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Ultimate Guide to Sheep Hoof Care: Ensuring Health and Vitality


Most of us hardly give a second thought to the condition of our sheep’s hooves, that is, until an issue arises. However, during these damp, chilly, and often muddy seasons, we must keep hoof care at the forefront to avoid potential problems.

Ensuring your sheep’s hooves are well-maintained is paramount for their overall health and vitality. Like any creature, sheep are prone to various hoof-related issues that can impede their movement and diminish their quality of life.

Caring for sheep hooves goes beyond basic animal husbandry; it’s critical to sheep farming and management. Diseases of the hoof can severely impact both the welfare of your sheep and the efficiency of your production.

Regularly monitoring hooves for disease signs and abnormal growth is imperative. Those animals exhibiting persistent hoof issues or an inability to recover following treatment should be carefully evaluated and potentially removed from the flock.

The cornerstone of preserving hoof health in sheep involves consistent examination and cleaning. Specialists from Ohio State University emphasize the significance of thorough hoof inspections to pinpoint any indications of damage, infection, or irregularities.

Equally important is removing any foreign materials, mud, or debris that might gather around the hoof area. This practice doesn’t just ward off possible injuries; it also promotes a hygienic living space for your flock.

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Continuous Growth: Sheep Hooves and Maintenance

Similar to how our fingernails continuously grow, sheep’s hooves are also in a constant state of growth.

Neglecting to regularly trim these hooves can lead to many problems, including pain, difficulty in movement, and a heightened risk of infection. It’s therefore essential to regularly maintain the hoof’s length.

The resource Sheep101 underscores the necessity of routine hoof maintenance and cautions against over-trimming, which can inadvertently cause the sheep discomfort and bleeding.

Regarding hoof-related issues, valuable insights can be gleaned from the 4-H Animal Science program at Rutgers University. This resource highlights common hoof problems like foot rot—a contagious bacterial infection marked by swelling and lameness.

To curb the spread of such infections within a herd, it’s imperative to swiftly identify and segregate affected individuals. Rutgers University also delves into white line disease, characterized by the detachment of the hoof wall from its supporting structures.

Regular hoof care, including trimming and maintaining cleanliness, is crucial in preventing and managing these conditions.

Treatment strategies for hoof ailments vary, as suggested by Ohio State University.

While milder conditions might respond well to topical treatments and antibacterial foot baths, more severe infections often necessitate veterinary intervention and possibly antibiotics. Recognizing and addressing these issues promptly is key to preserving the flock’s health.

However, as with many health concerns, prevention is preferable to treatment. Ensuring proper hoof health involves routine trimming, a balanced diet, and maintaining a clean habitat for the sheep.

Regular foot baths with recommended solutions can also play a significant role in preventing bacterial infections.

Comprehensive hoof care is an integral part of responsible sheep farming. This includes regular maintenance and being vigilant about potential hoof problems.

At the first sign of trouble, it’s crucial to determine the root cause and seek appropriate treatment to ensure the flock’s well-being and longevity. In cases of uncertainty, consulting a veterinarian promptly is always the best course of action.

As caretakers of these animals, it’s our responsibility to implement these care practices diligently, ensuring our sheep’s health, happiness, and productivity.

Sheep Hooves and Maintenance
Credit: Ambry Acres

Regular Hoof Trimming: A Necessity for Sheep Health

Constructed from keratin, the same protein that forms human nails, sheep hooves are in perpetual growth. In their natural habitat, sheep would wear these hooves down by traversing diverse terrains.

However, under managed care, such as in sanctuaries, hooves don’t naturally erode sufficiently, necessitating periodic trimming to maintain the sheep’s well-being and comfort.

Trimming serves the dual purpose of ensuring a balanced, stable base for walking and removing trapped dirt or debris within the hoof structure.

Akin to human nail cutting, properly executing this task is generally pain-free, although some sheep might be apprehensive about the restraint involved.

The frequency of hoof maintenance varies based on genetics, diet, activity levels, and overall health.

Regular inspections during health checks are advisable, with immediate attention required for signs of limping or discomfort, possibly due to overgrown hooves or foreign objects lodged in them.

Focus primarily centers on the hoof wall during trimming, as unchecked growth leads to painful deformities and dirt accumulation.

Factors influencing hoof growth and the consequent need for trimming encompass breed, environmental conditions, and nutrition. For instance, sheep in wetter regions or lush pastures typically require more frequent hoof care than those in drier, rockier settings.

Utilizing appropriate tools, like manual or air compressor-powered shears and a sharp knife for intricate work, is crucial for effective trimming.

