Why Our Goats Have Horns

If you don't keep goats you may not be aware of a very common practice in the goat husbandry world called Disbudding. If you do keep goats, chances are you already have a strong opinion on this subject, and it very likely may not be the same as mine. So I want to preface this by saying I don't think people who chose to disbud are monsters or bad farmers. It's a choice we all have to make, and hopefully a very well thought out and researched one. There are mentors I respect and look up to who do disbud their goats, I still think they are wonderful people and I know they love and take great care of their animals. That said, I also wish that disbudding wasn't the standard treatment.

So what is disbudding, and why is it controversial?



present participle: disbudding

  1. remove superfluous or unwanted buds from (a plant).


remove the horn buds from (a young animal).

This is accomplished by burning the spots where the horns would grow on goats within their first two weeks of life with a hot iron, damaging the horn buds enough that they never generate growth. It has to be carried out before there's any real horn growth, and it has to be burned thoroughly enough or the goat runs the risk of growing scurs- damaged partial horn growth. Usually the procedure happens pretty quick, and people say their goats bounce back and are fine the next day. Most of the time that's probably true, but not always. This area is very close to the eyes and brain and if not done properly there is a very real risk of brain and nerve damage. Some of the goats we rescued had been disbudded, and they were often rubbing the spots on their head as if it constantly itched or bothered them. Scurs are very common and pose a health risk to the animal because they often grow in twisted and can eventually require trimming to stop them from growing into the animal's face or neck. Scurs also often grow in weak and can be easily broken which results in risks from blood loss and infection. Worse still, I have heard other goat keepers talk about what a pain it is to have to keep cutting scurs back after a botched disbudding, and they cull the animal. I thought about posting images of what all of this looks like, but some of it is unsettling and since we don't practice any of this here, I don't want such images associated with my farm. If you are curious enough, feel free to google it.

It looks painful because it is.

So why do farmers do this? The main claim is for safety reasons.

People say that goats can injure each other, humans, etc, and there are plenty of stories of worst case scenarios being shared as examples of why horns are a bad idea. My problem is, every time I read or hear one, I find the main fault is what I consider bad management. One common story is of a goat getting his horns stuck in fencing and dying of dehydration as a result. My immediate reaction isn't that horns are to blame, it's to wonder how long was that poor animal stuck? Where were his people to help him? Or a story about a goat breaking a herdmate's ribs over feeding time. Or a goat pulling a feeder down on to themself. Or near misses with human injury during handling. To every one of these scenarios, there are easy solutions. Use Sheep & Goat fencing that goats can't stick their heads through and become stuck. Know where your animals are and check on them every day. Don't use feeders that goats have to stick their head through a hole to get food. Don't crowd your animals in such a way that they act overly aggressive and can't have space from each other. Some bullying is normal to establish and maintain pecking order, but real aggression is not. Handle animals with caution and respect. Animals come with risks, dogs can bite, horses can kick, and as rational humans, it's our responsibility to be aware and act accordingly.

Goats use their horns.

They are important to regulating body temperature. Goats scratch itches, play, and pick up things with their horns. It's part of the experience of being a goat. Watching our goats here, my goats that have horns all seemed happier and more relaxed than the rescues who didn't. They had more ways to play and engage in goat life. But don't just take my work for it, here's an article that says it all better than I can.

