This resource was updated as part of the veterinary review process. It was originally published on June 6, 2018.
Sheep hooves are made out of keratin – the same protein that makes up our fingernails and toenails. And just like our nails, a sheep’s hooves are constantly growing. In the wild, a sheep would naturally wear down their hooves while walking and grazing, but in most sanctuary environments, hooves will not be worn down enough through activity alone. Therefore, it is our responsibility to trim our residents’ hooves regularly to ensure their comfort and health!
The primary 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. Just like when trimming your fingernails, properly trimming a sheep’s hooves should not be painful. However, some individuals may take issue with the restraint required to properly assess and trim their hooves!
How often an individual needs their hooves trimmed depends on many factors such as their genetics, diet, other health issues, and their environment. We recommend checking sheep hooves during routine health exams and trimming as needed. However, older residents, individuals who are less active, and individuals with laminitis may need more frequent trimming. If you notice that someone’s hooves become very overgrown between health exams, you should implement a more frequent hoof trimming schedule for them. Additionally, any time you notice someone limping or showing reluctance to bear weight normally, be sure to check their feet. You may find that overgrown hooves or a rock stuck in their hooves is the culprit, and you may be able to offer near-immediate relief with a basic trim.
The hoof wall is the primary point of concern in typical sheep hoof trimming. Unchecked, the hoof wall will grow past the soft sole of the individual’s foot and begin to curl, which can create painful walking conditions and can trap dirt tightly against the sole of the foot.
Tools And Supplies
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 many individuals in a row). Thick gloves can also protect you from cuts or stab wounds should the individual move or should your hand slip.
In terms of trimming tools, options include hoof shears or a rotary tool like the Hoof Boss. Having a paring knife and hoof pick can also come in handy. Be sure to properly maintain your trimming tools and to keep them sharp! Dull trimmers will just make the process more difficult and will prolong the amount of time the resident will need to be restrained. Also, if you are compensating for dull equipment by using extra strength/force, you could accidentally put undue strain on the individual’s joints, and you are more likely to hurt yourself.
Gentle restraint plays an important role in the hoof trimming process. Sheep can be restrained in a standing position, in lateral recumbencyRecumbency is the state of leaning, resting, or reclining. (on their side), or in a seated position. 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 osteoarthritis, may be too uncomfortable (or even unable) to support their weight in this way. In this case, you may opt to gently place them on their side, with someone holding them in place to prevent them from sitting up or flailing. Some sheep caregivers have had success using a “sheep hammock” or “sheep chair” to restrain sheep in a seated position, and smaller sheep may do well when restrained sitting upright on their bum with a caregiverSomeone who provides daily care, specifically for animal residents at an animal sanctuary, shelter, or rescue. supporting them from behind. One 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. Additionally, in these positions, their feet can typically be trimmed without the need to bend or otherwise manipulate the position of their legs. For individuals with joint or mobility issues, this can make the process much more comfortable.
Residents may have a particular form of restraint that they are most comfortable with, so before you start trimming, take time to find a position that keeps them calm. Even if you have a go-to technique you prefer, you may find certain individuals or situations require something different, so it’s a good idea to get used to different forms of restraint.
Because standing restraint involves carefully lifting the individual’s legs one at a time, let’s take a closer look at how to do this safely. For this method, most sheep will do best if they are standing with one side of their body against a wall or other sturdy barrier. 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 make sure the halter does not slip down over their nose, which can impede breathing.
Just as each resident 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 while the individual is 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 away from the wall. You can then pick up their front foot by holding their foot and lifting it up towards their body, encouraging them to bend their carpus (“front knee”) into a natural position. There’s a chance that the individual may fight you on this. Sometimes kneeling next to them and supporting their weight by placing their bent carpus on your thigh can help keep them calm. If they are really resisting, it’s a good idea to stop and make sure that the position is not causing them discomfort. If it appears that they are uncomfortable having their carpus bent or are uncomfortable bearing weight on only 3 legs, you’ll need to make adjustments. If bending their carpus seems to be causing discomfort, another option is to extend 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 in a different position, such as 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 just behind the individual’s shoulder. 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 resident, of course). Some people prefer to sit or kneel next to the individual, while others prefer to stand back-to-tail with the resident. When positioned in this way, you can then bend down and lift the leg, holding it between your own legs. If you are alone, you may need to kneel or stand next to the individual 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 temperament of the resident, this can be uncomfortable for the human and could lead to injury if done for long periods of time.
When lifting a back leg, make sure you do not lift it too high or you could cause injury. Keeping the hock1: 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 bent and ensuring it is not raised above the height of the stifle while also keeping the foot below the level of the hock should prevent strain. If you prefer to trim the back feet while standing, as described above, be especially careful with shorter individuals, taking care not to lift their legs too high. It may be best to trim shorter residents while kneeling next to them rather than while standing (or you may opt to place them on their side or bum instead).