While trimming can be physically demanding, especially with larger flocks, various handling equipment, from tilt tables to sheep “chairs,” can ease the process.

During the trimming, after securing the sheep’s leg and cleaning the hoof, it’s vital to trim cautiously, avoiding cutting into the pink, vascular areas.

The goal is a flat, boxy hoof shape similar to a newborn lamb’s. Moreover, aligning hoof trimming with other routine care activities and opting for periods when the hooves are naturally softer, such as after rain, can optimize the process.

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The Right Tools for Hoof Trimming

Opting for robust work gloves is a savvy choice when it comes to the hoof-trimming task, as it not only elevates comfort during the procedure, particularly when attending to multiple animals successively, but also shields your hands from potential nicks or puncture wounds that may arise if the animal jerks suddenly or if you happen to lose your grip.

When selecting the appropriate tools for the job, you have a variety of instruments at your disposal, ranging from specialized hoof shears to versatile rotary devices like the Hoof Boss.

It’s also beneficial to have a paring knife and a hoof pick within arm’s reach for those finer adjustments. A crucial aspect of tool management is ensuring they remain well-maintained and razor-sharp.

Blunt instruments complicate the trimming operation, leading to prolonged restraint of the animal, and pose a risk of causing undue stress on the animal’s limbs.

Moreover, the extra force you might apply to compensate for the dullness of the tools heightens the risk of self-injury.

Essentials of Gentle Sheep Restraint

Exercising gentle control is paramount during the hoof care routine for sheep. Managing sheep by having them stand up, lie on their side, or sit is possible.

When opting for the standing approach, each hoof is dealt with one by one, requiring the sheep to balance on the remaining three hooves.

However, this may pose challenges for those affected by conditions such as Ovine Progressive Pneumonia (OPP) or osteoarthritis, as standing on three legs may be too taxing or impossible.

For these cases, laying the sheep gently on its side might be preferable, ensuring someone is there to steady them, preventing any sudden movements or attempts to rise.

Some handlers successfully use devices like a “sheep hammock” or “sheep chair” to comfortably seat the sheep during the procedure. Sitting them upright on their rear, supported by a caretaker at the back, can work effectively for smaller breeds.

A significant advantage of both the recumbent and seated methods is the opportunity to work on several hooves simultaneously if adequate help is available, thereby minimizing the time the sheep is under restraint.

Moreover, in these positions, there’s often no need to twist or reposition their legs extensively, a crucial consideration for those with joint or mobility concerns, ensuring a more comfortable experience.

It’s vital to understand that each sheep may prefer a particular type of restraint, so it’s wise to determine the most soothing position before trimming.

While you might have a favored technique, flexibility is key as different sheep or circumstances might necessitate alternative approaches. It’s beneficial to familiarize yourself with various restraint methods.

Its effectiveness is noted when using a sheep hammock for hoof care, yet it’s important to recognize its limitations.

Particular caution is advised for sheep with intact tails or specific health conditions, as the hammock’s design might lead to tail injuries or exacerbate existing health problems.

Staff must receive adequate training to ensure the safe transfer of sheep into and out of the hammock, especially being vigilant to avoid the sheep’s hind legs getting entangled with the frame of the hammock, which can result in severe injury.

While the sheep is in the hammock, its breathing should be monitored diligently and promptly removed if signs of distress are observed.

Mastering Upright Restraint

Let’s delve into the nuances of upright restraint, a technique that necessitates a delicate approach, specifically when hoisting each leg of the animal in succession.

This method is optimally employed when the sheep is adjacent to a solid barrier or wall. When utilizing a rope halter, securing it with a knot that can be undone swiftly is crucial.

During the hoof-trimming process, it’s important to remain vigilant to prevent the animal from positioning its head or neck in an unsafe manner. Moreover, ensure the halter remains properly placed to avoid obstructing the animal’s breathing.

When dealing with older residents, pre-medication might be considered due to the physical demand and joint movement involved in upright hoof trimming. In certain cases, pre-administering an NSAID, under veterinary guidance, has been shown to alleviate discomfort during and after the procedure.

Each animal and caretaker has unique preferences concerning restraint methods. When trimming front hooves, a common approach involves kneeling beside the animal’s shoulder, away from the wall, and facing its hindquarters.

This positioning aids in preventing the sheep from moving away from the support structure. Gently lifting the front hoof towards the animal’s body, coax the sheep to bend its carpus into a natural stance.

If resistance is met, offering support by placing the bent carpus on your thigh might soothe the animal. However, if discomfort is apparent, it’s advisable to reassess the situation and consider alternative methods, like extending the leg forward instead of bending the carpus.