Why Horns By Robert L. Johnson The IDGR has from the beginning advocated the retention of horns on animals born with them (that is, not polled} in all breeds, including dairy goats. This advocacy continues to surprise many breeders who have been exposed to the prevailing attitude, especially in dairy goats, that have persisted since the founding of the first dairy goat registry in America in 1904. So dominant has this attitude of ‘no horns’ been that breeders automatically assume that disbudding of kids is an essential, mandatory task, as basic to goatkeeping as regular hoof-trimming, vaccination, and the provision of feed and housing; and today, horned dairy goats are disqualified from participa-tion in goat shows sanctioned by the ADGA (American Dairy Goat Association.) We do not know at the present time who started the idea that dairy goats should be hornless, or exactly when this happened. Certainly, horned dairy goats are the norm in all of the other countries of the ‘civilized’ world, and feeders, hay mangers and milking stands are designed for the accommodation of horns. We strongly suspect, however, that advocacy of hornless goats was initiated and perpetuated by persons who had keen interests in goat shows, combined with a wish to present animals that looked as different as possible from the common or ‘brush’ goats so despised by many people–including even dairy goat breeders! By removing horns, grooming, and close clipping of the natural hair coat, an artificially slick-looking animal was obtained that in appearance was unlike the hairy, horned, brush goat of popular fiction. Virtually every magazine article and book that subsequently appeared on goat husbandry included routine instructions for clipping and disbudding, without any real analysis of the situation. Various ‘reasons’ were prof- fered—it was claimed that horned goats in close confinement would injure each other, and particularly the udders of lactating does; that they were more destructive to fences; that they tended to get caught in certain types of fencing; that they were injurious to people, etc. It is true that there is that occasional, if rare, circumstance where these claims were valid; the ‘exception proved the truth of the rule.’ But they are certainly not the norm. The bottom line was, and is, the fact that in some show enthusiasts’ eyes, the horned goat simply did not look as attractive, and hence horns had to go; proving once again that the influence of the show ring has, in the words of several persons of unquestionable wisdom and global experience, ‘destroyed (or serious-ly damaged) every breed of animal it has touched.’ Goats and sheep are not the only animals that possess horns. Fact: hundreds of types and breeds of animals carry horns, in many of which the size and mass of horns (or horn-like appendages such as antlers) is so great that it is unlikely that millions of years of evolution would have given rise to them if there were not very good reasons for their presence. Considering just their variety in shapes alone indicates that they are more important than we fully understand as yet. We do know a few of the rationales for horns, important both to the animals themselves as well as to their utility to their owners and the rest of Man. Some of these reasons for horns on goats are: (1) Horns are ‘social’ organs; goats use them to re-establish the herd ‘pecking order’ which they do on a near-continual basis. Removing the horns does not remove the genetic impetus to butt another goat, the goats’ normal social interaction, but does remove the protective effect of the horns, which are designed not only to give, but to receive blows, and protect the skull. (The outer visible layer of the horn is composed of protein, but it covers a hard bone core that fuses with the skull somewhere in the first year or two of life.} (2) Horns are thermoregulatory organs, regulating the temperature of the blood supply to the brain. (3) Horn size, shape, conformation, spacing, and direction of growth are important, under genetic control, and subject to selection. In IDGR shows, horn conformation counts for points in the over-all scorecard; and a hornless animal is as difficult to properly assess as a dairy doe with her udder amputated, or an Angora shorn of its fleece down to the skin. (4} Horns serve as indicators of protein metabolism and general feed-conversion efficiency; the more massive the structure and the more and deeper the corrugations, the better the goat may assimilate and utilize its feed. They also indicate past experiences with serious illness. (5) Horns indicate the age of an animal; the ‘annual rings’ are usually easy to see. (6) Horns are convenient handles, enabling the herdsperson to control the goat’s head when giving medications, dewormers, etc. and to lead a recalcitrant goat by; this is much less traumatic to the goat than the use of its ears for the purpose of control. (7) There is in dairy goat breeds a definite and established link between the incidence of hornlessness and hermaphroditism; and this link is believed to also exist in miniature breeds. (8) Horns have some utility as weapons; not in such degree as to protect the goat from all dog or other predator attacks, but small dogs and other animals can be definitely discouraged by an aggressive horned goat; at the least, horns may ‘buy enough time’ for the goat to fend off an attacker until help can arrive. (9} Horns are useful ‘tools’ to goats; they serve not only as ‘back-scratchers’ but also as working appendages to assist goats with small daily tasks. (Breeders may not consider this a ‘plus factor’ since goats are very adept at using their horns to open gates and feed bins, create and enlarge holes in fences, batter down boards in confined areas, etc.) (10) Horns are lovely; they are beautiful, intricate, interesting structures, just as seashells are. Before you are too quick to say that this is a matter of opinion, remember that there are tens of thousands of hunters, just for one example, who may profess to despise the miniature, dairy and common brush goats, but that expend much money and energy hunting wild deer, sheep and goats primarily for their antlers and horns! And last but not least, (11) horns have for countless centuries been used for the creation of many utilitarian articles and art objects, from the heads of canes, walking sticks, staffs, and shepherds’ crooks, to elaborate snuff and tobacco humidors, smoking pipes, buttons, drinking vessels, dippers, combs, and a myriad other useful and decorative items. Many of these articles are now made of plastic. Plastic, which comes from petroleum, is not a ‘renewable’ resource; but goats can always grow more horns, given the chance. With the domestication of goats we have learned that horns can cause some problems for us. Parents often fear that small children may be poked in the eyes by a horned Pygmy or Dwarf goat, suddenly raising its head while a child stands over it to pet it. Horns do make the design of feeders, hay mangers and milking stands a bit more difficult; keyhole feeders are obviously of no use with horned goats, and horned goats can be more destructive to fences and other structures. Hence there are individuals who prefer their goats to be hornless. This, best accomplished by disbudding of kids, is a choice each goat owner must make on his or her own, having, hopefully, carefully considered the list of rationales for horns given above. In a nutshell, the decision boils down to the fact that all the reasons for having hornless goats are based on our own convenience rather than the good of the goats themselves. The person who truly cares about goats will cherish and admire his animals with lovely, well-conformed horns, and take the few necessary measures to make their housing and feeding easier.

And I have to agree, especially with that last bit. To me, disbudding honestly seems like mutilating an animal for the sake of human convenience. And I question why people continue putting goats through the pain and risks of it all instead of striving to breed goats with the polled genetic trait. Yes, there are goats who naturally don't have horns, and it's a dominant genetic trait. So if people really wanted to, breeding goats to naturally be free of the worries of horns is absolutely possible.

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