Two years ago when the idea of getting back yard goats to be adorable landscapers was first hatched, I hadn’t given much thought to the issue of goat horns.
I knew goats had horns; some horns were amazing, vast and spiralled and dangerous. Others were utilitarian and plain. But they were all just part of being a goat and I took that for granted.
But every year at the Northwest Washington Fair in Lynden I noticed that most of the goats in the goat barn had no horns. Not only that, a great number of them had scurs, which are growths of horn material that are left after the goats are disbudded. Scurs aren’t fully developed horns with hard material and nerves, but they do have blood vessels and will grow into the head, or break off and bleed, and may need to be trimmed and attended to for the goat’s life.
At the time I just thought they were ugly; my friend who had goats said it is a side effect of badly performed disbuddings.
Disbudding is the process where the goat’s horns are burned off their head as young doelings or bucklings. This is a permanent decision – their horns do not grow back. Some people do it without anesthesia, however since the horns are part of their skull and full of nerves, this hurts like hell (however since there are risks to anesthesia many goat breeders say they would rather inflict the pain and get it over with than risk losing a goat to anesthesia).
Others put the goat under anesthesia in order to perform the procedure. Afterward the goats are left with two burns where their horns would have been, which heal over time and grow over with hair.
The first goats I really got to know were at Faith Equestrian Center, where I board my horse. They’re Nubian wethers (neutered male goats), and crack me up every time I see them. They have delightful expressions which are made more clownish by the fact that they both have ridiculous scurs sprouting from their heads at weird angles. Sometimes they grow into their head; sometimes they break and bleed. It’s messy.
I didn’t like the idea of scurs, but my thoughts really stopped there. All of the Nigerian Dwarf breeders we found automatically disbud their goats because it is a requirement if you want to show your goats and because there are safety concerns with letting a goat keep their horns.
So I just thought we’d get disbudded goats. And then a couple of things happened.
First, I took a Goats 101 course from the amazing New Moon Farm Goat Rescue, and they had both horned and disbudded goats. They were the first to advocate for keeping horns because the goats used them for controlling their body temperatures; the goats there that day that were disbudded were panting in the heat, and the goats with horns were perfectly comfortable (they also noted that having horns made the goats easier to grab hold of!).
After that, the owner of Faith Equestrian Center got two adorable baby Nubians, a buckling and doeling. Even though their disbudding had been done professionally by veterinarians, the doeling soon developed strange neurological problems which they later diagnosed as coming from the disbudding (and as a side note, one year later the buck has a scur developing but the little girl is fine).
Lastly, I thought about how goats defend themselves, and my future goats, which would be living in an urban environment full of dogs. Their only defense is their horns, and if I removed them, the dogs would clearly win any confrontation.
I heard from several people that leaving horns on a goat was a very bad idea. So I started researching.
And that’s when I discovered just how contentious the whole goat-horn issue is.
People are adamantly opposed to removing horns. Just as many people are adamantly opposed to leaving them on. I kept trying to find a neutral article, something that would give me actual data; health benefits/detriments of disbudding; numbers of reported injuries from horns; deaths by horn entrapment; percentages of scurs developed on does and bucks.
I found little data. I found mostly strong opinions, but while I was able to find some scientific evidence of the benefits horns play in a goat’s body, I was reading only “they’re dangerous” from the disbudding camp.
As far as the danger to me, I wasn’t worried. I knew I’d be coddling these goats from day one and they’d love me, so any injury will be inadvertent. And since I ride around on a spook-prone 1100 lb. Arabian horse as a pastime, getting poked by a horn is really the least of my animal-related worries.
If they were aggressive to each other and used their horns in violence, I would have bigger issues than just dangerous horns. And since we don’t have young kids, or chicken wire or barbed fences, it seemed safe to let the girls have their horns. Lastly, we didn’t want to show the girls, so the disbudding requirement wouldn’t effect us.
The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if goat horn removal was one of those animal husbandry traditions that sticks around more from inertia than from any practical standpoint. Like docking tails on weimaraners, or cutting ears on Dobermans, or even removing dew claws (because they might get caught on something)… is it that, since we’ve come to accept spaying and neutering as a good thing, we’ve decided that any customization our animals’ physical appearance to make it more convenient has become commonplace? I can see how dairy goats would have horns removed if one was running a large-scale dairy goat farm, and had all to fit goat heads in stanchions for milking. In animal farming, the animal’s primary needs are not top of mind, more the need for human convenience.
But for pet goats? It just didn’t make any sense to cause such a radical change out of the fear of being poked. And as long as I take caution in designing their world with their horns in mind, I should be able to minimize opportunities to get their horns stuck anywhere.
By the time we’d decided for sure we wanted horned goats, it was of course too late. This was summer of last year, and all the spring babies had already had their horns removed. I found a horned Nigerian Dwarf goat for sale in Wenatchee, but she would have been alone and then I’d have to get one horned, one disbudded goat which seemed unfair.
And that’s why it took us two years to get goats. Since we made up our mind, I have only more ongoing evidence that I made the right choice. I’ve spoken with a woman in Texas who has entire herds of Nigerian Dwarf goats and she never disbuds, and hasn’t had cause to regret that policy. I’ve seen bucks that, hornless, continue to butt heads ferociously during rutting season, and their skin is raw from the skin-on-skin contact.
Lastly, just seeing how Pickle and Olive act with their horns: it’s part of who they are. They are goats. They headbutt with them, scratch with them, position them when scared. Even after Pickle sliced off the horn cap of her left horn at her old home, she’ll heal completely and have a full horn in time. They’re part of who they are, as much as their cloven hooves, horizontal pupils, and rumen stomach. I’m glad I didn’t take that away from them.
Of course, check back with me in six months, when they have gigantic hard pokers sticking out of their skulls and I’ve been blinded in one eye. Then I give everyone who cautioned me about the dangers of keeping horned goats to say “see I told you so” and laugh hysterically in my wounded face.