Handling the hind legs can present more challenges, particularly with restless animals. Having an additional person to secure the animal can be significantly helpful. This person can stand or kneel behind the animal’s shoulder, ensuring stability.

As for the trimmer, you might sit, kneel, or stand in a position that allows you to maintain control while lifting the leg without causing discomfort or risking injury. When elevating a hind leg, it’s essential to avoid lifting it excessively to prevent any strain.

Once the hooves on one side are trimmed, the animal can be gently guided to switch sides, positioning the trimmed side against the wall, and then proceed with the same technique for the remaining hooves.

This systematic approach ensures a thorough and considerate trimming process, prioritizing the animal’s and caretaker’s well-being and comfort.

Hoof Trimming
Credit: opensanctuary

Proper Hoof Trim: Techniques and Precautions

Embrace Practical Learning: This segment underscores the importance of hands-on experience in the hoof trimming. Textual instructions are useful but cannot replace the valuable insights gained through practical training.

Whenever feasible, seek guidance from a veterinarian or a skilled hoof care professional. They can provide practical training that captures the subtle aspects of trimming techniques that textual descriptions simply cannot.

Before initiating the trimming process, ensure the hooves are clean using a brush or gauze to remove any dirt or debris. This preliminary step is crucial for clear visibility of the hoof’s structure. It’s essential to preserve the natural shape and angle of the hoof.

In a correctly trimmed hoof, you’ll notice that the bottom edge aligns parallel to the coronary band, the intersection where the ho of wall meets the skin of the leg.


The hoof wall and heel should be level with the sole, although the outer wall may extend slightly beyond the inner wall.

Address overgrown hooves with caution. If the hoof wall has grown over the sole, remove the overlapping section carefully. Precise trimming is crucial in cases where the hoof is extremely overgrown, causing the inner and outer hoof walls to curl over one another.

This ensures the hoof retains its proper shape and angle. Trim the excess by working on the sections of the hoof wall that touch the ground, using your trimmers in alignment with the foot’s length, as illustrated in the accompanying photo.

Avoid cutting directly across the toe tip, which could lead to excessive shortening. Ensure the toe is not trimmed too short to prevent the animal from becoming flat-footed or shifting its weight to the heels.

During the trimming, you may notice the hoof wall changing to white or black, depending on the hoof’s natural color. Trim gradually, halting immediately if you encounter any pink areas indicating proximity to live tissue.

Trimming these areas can lead to bleeding and discomfort. Occasionally, even without drawing blood, over-trimming can expose sensitive areas, leading to discomfort on certain terrains.

Remove dirt or debris lodged during the process using a hoof pick or the pointed end of a closed pair of hoof shears.

Trimming the heel may also be necessary, but proceed cautiously as this area is significantly softer than the hoof wall. If the sole appears to require trimming, it’s best to defer to a seasoned hoof trimmer or a veterinarian.

They can accurately assess the necessity and extent of sole trimming. Always use the coronary band as a point of reference to maintain the correct hoof angle.

Inspect and, if necessary, trim the dewclaws – the small claws protruding from the back of each leg, above the heel.

The extent of trimming varies; some may need a minor adjustment, while others may require more substantial trimming. Regardless, trim gradually to avoid infringing on sensitive tissue.

Hoof Trimming
Credit: opensanctuary

Throughout the evaluation and trimming process, remain vigilant for any signs of foot issues. After completing the trim, observe the animal’s gait. Any lameness or discomfort not evident before the trim may indicate over-trimming.

Monitor the animal closely in the subsequent days and consult your veterinarian if the discomfort is significant or persistent.

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Diseases affecting the hoof

Sheep are prone to an array of podiatric complications which, if left unaddressed, can significantly hamper their movement and adversely affect their overall well-being. It’s crucial to promptly consult a veterinarian should you notice any potential concerns.

Disregarding limping in sheep is ill-advised, as it often indicates the presence of various foot ailments, some of which may be quite severe, in addition to other potential health issues.

Foot Rot in Sheep

Pododermatitis, commonly known as foot rot, poses a significant challenge to the sheep farming sector in the United States.

While it’s not typically fatal, it frequently necessitates the early removal of sheep from herds, leading to notable expenses in treatment and labor. Many sheep farmers cite foot rot as a primary reason for exiting the industry.

This condition arises due to the combined influence of two anaerobic bacteria: Fusobacterium necrophorum and Bacterioides nodosus. F. Necrophorum thrives in the soil and manure, commonly found in the presence of sheep, goats, and cattle.

Conversely, B. Nodusus is typically introduced into a farm setting via the hooves of already infected animals. This bacterium has over 20 identified strains, each with varying levels of infectivity and severity.