After you’ve trimmed both feet on their side that is 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
If not already done, start by using a brush or piece of gauze to clean their feet of dirt or debris. This will make identifying the parts of their hoof much easier! It’s important to maintain the correct shape and angle of the hoof. In a properly trimmed hoof, the bottom edge of the hoof will be parallel to the coronary band (where the hoof wall and skin of the leg meet). The hoof wall and heel should also be relatively flush with the sole, though the outer wall should be slightly longer than the inner wall.
If the hoof wall is overgrown and folded over the sole, it’s best to start by carefully trimming the flap away. If the hoof is so overgrown that the inner and outer hoof wall curl over each other, you must trim carefully so as to maintain the proper shape and angle of the claw. To do this, remove the overgrown material by focusing on the parts of the hoof wall that are making contact with the ground (achieved by cutting with your trimmers parallel to the length of the foot, as shown in the photo above) rather than cutting across the toe tip to shorten it (with trimmers perpendicular to the length of the hoof). Take care that you do not trim the toe too short, as this will cause them to bear weight incorrectly (becoming “flat-footed” or bearing weight on their heels).
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, which 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 you find pockets of dirt or debris during the trimming process, you can carefully dig this out using a hoof pick or the pointed tip of a closed pair of hoof shears (more on this below).
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. If it appears that the sole itself may need to be trimmed, this must be done carefully and is best done by an experienced hoof trimmer or a veterinarian who will be better able to determine if the sole needs trimming and how much trimming it needs. Remember to always pay attention to the angle of the hoof, using the coronary band as a reference.
Next, evaluate the dewclaws (two small claws protruding from the back of each leg, above the heel) and trim the tips if necessary. Some individuals may need only a minor trim of their dewclaws, while others may need quite a bit taken off. Either way, be sure to trim a little bit at a time to avoid cutting into sensitive tissue.
Both while evaluating the foot and while trimming, be sure to look for any signs of the foot issues described below. After the trimming is complete, observe the individual as they walk away. If they are showing signs of lameness or discomfort that were not present before the trim, it may be that one or more claws were trimmed too short. Be sure to watch them closely in the coming days, consulting with your veterinarian if the issue is severe or persists.
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!
Common Diseases Of The Foot
Sheep can develop various foot issues that, without proper interventions, can reduce their mobility and negatively impact their quality of life. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if you suspect any of the following issues.
Infectious Foot Rot (Contagious Hoof Rot)
Infectious foot rot (sometimes spelled “footrot” or used interchangeably with the term “hoof rot”) is a bacterial infection that affects both sheep and goats but tends to be more severe in sheep. 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 in the absence of D. nodosus does not cause true foot rot, is Fusobacterium necrophorum. On its own, F.necrophorum causes interdigital dermatitisDermatitis 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 (described below) but can make the foot vulnerable to infection with D. nodosus. There are numerous strains of D.nodosus with varying degrees of virulence. Some countries, such as Australia, categorize infectious foot rot as benign or virulent based on the strain, but this is less common in other parts of the world, including in the US.
Foot rot typically occurs in areas with periods of warm, wet weather – with spring and fall being the 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. Sheep with foot rot contaminate the environment with D. nodosus which can then infect other residents. D. nodosus can only survive for between a few days and a few weeks in the environment, but infected sheep can be carriers for years.
Differentiating between benign foot rot and interdigital dermatitis is difficult, and people sometimes refer to both as “foot scald.” Affected individuals often have rot in more than one foot, and both claws are usually affected. In benign cases, sheep will develop inflammation and necrosisNecrosis is the death of most or all of the cells in an organ or tissue due to disease, injury, or failure of the blood supply. of the tissue between their claws and mild lameness. Benign foot rot typically only affects a few individuals in a flock, whereas virulent strains typically affect numerous individuals. Virulent foot rot often causes severe lameness, separation of the hoof wall, a foul odor, and a black tarry appearance. Individuals with virulent strains may also develop a fever and have a reduced appetite, resulting in weight loss. Foot rot can lead to secondary bacterial infections and fly strike.
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, as mentioned above, benign strains may be difficult to differentiate from interdigital dermatitis. 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 exposing other groups of sheep and goats to the bacteria. In severe cases, you may be advised to remove all sheep and goats from certain living spaces temporarily in order to prevent reinfection. Prevention is key – be sure to regularly trim your residents’ hooves, keep indoor living spaces dry and clean, and make sure outdoor areas have adequate drainage.
Interdigital Dermatitis (Foot Scald)
As explained above, interdigital dermatitis is caused by the bacteria Fusobacterium necrophorum, and often occurs in warm, wet conditions. If the foot is exposed to wet conditions for prolonged periods of time, it can become vulnerable to damage, especially between the claws, which allows bacteria to enter. Individuals with interdigital dermatitis will have inflammation of the tissue between the claws, and the skin may be discolored, moist, raw, and sensitive. Sheep with interdigital dermatitis usually develop only mild lameness. Individuals with this condition are vulnerable to infectious foot rot.
Treatment typically involves limiting the individual’s exposure to wet areas and a topical treatment of zinc sulfate. In some cases, trimming the hair/wool around the hoof can help the foot to dry out more quickly. Though sometimes recommended as a treatment, copper sulfate should be avoided due to the possibility of copper toxicity if ingested.
