All sheep have cloven hooves with each hoof split into two toes. The combination of sheep’s outer shell and soft and flexible inner pads give them almost finger-like dexterity that provides excellent traction. This makes sheep, along with goats, agile climbers that can climb up steep rocky slopes with ease.
The speed at which sheep hooves grow varies and depends on several factors, including sheep breed and genetics, management and nutrition, as well as soil moisture and characteristics. Typically, though, a sheep needs its hooves trimmed once every six to ten weeks to ensure its health and welfare and that no complications occur.
Hoof care is a very important part of sheep production and management. All sheep, from lambs to fully, mature adult males and females, have hooves that undergo growth, which means that all sheep hooves need trimming, though the frequency can vary depending on the environment.
For example, housed sheep require more frequent hoof trimming than pastured sheep grazed on rocky, dry soil.
Sheep should be restrained for easier access and trimming. Some popular sheep handling equipment that is used for the job include a manual or electric tilt or turn table to hold the sheep upright or on its side, an elevated platform with a head gate, or a sheep deck chair as a less expensive option.
Hoof trimming is still possible without any of this specialized equipment by tipping a sheep onto its rump, but the trimming can then be more challenging to perform.
How to Trim a Sheep Hoof
When it comes to the actual trimming of the hooves, a comfortable, appropriately sized hoof trimmer is ideal.
Trimming a sheep hoof is a simple five-step process.
1. Begin by trimming excess growth off the outside of the hoof. When you begin to hit lighter
coloration and when the hoof is flush with the pad, stop trimming.
2. Follow the same approach along the back of the hoof.
3. Carefully clean off the inside of the hoof while making sure that you trim any small pockets of growth to make it harder for bacteria to grow and take hold in the hoof.
4. Carefully trim the tip of the hoof so that it is smooth and flush while ensuring that you do not trim too far and cause bleeding. Stop trimming when a lighter color appears and when there is no excess growth.
5. Repeat the process on the other side
Diseases Affecting Sheep Hooves
While most hoof diseases are unlikely to be fatal, the health and welfare of sheep can be affected and have a negative effect on productivity.
Hooves should therefore be regularly checked for disease and excess growth.
Some of the most common diseases affecting the hoof include:
- Bluetongue: A non-contagious, viral disease spread by biting insects (midges) that causes foot lesions to occur
- Foot Abscess: Caused by bacterial infection of damaged foot tissue and most often characterized by the swelling of the soft tissues immediately above the hoof. In advanced cases, draining abscesses can be seen. Usually, only one hoof is infected.
- Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD): A highly contagious viral disease that can lead to myocarditis and eventual death. It can be much harder to spot in sheep and goats compared to other animals
- Foot Rot: Caused by a synergistic action of two anaerobic bacteria: Fusobacterium necrophorum and Bacterioides nodusus. Warm, moist conditions create the conditions necessary for the spread of the disease. Footrot does not cause death but can result in production losses and the premature culling of sheep. It can also cost a substantial amount of money to treat, especially in labor costs.
- Laminitis: Laminitis, which is also known as founder, is caused by inadequate blood flow in the hoof. It can result from the excessive intake of grain
Sheep Hooves vs. Goat Hooves
Sheep and goats are very similar in their anatomy – and this applies to each animal’s hooves too.
The main difference between sheep hooves and goat hooves is that sheep hooves grow more slowly and therefore don’t require trimming as often.
What Do Healthy Sheep Hooves Look Like?
A healthy sheep hoof shouldn’t smell, give off heat, or have a separated horn – i.e. the “wall horn” should be well-connected with the “sole horn”.
If you take look at the inner skin between the two toes, you want to see pink, dry coloration and a thin layer of hairs.