Updated December 4, 2020
Just like the nails on your hands and feet, sheep have hooves made out of the durable protein keratin on their feet! And just like us, this consistently growing material needs to be maintained for their health and comfort. In the wild, a sheep would naturally wear down their hooves by frequent walking and grazing, but in most sanctuary environments hooves will not be worn down enough through activity alone. Thus, it is our responsibility to trim their hooves regularly for their wellbeing!
Typically, a sheep needs their hooves trimmed once every six to ten weeks, although older sheep and less active individuals (including those with Arthritis or OPP) may need more frequent trimming. Just like trimming your fingernails, properly trimming a sheep’s hooves should not be painful, though some sheep may not prefer the restraint required to properly assess and trim their hooves!
Signs That It’s Time To Trim
The primary two purposes of trimming a sheep’s hooves are to give them an even, comfortable walking surface to step on, and to clean out accumulated dirt and debris that might have gotten caught in their feet in order to prevent infections.
The hoof walls are the primary point of concern in a sheep’s foot maintenance. Unchecked, they will grow past the soft sole of the sheep’s foot and begin to curl over on their toe, which can create painful walking conditions and trap dirt tightly against the area between the sole and hoof wall. It will also begin to grow on the heel, creating an uneven surface for the sheep to walk on. If a sheep seems to have difficulty or reluctance walking, check out their feet. You might be far past due for a trimming by that point!
If possible, schedule your hoof trimming after rain or snowfall in your area; a sheep’s hooves after a day in a wet pasture are much softer and easier to trim. However, hooves can become very hard during long periods of extremely cold weather, so keep that in mind.
Some people prefer to wear thick work gloves for the trimming process, as hand protection can make this process much easier and more comfortable for you (especially if you are trimming may individuals in a row), which will in turn make it more comfortable for the sheep. Also make sure your trimmers are sharp and well maintained. Dull trimmers will just make the process more difficult and will prolong the amount of time the resident will need to be restrained. And if you are using extra strength to make up for dull equipment, you could accidentally put undo strain on the individual’s joints.
It is important to have the sheep resident safely restrained prior to attempting to lift or trim their foot. Sheep can be trimmed in a standing position or can be trimmed while laying on their side or sitting upright. While it’s possible to have someone (other than the person trimming) hold the sheep in place while the sheep remains standing, it is typically much easier on everyone to use a rope halter. When trimmed in a standing position, each leg will be lifted one at a time, requiring them to stand on the other 3 legs. Some individuals, especially those with OPP or arthritis, may be too uncomfortable (or even unable) to support their weight in this way. A common solution is to gently place them on their side, with someone holding them to prevent them from sitting up or flailing. Another option is to sit them up while someone restrains them, but this can be challenging depending on the size of the individual. Some sanctuaries utilize a “sheep hammock” (sometimes called a deck chair) to more easily trim sheep in a seated position. If you opt for this method, be aware that it may not be a good option for individuals with full tails (which could be injured or even broken, depending on the hammock design) or individuals with certain health issues. Always watch the individual’s breathing and remove them from the hammock if they become overly stressed. You must make sure staff are properly trained to safely move sheep in and out of this device, taking care not to get their back legs caught behind the hammock leg.
A benefit of both the laying down and seated methods is that if you have enough people on hand, you can trim multiple feet at once, reducing the amount of time the individual needs to be restrained.
If restraining the individual in a standing position, most sheep will do best if they are standing with one side against a wall. If using a rope halter, be sure to tie them off with a quick release knot, and pay attention during the trimming process to make sure they do not put their head or neck in a dangerous position and that the halter does not slip down over their nose, which can impede breathing, all of which could happen if they are really struggling. Different individuals will have particular forms of restraint that they are most comfortable with, so before you start trimming, take time to find a position that keeps them calm.
Just like each individual sheep will have their own preferences regarding restraint, the humans involved will have their own preferences too. While there are a few different ways you can position yourself to trim hooves with the individual standing, to trim their front feet, it’s often easiest to kneel down next to their shoulder (the one that is not against the wall) while facing towards their back end. This will allow you to use your body to prevent them from swinging their body away from the wall. You can then pick up their front foot by holding their foot and lifting it up towards their body, bending their leg along the natural motion of their knee (as shown in the photo above). There’s a chance that the sheep may fight you on this. Make sure that they do not injure themselves by thrashing! You might have to lower their foot safely to the ground if they’re too upset and try again when they’re less stressed out. Sometimes supporting their weight by placing their bent knee on your leg can help keep them calm. If bending their knee causes discomfort, another option is to lift their leg forward, keeping their leg straight (as if they were extending their leg to place it on something). This can be an awkward position for the human, so you may opt to trim them while seated or laying on their side instead.
