Heads, Horns, and Hierarchy
The anatomy of goat horns, a multipurpose tool for overall health.
Reading Time: 4 minutes
Most goats have horns naturally. While horns on males are more pronounced, females also have them. They are used as tools to scratch, dig, forage, fight, and defend. Goats don’t sweat, so horns are also used to dissipate body heat since the blood supply is very close to the surface.
Unlike antlers, which are made of bone alone, the horn has two parts: bone and keratin.
Horns on goats develop from a bud of horn cells under the skin, over the skull, called ossicones. From this bud, a bony core develops, and a sheath of keratin grows around it. Keratin has the same composition as fingernails. While antlers are shed and regrown every year, horn is not shed but continues to grow for the lifetime of the goat.
While not as reliable an indicator as teeth, a goat’s age can be approximated by horn growth. Nutrition has a significant influence on growth, however. Weak or slow horn growth in goats can be a sign of mineral deficiency, but not always. Kid goats have soft keratin that is prone to flaking during early growth. Horn damage is not necessarily nutritional. Kids will chew each other’s horns, and adults can chip or wear their horns when clashing with objects or rubbing.
Horns can also be great “handles” to manage goats. They can be trained to be held and led by the horn. Training a goat to lead by the horn is progressive, beginning by leading with the head, and touching the horns, until the horns are fully developed. When goats are young, the horns are not fused to the skull and can sometimes get knocked or even pulled off. As they begin to fuse, an injury can result in a “loose horn.” Most loose horns will heal as the goat grows and the bony core fully fuses to the skull.
If a fused horn breaks from the skull, it will result in significant bleeding and expose the sinus cavity. It requires medical attention to minimize blood loss and prevent infection. On occasion a goat will crack or break a horn closer to the end. If the blood supply is not involved, the damaged part of the horn tip can be removed. If there is bleeding, precaution must be taken to minimize blood loss.
Do all goats have horns? There are goats that genetically do not grow horns. The hornless trait is called “polled.” Most hornless goats are not polled, but disbudded. It is common practice to disbud dairy goats, and often required to enter goats in shows and fairs. Some people find it easier to manage goats without horns. Hornless goats may be less likely to get caught in fences, and will not cause horn-related injuries to other goats or handlers.
To prevent a goat’s horn from growing, the ossicones, or horn buds, are burned in a process called disbudding, using a disbudding iron when the goat is very small — usually within a few days of birth. If disbudding is delayed too long, the chances of success diminish. Because of the anatomy of the skull, caution must be taken during the disbudding process as the sinus cavity and brain are very vulnerable and can be easily injured.
If the ossicone is not fully cauterized, areas of the horn can regrow abnormally, resulting in scurs. Scurs range in size and shape — some are loose, others are not — depending on how much horn tissue survived. If scurs are loose, they can get knocked off, which often results in significant bleeding. If they have an attachment, they can curl as they grow and press into the head. Because scurs are an abnormal growth, they do not always follow the anatomical diagram and can bleed very close to the tip. Scurs must be carefully managed throughout a goat’s life to prevent injury to the goat.
There are other methods suggested to prevent horn growth, but none are as widely used and have not been shown to be as reliable as disbudding. All methods carry significant risks. Some producers suggest using a caustic paste made for cattle, others inject clove oil.
Once horn growth is fully established it is difficult to reverse. Banding has been demonstrated to remove horn over time, but the success rate of preventing regrowth has not been determined. A dehorning surgery can be done to remove the mature horn, but is not a simple procedure or recovery process, and just like with traumatic injury, involves the removal of part of the skull, exposing the sinus cavity. Both methods are prolonged and painful.
In a herd setting, horned goats and hornless goats can live together. All herds have a hierarchy, and very likely the horned goats will find themselves near the top, the horns giving them an advantage. Hornless goats are not without defense, and will very often be seen biting ears to put other goats in their place.
Ultimately, personal preference and management style determine whether one should have goats with horns or without.
Pull quote: Kid goats have soft keratin that is prone to flaking during early growth. Horn damage is not necessarily nutritional. Kids will chew each other’s horns, and adults can chip or wear their horns when clashing with objects or rubbing.
Pull quote: Because scurs are an abnormal growth, they do not always follow the anatomical diagram and can bleed very close to the tip. Scurs must be carefully managed throughout a goat’s life to prevent injury to the goat.
Originally published in the Goat Journal 2020 special subscriber issue — Goat Health, From Head to Hoof — and regularly vetted for accuracy.