Arthritis and Tail Length

Sheep with shorter tail lengths are at greater risk of developing arthritis. The recommendation for tail length is the third palpable joint of the tail which is about the length that just covers the vulva in ewes

Arthritis is inflammation of the joints. It is a significant and painful condition that is widespread in sheep around Australia. Lambs are most susceptible to infection. It usually causes lameness and visible swelling of joints. This can significantly affect growth rates on farm, as well as carcase trimming and occasionally condemnation at the processor.

There are many causes of arthritis; the three most common ones are due to infections with the bacteria Erysipelothrix, pus causing bacteria, and the organism Chlamydophila (Chlamydia). Most of these are normal environmental bacteria present on the skin, in faeces and in the soil. The main source of infection to lambs is usually from their own mothers who act as carriers.

These bacteria gain access to the body through broken skin, then enter the bloodstream and settle and multiply in joints. Animals are most susceptible:

1. At or soon after birth – via the umbilical cord.

2. Any time a wound is created – especially marking/mulesing or shearing but also from contaminated dips, dog bites, grass seeds etc. Mulesing and shearing markedly increases the risk of arthritis by four to seven times.

Research carried out by veterinary consultant, Dr Joan Lloyd, compared the rate of arthritis in lambs with correct tail length and those with short docked tails, finding the rate of arthritis was significantly higher in lambs with tails that were docked too short.

Docking the tails at the second joint or shorter resulted in an inferior result, with these animals experiencing two to three times the rate of breech fly strike as sheep with the tails docked long or medium-long.

Short and medium length tails took longer to heal than medium-long or long tails and were more likely to be infected.

How do I prevent arthritis?

  1. Lambing management.
  2. Marking/mulesing/shearing management to maximise hygiene and minimise stress.
  3. Minimising wound size by docking lamb tails at the third or lower vertebral joint.
  4. Maximising wound healing.
  5. Vaccinating.

Some handy tips include:

  • Rotate lambing paddocks and reserve ‘clean’, grassy paddocks for lambing.
  • Utilise temporary yards in a clean grassy paddock any time a wound is created, avoiding wet and muddy conditions, or high fly numbers.
  • Place lambs onto their feet when released from the cradle to avoid contamination of fresh wounds.
  • Avoid holding lambs in yards; if unavoidable don’t overcrowd stock as this will increase faecal contamination of fresh wounds.
  • Use sharp, clean and disinfected marking equipment and change disinfectant regularly.
  • Dock tails at the third palpable tail joint to minimize tail wound size.
  • Following any wounds, to maximise healing, keep sheep dry, avoid long wet grass, and allow at least 2 weeks before dipping, ensuring dip fluid is clean (don’t reuse or top up fluid).
  • Consider vaccinating ewes against Erysipelothrix, pre lambing to protect lambs at marking.
  • Vaccinate lambs according to the vaccine label requirements. Excellent results have been achieved through vaccination in cases where Erysipelothrix is the causative agent.
  • Ensure correct vaccination technique and protocol is followed.

For further information contact your Livestock consultant or local veterinarian.