Lifting a back foot can be a bit more tricky if the individual is especially fidgety or protesting. If you have another person available, it can be very helpful to have them stand or kneel in the area you positioned yourself when working on the front leg. They can then be responsible for keeping the resident securely in place, which will allow you to find a position that is comfortable for you (and the sheep, of course). Some people prefer to sit behind or next to the individual, while others prefer to stand back-to-tail with the sheep and then bend down and lift the leg, holding it between their own legs. If you are alone, you may need to kneel or stand next to the sheep in a way that allows you to continue to use your body to hold them against the wall, while bending down to lift the leg- depending on the size and behavior of the sheep, this can be uncomfortable for the human and could lead to injury if done for long periods of time. It’s a good idea to be comfortable with a few different techniques. Even if you have a go-to technique you prefer, you may find certain individuals require something different. When lifting the back leg, make sure you do not lift it too high or you could cause injury. Keeping the hock bent and ensuring it is not raised above the height of the stifle and keeping the foot below the level of the 1: the tarsal joint or region in the hind limb of a digitigrade quadruped (such as the horse) corresponding to the human ankle but elevated and bending backward 2: a joint of a fowl's leg that corresponds to the hock of a quadruped should prevent strain.
After you’ve trimmed both feet that are not against the wall, you can gently reposition the individual so that their trimmed side is now against the wall and use the same technique to lift the opposite feet.
Trimming The Hoof
Once they’ve relatively calmly allowed you to raise their foot, use a brush to get any surface dirt off their feet. This will make identifying the parts of their hoof much easier! Then, using a clean pair of hoof trimmers or shears, use the tip to carefully start cleaning out dirt and debris from the sheep’s hoof especially in the areas between the soft sole of their feet and the hoof wall. It’s likely that there will be quite a bit in there to dig out!
It’s important to maintain the correct shape and angle of the hoof. A properly angled hoof will match the angle of the coronary band, with the bottom edge of the hoof running parallel to the coronary band. The hoof wall and heel should also be relatively flush with the sole.
Depending on how overgrown the hoof is, you may opt to start trimming at the very front of their toes, clipping the overgrown portion of the toe tip a little bit at a time. As you trim, you’ll find that the surface of the remaining hoof wall begins to turn white (or black, if they have black hooves). Take care to trim only a little bit at a time, being sure to stop if you start to see pink areas, as this typically means you are approaching live tissue that will bleed and cause pain if trimmed. In some cases, even if you do not draw blood, you may still trim too far, resulting in sensitive areas of the foot that could cause discomfort when walking on certain surfaces.
If the hoof is overgrown and folded over the sole, it may be easier to start the trimming process at the outer side of the hoof, trimming the flap away. If you started at the toe tip, this side will be your next stop, working around the hoof wall until you reach the heel at the back of their foot. In some cases, you may need to trim the heel as well, but be very careful because this area is much softer than the hoof wall. In some cases, the sole itself may need to be trimmed. This must be done carefully, and is best done by experienced hoof trimmers who will be better able to determine if the sole needs trimmed and how much trimming it needs. Remember to pay attention to the angle of the hoof, using the coronary band as a reference.
Once you’ve leveled their hoof, evaluate the sheep’s dew claws (the claw protruding from above their hoof on the back of their leg) and trim them if necessary. They shouldn’t require more than a small amount of trimming. This maintenance becomes more necessary the older a sheep gets.
Once you’ve leveled out the sheep’s hooves, let them wander freely and evaluate their motion. Are they walking normally? They’ll tell you through body language if your trimming requires a little more adjustment for their comfort!
Digital Multi-Stage Walkthrough
For those looking for a more interactive way of learning about the trimming process, the following section contains five stages of a typical sheep hoof trimming experience, starting from an overgrown hoof, and how it should appear after each major milestone of trimming. You can rotate and zoom the model in each stage to get a better sense of what you may be looking at from various angles!
