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    Goat Resident Safety Part 2: Hay Feeder Safety

    a bale of hay with additional bales of hay in the background
    Hay often plays an integral role in a goat’s diet, but you’ll need to take care when considering different hay feeder designs! Photo by Karine Avetisyan on Unsplash

    This Is Part Of A Series!
    Understanding the risks associated with various hay feeder designs requires an understanding of the general safety risks that are unique to goats. If you haven’t already, please take a moment to read Goat Resident Safety Part 1: General Safety Considerations before reading this resource.

    Content Warning
    As with Part 1, this resource contains discussions of serious and potentially life-threatening hazards goats may be exposed to. There are no graphic photos, but in order to clearly explain the risks involved with certain types of feeders, we do discuss distressing scenarios that include mentions of residents dying as a result of an issue with a hay feeder. Out of respect and sensitivity to our readers, we have kept details to a minimum, only including information we feel is necessary to convey the associated risk.

    In Part 1 of this series, we discussed some of the ways goat residents may find themselves in trouble, general things goat caregivers should keep in mind, and steps they can take to mitigate risk. Although we did mention some of the risks associated with hay feeders in Part 1, these warrant further discussion. We recommend feeding hay out of some sort of feeder for a number of reasons. First, the use of a hay feeder can help reduce hay waste and, so long as residents are not able to get into the feeder, it can also help keep hay clean and dry and can help reduce your residents’ exposure to certain diseases. While the use of a hay feeder comes with various benefits, it’s important to recognize that some hay feeders pose significant risks to goat residents. 

    Below, we’ll discuss some of the more serious risks associated with specific styles of hay feeders, but we also recognize that some folks may have used one of these feeders for years without ever having an issue. Many factors will contribute to whether or not a certain design is safe for your residents, and even among similarly designed feeders, slight differences may impact your residents’ safety. Additionally, the height at which a wall-mounted feeder is positioned or the placement of a free-standing feeder could also have an impact on the risks (or degree of risk) it poses. Because of this, caregivers need to thoughtfully consider resident safety when building or purchasing hay feeders and when placing them in the living space. It’s also important to regularly re-evaluate whether or not a particular hay feeder is still a good option for your residents. For example, certain risks are eliminated entirely if your residents never jump into their hay feeder. However, if one of your residents suddenly decides that they do want to get into their feeder, or if you rescue a new resident who is inclined to do so, you’ll need to seriously consider the safety risks they are now exposed to. Similarly, a hay feeder that works well for a small or hornless individual may pose significant risks to a larger and/or horned resident. Therefore, a feeder that works well when an individual is younger and only has small horn buds may expose them to serious risks as they mature and their horns grow.

    It’s also important to recognize that just because you (or someone you know) haven’t had an issue with a certain hay feeder, this does not mean it is inherently safe. In Part 1, we mentioned that caregivers may falsely assume their living spaces are “goat-proof” simply because they have not yet had an issue with residents getting out. The same can be true of hay feeders. Unfortunately, a caregiver may not realize that there is a safety hazard associated with their hay feeder until tragedy strikes. Therefore, it is important to think carefully about what types of risks a hay feeder may pose to your residents, even if you’ve been using it for years without issue. At the Open Sanctuary Project, we always err on the side of caution when it comes to resident safety, and for this reason, you’ll see we strongly recommend avoiding certain styles of hay feeders due to the risks they pose. 

    Whether you opt for a store-bought or custom-built hay feeder, keep the risks described below (as well as the points highlighted in Part 1) in mind when evaluating the safety of a particular design/style.

    Risk Of Head/Horn Entrapment, Entanglement, And Strangulation

    Due to differences in how they behave, and in particular, the fact that they may stand on their hind legs while eating, hay feeders that work for other species (such as sheep or equines) may pose significant risks to goats. We’ve heard multiple heartbreaking stories of goats suffering serious, and even fatal, injuries as a result of certain types of hay feeders, and we want to call out two styles in particular. First, due to the risk of entrapment, entanglement, and strangulation, we strongly recommend folks avoid using hay nets and hay bags. While hay nets/bags that hang are particularly dangerous because a resident can potentially hang themselves if their head gets caught while they are standing on their hind legs, even styles that do not hang could cause issues if a resident becomes tangled in the device. 

    Additionally, certain wall-mounted hay feeders can pose the risk of entrapment and strangulation for goats. In particular, feeders with tapered vertical bars that have wider gaps towards the top that narrow at the bottom should be avoided. A resident may fit their entire head in the gap at its widest point but then become trapped when they bring their head closer to the ground (if the resident has horns, this can further enhance the risk). Here’s a graphic to demonstrate the risk involved with this style feeder:

    A graphic showing a wall-mounted hay rack with vertical bars that taper at the bottom. A goat stands next to the hay feeder with a line measuring the width of their horns. The same length line shows that the goat's horns can fit through the bars at the top, but not at the bottom of the feeder.
    Our goat resident can fit their horns between the vertical bars near the top of this feeder but not near the bottom. This means that if they were to stand on their hind legs and put their head and horns between the vertical bars near the top in order to eat hay and then bring their head lower while still between the bars, they would become stuck. In order to get their head out, they would need to again stand on their hind legs, which they may not be able to do or might be too panicked to do. If they panic while their head is stuck, they could cause serious injury. There have been reports of goats breaking their neck in these types of feeders. Additionally, depending on the height at which the feeder is mounted, a resident may become trapped while their front legs are still off the ground or may lose their footing, putting them at risk of being hung.

