I have been faced with a difficult decision and dilemma this week. I needed to decide whether to disbud our first two goat kids. This was a difficult decision as the issue of disbudding is quite evenly balanced with near equal weight on the sides of ‘pro’ and ‘con’.
My first thoughts when these two were born was not to do anything but after two days the horn buds were noticeable and we had to make a decision. Unfortunately this decision has to be made against the clock. Any attempt to dehorn a goat after the horns have started to grow is a major procedure. It involves significant surgery and the opening of the skull into the sinus. This needs a lot of post-operative care and carries a reasonable degree of risk to the goat as well as potentially being a painful procedure. So, if you are going to deal with the horns, you need to stop them before they grow – this is the process of disbudding.
As I said my instincts were to allow the horns to grow but after research and conversations with other goat keepers I changed my mind. The pros for leaving the horns to grow include many aspects. It is obviously the way that nature intended that goat to be and one would also have to say that a horned goat can be a very handsome beast. The horns have a heavy blood supply (one of the reasons for the danger of surgery) and this blood supply allows the goat to use its horns as a way of temperature regulation in hot climates. The horns are useful appendages for the goat, they help them reach areas to scratch that otherwise might not be possible, and are also their weapon when fighting. In this regard they are a way to defend themselves against predators (including people). However, they also can act as “handles” to lead an obstreperous goat. I recall using them to steer our billy goat when he was insistent that he’d stay with the nanny goats although they felt that he had outstayed his welcome.
On the con side the horns are dangerous. In a herd with horned and un-horned animals there is an obvious danger that the horned animals may injure their unarmed fellows. We had experience of this last year when our billy ripped open the nose of a nanny when they were both trying to get their heads into a feed bucket. There are also reports of torn udders in dairy flocks. They are also dangerous to their handlers and family. Our previous billy goat was a British Alpine with a fine pair of horns and I do recall that it gave him the edge in our infrequent fights. During his teenage years he decided that I needed to be ousted from my top position in the hierarchy as he was clearly, in his mind, destined for that position. A surprise attack from behind certainly brings tears to the eye and even by accident there is a risk to handlers and family (especially children). The horns also risk the goat themselves as they can lead to them getting entangled in fences or feeding apparatus. Less important in the equation is the regulation that many shows will now allow you to enter horned goats (for safety reasons) and that it is much harder to sell a horned goat than one without horns – and a goat that can’t be sold may be a goat that is dispatched earlier than it should have been. We obviously bought a horned goat but you may have to wait a long time to get a buyer as foolish and inexperienced as we were.
As we have un-horned adult goats, as we plan to continue milking, as we have grandchildren on the farm, because we never live in anything approaching a hot climate, because I spend enough time disentangling stock from fences and because I only just won all my fights with the last billy, we decided to disbud our goats. We managed to make the decision just in time and the vet was happy to do this.
As the horns of a goat often have two nerve branches which supply sensation it is best to undertake this procedure under general anaesthesia. Our vet used propofol which gives about 5minutes of anaesthesia and a quick recovery, via a painless injection. (As an aside this was the drug which was responsible for Michael Jackson’s death and its creamy white appearance has lead to its nickname “milk of amnesia“). While the kid is unconscious, the horn bud is removed by burning it out with a hot iron which also cauterises the area. This takes about two minutes but should not be rushed, despite the temptation, to ensure all the bud is removed. After removal the area is sprayed with an antiseptic compound to keep the area clean. The kids came round very promptly and, although they were groggy and subdued on the journey home, by lunchtime they appeared as it nothing untoward had happened to them. The only visible sign being the blue antiseptic and circular scars on their foreheads.
This was one of the hardest decisions I have had to make. I hope I have chosen correctly and made life safer both for the goats and for us. In any event it seems that the kids don’t hold it against me.