If You Cut Into The Quick
If you accidentally draw blood, apply an astringent like a styptic pencil, styptic powder (such as Quick Stop), alum, or witch hazel. You can also dip the wound in cornstarch or flour to encourage natural clotting. Lacking these tools, you can also use a piece of toilet paper or gauze as if you’d nicked yourself shaving! If the bleeding doesn’t stop, you can use the tip of your finger to apply pressure for up to a minute and repeating until any bleeding ends. If some cases, the hoof may need to be wrapped temporarily to protect the sensitive area. A blood stop product can be used in conjunction with the wrap. Just be sure to remove the wrap later that same day or the the next. A wet, soiled wrap could lead to other hoof issues. If the individual continues to limp for days after a trimming mishap, contact a veterinarian so they can evaluate the hoof.
If The Hoof Is Very Overgrown
If their hooves are significantly overgrown due to a lack of hoof maintenance, such as in the event of a newly rescued sheep, you may need to spread trimming out over a couple sessions. During the first trimming you can work to bring the hooves closer to a reasonable length and shape, and then come back a few days or a week later to do the finishing touches. If hooves are significantly overgrown or misshapen and you are unsure of how to address them, be sure to consult with your veterinarian for assistance.
If A Resident Has A Deep Pocket Of Packed Dirt Or Debris
It is not uncommon for a sheep to have separation between the sole and hoof wall. This can get packed with dirt and debris which can lead to other hoof issues. In some cases, you will be able to open up or even trim out the entire pocket, but in more extreme instances, the pocket could be very deep. Work with your veterinarian or other experienced hoof trimmer to determine just how much to trim, as you don’t want to expose sensitive tissue, but you also want to take steps to prevent future issues. In some cases, regularly picking the area and then cleaning may be warranted.
If You Trimmed A Sheep’s Hooves Very Unevenly
If you happened to do a very poor job leveling out the sheep’s hooves to the extent that it impairs their mobility, contact your veterinarian for an evaluation. You don’t want to accidentally cause long-term damage with further correction attempts!
You’ll likely know right away if a sheep is suffering from foot rot (sometimes referred to as hoof rot); their foot may have a very distinct odor! Symptoms of foot rot depend on the strain and severity and include red, moist, inflamed tissue between the claws, mild to severe separation of the hoof wall from the sole, and a black tarry appearance. Individuals with foot rot often have rot in more than one foot, and both claws are usually affected. Sheep with foot rot can develop significant lameness, which could result in them walking on their knees.
Foot rot is a bacterial infection that can affect both sheep and goats and typically occurs in areas with periods of warm, wet weather- with spring and fall being common times for transmission. In addition to wet conditions, overgrown hooves can also make foot rot infections more likely. Some breeds of sheep, such as Merinos, are more susceptible to foot rot than other breeds. Though there are often multiple bacteria involved, Dichelobacter nodosus (formerly Bacteroides nodosus) must be present to be considered true foot rot. The other bacteria most often associated with foot rot, but which is the absence of D. nodosus does not cause true foot rot, is Fusobacterium necrophorum. On its own, F. necrophorum causes interdigital dermatitis (sometimes referred to as “scald”) but can make the foot vulnerable to infection with D. nodosus. There are numerous strains of D. nodosus with varying degrees of virulence. Virulent strains often affect numerous individuals in a flock.
If you suspect a resident has foot rot, be sure to get your veterinarian out to examine the individual(s). Foot rot is usually diagnosed based on clinical signs, though benign strains are difficult to differentiate from interdigital Dermatitis refers to skin irritation. This may include itchy, dry skin or a rash on swollen, reddened skin. It may also cause the skin to blister, ooze, crust or flake. Treatment typically involves trimming of the hoof, application of a topical antibiotic treatment (tetracycline is a common one) or medicated foot baths, and possibly systemic antibiotics. Please note, there is conflicting information regarding whether or not hoof trimming assists in the healing process or not. Be sure to work with your veterinarian for specific recommendations. Depending on the situation, they may also recommend fully isolating the affected individual or taking measures to prevent the spread to other groups of sheep and goats that have not yet had contact with the individual. In severe cases, you may be advised to remove all sheep and goats from certain living spaces temporarily, in order to prevent reinfection.
Sheep And Goat Medicine, Second Edition (Non-Compassionate Source)
Hoof Care | Sheep 201 (Non-Compassionate Source)
How To Trim Sheep Hooves | Raising Sheep (Non-Compassionate Source)
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Foot Rot Or Scald: Which Is It? | University Of Maine Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
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