    Free-standing hay feeders can also pose a significant risk to goats depending on the design. As with wall-mounted styles, it’s important to consider the possibility of a resident getting their head stuck between the bars. However, on top of this, consider the risk posed if the feeder can be easily moved or tipped over. While this could cause injury if the feeder falls over on a resident, it would be particularly dangerous if a resident tipped the feeder while their head (or someone else’s) was stuck between the bars.

    Risk Of Leg Entrapment And Injury

    As we mentioned in Part 1, since goats often use their front legs for support while standing on their hind legs, areas of the living space that may pose no risk to other species who tend to keep all four feet firmly on the ground could pose the risk of foot or leg injury and/or entrapment for goats. Be sure to consider if a particular feeder design poses a risk of foot/leg entrapment if residents were to place their front feet against the feeder in order to help them balance on their hind legs. This risk may increase as the feeder empties, so be sure to consider the risks associated with an empty or partially empty feeder. A goat could seriously injure themselves while trying to free their leg.

    Additionally, if your goat residents can get into their hay feeder, be sure to consider the risk of foot and leg entrapment while inside the feeder. Keep in mind that when the hay feeder is full, a goat resident who gets into their feeder may only make contact with the hay, thereby protecting them from the feeder itself. However, as they and other residents eat the hay, more of the feeder will be exposed, opening the individual up to risks that were previously protected from. Of particular note, when the individual tries to jump or climb out of the feeder, the force of trying to do so could wedge their foot or leg into a gap in the feeder, making it difficult or even impossible for them to get out on their own. This initial force or their attempts to free themselves could result in serious injury.

    Risk Of Getting Stuck In The Feeder

    Ideally, goat residents should not be able to get into their hay feeder, but we realize that this is sometimes easier said than done. However, in addition to the risk of disease spread and leg entrapment, if residents are able to get into their hay feeder, you must consider the risk of them being unable to get out of the feeder. While a resident may become stuck due to getting their leg caught in the feeder, as described above, an individual could also get stuck because they do not have enough traction to get out or find themselves in a position that makes it difficult or impossible for them to get out. For example, a goat in a V-shaped feeder with vertical bars may find that they cannot get enough traction in a nearly empty feeder to jump out. Even if they are not initially at risk of injury, they may begin to struggle or panic and could injure themselves through repeated attempts to get out.

    Using Stock Tanks As Hay Feeders
    This next hazard is not unique to goats but is worth mentioning. Instead of using a typical hay feeder, some folks instead use heavy-duty stock tanks to keep hay contained. First, depending on the height of the stock tank, it may be very easy for residents to climb right in, which means hay is likely to become soiled, possibly putting residents at risk of exposure to certain diseases. In terms of general design, stock tanks may seem pretty safe given that they have no gaps someone could get caught in. However, there have been reports of residents (particularly older sheep and goats) getting stuck in stock tanks with smooth bottoms that were used as hay feeders. As with other designs, an individual may be able to get out easily when the stock tank is full of hay, but as the hay level drops, they will be more likely to come into contact with the bottom of the feeder, which may not provide adequate traction for their hooves. In addition to the issue of the smooth bottom, if residents climb into stock tanks, they may urinate in them as well, and unlike open-bottomed designs, the stock tank will allow urine to pool, creating a slick surface. Individuals have gotten stuck in lateral recumbency (on their side) in stock tanks, putting them at risk of dangerous bloat. In general, a stock tank may not be the best choice for a hay feeder. If you need to use one, you might want to opt for one that has a textured bottom or ensure that it is always kept full, but remember that if residents can climb into it, hay is likely to become soiled and will need to be replaced often.

    Finding the right hay feeder for your goat residents is no easy feat, but by understanding the potential risks associated with hay feeders, you’ll be better positioned to thoughtfully evaluate different designs and will be able to steer clear of those that pose serious risks. 

    Recommended Action Steps:

    • Avoid using hay nets or hay bags
    • Avoid feeder designs with tapered vertical bars (unless you are confident that bars are spaced in a way that eliminates the risk of head/horn entrapment)
    • Avoid feeders that have ropes or chains a resident could get caught in
    • Ensure that free-standing hay feeders are sturdy and cannot be tipped 
    • Carefully consider if a resident can get their foot or leg caught if they place their front feet on the feeder while standing on their hind legs (be sure to think about how this risk might change when the feeder is empty or only partially full)
    • Consider avoiding hay feeders that residents can get inside of or take steps to prevent this (for example, installing a sturdy hinged top that allows caregivers to easily refill feeders but prevents residents from getting in – make sure the top can support a resident’s weight if they were to jump on top of it!)
    • Consider avoiding the use of stock tanks as hay feeders, but if this is not possible, opt for one with a textured bottom and/or strive to keep the tank full

    Also Consider Resident Comfort
    While the focus of this resource is on preventing serious and life-threatening injury, it’s also important to consider resident comfort when choosing a hay feeder. Avoid any designs that cause a resident to put themselves in an uncomfortable position in order to reach hay, as well as those that cause irritation or abrasion to a resident’s face or body when reaching into the feeder.

    We are very grateful to Sarien Slabbert, co-founder and executive director of P.E.A.C.E., for her contributions to this resource and for her thoughtful review.

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