Laminitis, inflammation of the soft tissues of the hoof, is a painful condition that, while more common in equines, can also affect sheep. Laminitis is often associated with diet – sudden access to or overconsumption of concentrates or lush forages; a diet high in protein; or a diet high in grain and low in roughage could predispose a sheep to laminitis. Certain illnesses, such as pneumonia, mastitis, and metritis, can also play a role in the development of laminitis.
Signs of laminitis include lameness, a stiff gaitA specific way of moving and the rhythmic patterns of hooves and legs. Gaits are natural (walking, trotting, galloping) or acquired meaning humans have had a hand in changing their gaits for "sport"., feet that are noticeably hot, and pain and sensitivity at the coronary band. You may hear the individual grinding their teeth due to pain, and they may develop a fever. Sometimes only the front feet are affected, but in more severe cases, all four feet are affected. Without treatment, laminitis can become a chronic condition resulting in changes in the shape of their claws and a difference in height between the inner and outer claws. In chronic cases, knee walking is common and hoof material is often very hard, making it difficult to trim.
Be sure to work with your veterinarian if you suspect one of your residents has laminitis. In acute cases, in addition to analgesics (typically an NSAID), it’s important to also identify the underlying cause (and correct/treat it if possible). In chronic cases, frequent, aggressive hoof trimming will be necessary. Your veterinarian can guide you in how often and how aggressively to trim their feet. While not all laminitis is associated with dietary issues, ensuring your residents are on a proper diet and avoiding sudden changes to their diet is helpful in preventing laminitis as well as a host of other health issues. If someone needs supplemental grain, be sure to introduce this slowly.
Sheep can develop abscesses in their feet, affecting either the heel or the toe. Whereas the conditions listed above often affect more than one foot, foot abscesses may only affect one claw. While not the only possible cause, individuals may develop a foot abscess following trauma to the foot such as from stepping on something sharp or from improper hoof trimming.
Signs of a foot abscess include swelling of the affected claw and swelling at the coronary band, heat, and acute lameness with the individual often reluctant to bear weight on the affected claw. If the abscess has ruptured, you may note discharge coming from a draining tract. In cases where the abscess has not yet ruptured, your veterinarian may open it up while trimming the hoof, or they may lance the swollen area. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian regarding treatment, which may include analgesics and antibiotics (systemically or flushed into an open abscess) and bandages or blocks to protect the affected claw. If foot abscesses are a common occurrence, work with your veterinarian to identify possible causes so you can work to address them.
Below are some other issues you may encounter during the hoof trimming process. When in doubt, always contact your veterinarian for guidance.
If You Draw Blood
If you “quick” a claw (cut into the blood supply), what you do next will depend on the severity of the wound and bleeding. Minor wounds can typically be treated with a blood-stop product like a styptic pencil or styptic powder (such as Quick Stop). You can also coat the wound in cornstarch or flour to encourage natural clotting. When applying powder products, it may help to also apply some pressure to the area. If the bleeding is more severe, or if you find the above method is not effective, the claw may need to be wrapped temporarily. You’ll want to avoid allowing the individual access to wet areas while wrapped because a wet, soiled wrap could cause additional issues. We recommend contacting your veterinarian if you are unable to get the bleeding to stop with a blood-stop product, if the individual is severely lame, or if an individual continues to be lame a few days after being quicked. Also be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately if the individual is not up-to-date on their tetanus vaccine (part of the CDT vaccine).
If The Hoof Is Very Overgrown Or Misshapen
If their hooves are significantly overgrown due to a lack of hoof maintenance, such as in the event of a newly rescued individual, you may need to spread trimming out over a couple sessions. During the first trimming you can work to bring each claw closer to a reasonable length and shape, and then come back a few days or a week later to do the finishing touches. If you find that a resident’s hooves tend to become very overgrown between their scheduled hoof trimmings, be sure to trim them more frequently. If you encounter someone whose 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
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon to come across a sheep who has separation between the sole and hoof wall (this is known as white line disease or white line separation and is sometimes referred to as “shelly hoof”). These pockets can get packed with dirt, feces, pebbles, and other debris which can lead to other hoof issues. Debris should be picked out (using a hoof pick or the tip of your trimmers). 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 it may be warranted.
If You Trimmed Someone’s Hooves Very Unevenly
If you happen to do a very poor job leveling out someone’s hooves to the extent that it affects their mobility, contact your veterinarian for an evaluation. They can guide you in correcting the issue and, if needed, can also review proper hoof trimming techniques with you to avoid future issues.
Hoof health plays an important role in a sheep’s overall health and well-being, so be sure to take hoof care seriously! Neglecting to trim a resident’s hooves before they become seriously overgrown can predispose them to various foot issues, so regular hoof evaluation and trimming is key. Be sure to learn proper technique – remember, improper trimming can cause issues that could have been avoided. Poor nutrition can also negatively affect hoof health, so make sure your residents are fed a healthy diet that meets all their nutritional needs.
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