of the farmers in the audience that evening. I had enough experience with the audience that they trusted me, and I was considered part of their “tribe”. We had shared experiences and values. I started my presentation with two questions. First: How many here believe they have a moral/ethical responsibility to provide good, kind, humane care to their animals? Everyone’s hand went up. Second question: How many here believe they fulfill that responsibility? Again, everyone raised his or her hand. This clearly demonstrated the connection of animal care practices to core moral beliefs.

Rarely, if ever, do we discuss core religious beliefs. We respect each other’s decisions, realizing that while we might have slight differences, we are all of good moral character. However, when someone, especially those we don’t have much in common with, questions our management or treatment of animals, it is easy to be insulted. It is not a superficial insult either, rather a deep cutting one because it calls into question our moral under-pinning. Animal welfare discussions can easily pierce the shell of our inner moral core, often eliciting a deep visceral emotional response. As this emotional defense response kicks in, logical thought processes evaporate. Effective listening frequently shuts down.

Therefore, great care needs to be taken when engaging in animal welfare discussions not to offend the other in the conversation. It is very helpful to try to find some areas of agreement before getting into the specifics of the topic at hand.

When morality issues are challenged, it is common to seek affirmation and support from our “tribe”. A common response to criticism of animal care is: “we’ve always done it this way”. Citing precedent is not justification for our questioned care or procedures, rather it is the reason the discussion is occurring. By acknowledging that the questioned practice was once considered an acceptable standard practice, one can gain credibility in the “tribe” and we can open the door to more logical conversations. Making this connection is crucial to moving the conversation forward in a constructive way.

Interestingly, three years later, in 2013, when I repeated the fore mentioned question sequence at an Extension sponsored animal well-being meeting, very few people raised their hands in response to the questions, which initially surprised me. After reflecting on the situation, I realized that very few in the audience knew me. I was a stranger. Rarely do we expose our core beliefs to strangers. It is easy to intimidate others when engaging, especially if they are strangers.

Here are some tips when having discussions about animal welfare. First familiarity is critical; try to establish a “tribal” connection. Sharing experiences and values goes a long way to keep communication going. Be very tactful, and recognize the non-verbal signals you receive and send. Be careful not to elicit an emotional response. Encourage the other person to share their experiences, thoughts and perspective. Listen, listen, and listen. Conversations about animal welfare are best done one on one. Opening minds to new ideas one by one will slowly move the animal welfare needle. Those new ideas and perspectives will slowly spread through the “tribe” in other one on one conversation.

As veterinarians, we have much to offer the conversation. The best opportunity to move animal welfare issues forward is to engage and make a difference.

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