The Controversy of Dehorning
What are the pros, cons, and best methods of removing goat horns?
All goats, except for genetically polled animals, have horns, including both males and females. Horns serve a purpose: sexual competition, hierarchical status, protection from predators, attracting mates, and even a cooling method. For goat owners, the question is what to do with them.
What are horns? Unlike deer antlers (which shed and re-grow every season), horns have an inner core of bone and an outer sheath of keratin. Unless removed, they are permanent fixtures of a goat’s body structure.
Goat horns are a controversial subject. Ask any caprine breeder about the pros and cons of dehorning vs. leaving natural horns, or (worse) the pros and cons of various dehorning techniques, and you might as well stir up a hornet’s nest. Everyone has a heated opinion. Everyone.
So, at the risk of stepping into a field of landmines, the following is a brief assessment of the pros and cons of those hard knobby bumps on a goat’s skull.
Leaving Horns Intact
The default decision is to leave the horns intact. What are some of the pros and cons of this choice?
• Horns provide built-in “handles” for spontaneous or emergency moments when you need to grab an animal. Be aware that super-rough handling can break a horn, so this isn’t something to use regularly. Additionally, grabbing a male goat’s horns can be interpreted as an indignant social challenge, so they may be more inclined to “fight” back.
• Horns help determine hierarchy, an integral part of a goat’s social life and herd dynamics.
• Horns provide a measure of protection against predators, both for individuals and the herd in general.
• Horns help with temperature control in hot weather. Their highly vascularized structure acts as a built-in “air conditioner.”
• Dehorning is just plain unpleasant, no matter the technique.
• Horns can be dangerous. Because of their instinctive tendency to butt, adults and children can be in greater danger than other types of livestock.
• Horns are far more prone to tangling in brush, branches, fencing, feeders, etc. If you choose to keep your goat’s horns intact, it might be necessary to invest in special fencing that will prevent them from getting stuck. (Field fence, with its wide woven strands, is particularly bad for horned goats.) Make sure any feeders permit the goat to safely withdraw its head without panicking due to stuck horns.
Horn Removal Techniques
If you choose to dehorn, three main techniques are disbudding (either chemically or with a hot iron), dehorning, and banding. There are also some lesser-used techniques, such as shaving and spooning.
Disbudding. Newborn kids have “buds” in their heads from which horns will grow. Getting rid of these buds must be done during a narrow window when the kids are very young (between four and 10 days old) to prevent the horns from growing. Male kids will grow horns faster than female kids, so they may need to be disbudded earlier than females (say, at four or five days old vs. 10 days old). Disbudding burns the buds with a hot iron or dehorning paste (active ingredients: calcium hydroxide 37.8%, sodium hydroxide 24.9%). Whichever technique, make sure you’re familiar with it, or the kid may suffer severe injury. However, disbudding is considered more humane than dehorning.
Dehorning. If you miss the window of opportunity for disbudding and small horns have emerged, dehorning is necessary to prevent horn growth. Do this while the animal is still very young. Dehorning older animals is possible, but it’s far less safe. Removing horns can be dangerous (the animal can bleed to death) and painful, even if done by a veterinarian. Sedation can prevent trauma. Methods for dehorning older animals include saws (hacksaws), gougers, or guillotine tools. As the names of the tools imply, these techniques are painful, bloody, and risk infection and trauma to the animal. Employing the services of a veterinarian is strongly recommended.
Banding. You can remove horns by banding them with the same bands used for castrating. The tight green bands spread open using an elastrator, then are placed over the horns as close to the skull as possible. (This is a two-person job; one person holds the goat.) The band will be inclined to roll up the horn, so wrapping some duct tape around the horn above the band will help keep it in place. The tight bands will cut off circulation to the horn, and after a few weeks, the dead portion will break off. As with other dehorning techniques, only experienced individuals should do this process and be ready to manage blood and pain. (It’s not recommended to band animals during the fly season.)
Shaving. While a hot iron or dehorning paste works by destroying the horn-producing cells, it’s possible to shave away the horns as they grow. This technique is simple but not permanent and will require repeated treatments.
Tube/Cup/Spoon. This is a gruesome technique used on young kids (either at the bud stage or with tiny horns) in which a circular blade presses into the skin surrounding the buds. The blade is rotated and then tilted, which “scoops” the horn out. This method is painful and bloody.
Breeding for Polled Goats
Goats can be bred to be genetically polled (incapable of growing horns). It might take a few generations to select polled animals, but once your breeding stock is established, you can kiss the issue of manual dehorning goodbye.
To Dehorn or Not to Dehorn
As this summary makes clear, getting rid of horns is not something to be undertaken without a thorough understanding of the process and its risks. Using the services of a professional is highly recommended. Additionally, the decision — and action — to dehorn is best made when kids are very young.
As a personal preference, we use dehorning paste when the animals are a few days old and we can barely feel the buds. We’ve had high levels of success with this method, though caution must be used to make sure the paste is fresh (no older than a year) and kept corralled on the horn buds where it’s supposed to go (we encircle it with a ring of petroleum jelly. You must also isolate the animal for at least eight hours so the paste isn’t accidentally rubbed on, or licked by, another animal.
Above all, base the choice and technique to dehorn or not on ethical considerations, with pain management a strong factor.
Originally published in the May/June 2022 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.