Foot rot proliferation is favored by specific environmental conditions: warmth, moisture, and inadequate sanitation. These conditions foster the oxygen-free environment necessary for these bacteria to thrive. Notably, the lifespan of B. Nodusus in soil spans only 14-21 days.

Transmission of Bacteriodes nodosus, the bacterium behind foot rot, occurs as infected sheep come into contact with the ground, manure, and bedding materials, subsequently spreading to healthy sheep.

The introduction of foot rot is often traced back to acquiring an infected animal or using contaminated facilities or transportation means. Ideal conditions for the spread include temperatures ranging from 40-70°F in a damp environment.

However, the bacterium’s short lifespan in these conditions (less than two weeks) means that continuous reinfection from carrier sheep within the flock is a significant concern, unless these carriers are either culled or effectively treated.

Addressing foot rot calls for a flock-wide treatment approach. The anaerobic nature of the foot rot bacterium means that introducing oxygen into its environment is beneficial for eradication.

Therefore, properly trimmed hooves is crucial, although care is required to avoid causing bleeding. Minimizing hoof overgrowth reduces mud and manure accumulation, creating less favorable conditions for foot rot.

Post-trimming treatments, such as regular immersion in a zinc sulfate solution footbath (10% weight/volume), can significantly combat the disease.

In the UK, however, excessively aggressive hoof trimming is discouraged because it may facilitate the spread of the disease. Instead, antibiotic injections and sprays are advocated for managing foot rot and related hoof ailments.

European studies have shown promising results in treating foot rot with Gamithromycin (Zactran®), a macrolide antibiotic approved for managing bovine respiratory disease in cattle.

Vaccinating flocks with a history of foot rot can be instrumental in prevention and treatment. However, vaccination does not guarantee immunity, as not all strains of the foot rot bacterium are covered by the vaccine, and its availability can be inconsistent.

Focusing on preventive measures is often more cost-effective for producers managing clean flocks than relying on vaccination.

Sheep exhibiting severe infection symptoms and not responding to treatment should be removed from the flock. Genetic factors can influence susceptibility to foot rot, with some sheep and specific breeds more prone to the condition than others.

Notably, British and European breeds generally show greater resistance. Therefore, promoting the propagation of resistant sheep while culling those prone to the disease is advisable.

Monitoring and recording can aid in identifying susceptible and resistant individuals. Typically, sheep with black-pigmented hooves are more robust than white ones. Preventing foot rot is invariably simpler than attempting to eradicate it once established.

Effective management practices are pivotal in minimizing the risk of foot rot infiltrating a flock. It’s crucial to avoid purchasing sheep known to be infected or those from an infected flock, even if they appear healthy.

Caution is also advised when buying from mixed-sale environments where healthy and infected sheep may have been penned together.

New additions to a flock should be treated with the presumption of infection, isolated for at least 30 days, have their feet trimmed upon arrival, and undergo treatment and re-inspection of their feet during the quarantine period.

Foot Scald: Identifying and Addressing the Non-Contagious Infection

Delving into the subject, it’s clear that interdigital dermatitis primarily arises from the microorganism Fusobacterium necrophorum infection, thriving notably in damp, humid conditions.

Extended exposure of hooves to such environments predisposes them to harm, particularly in the space between the claws, paving the way for bacterial invasion.

Manifestations of interdigital dermatitis include swelling in the claw interstices, skin exhibiting discoloration, dampness, a raw texture, and heightened sensitivity.

Typically, sheep afflicted with this ailment show only a slight limp. However, it’s important to note that this condition makes them susceptible to the more severe infectious foot rot.

On another note, foot scald represents an isolated infection triggered solely by F. necrophorum, distinguished by its non-contagious nature. This ailment is synonymous with lameness, usually impacting the front hooves, with visible sores between them.

The inter-toe region in sheep suffering from foot scald may appear pale and whitened or exhibit a reddish, swollen demeanor.

Contrasting with foot rot, foot scald is relatively more manageable in terms of treatment. Simply relocating sheep to a drier terrain, away from muddy areas, significantly mitigates the disease’s impact.

Treatment strategies for foot scald sometimes involve the topical application of copper sulfate (Kopertox).

However, the foremost and most productive method is a footbath infused with a 10% zinc sulfate solution, mixing 8 lbs of zinc sulfate in 10 gallons of water. The incidence and intensity of foot scald infections diminish with the advent of drier climatic conditions.

General treatment protocols typically revolve around reducing the affected individual’s contact with moist areas and administering a topical zinc sulfate solution.

Occasionally, shearing the fur or wool surrounding the hoof can aid in quicker drying. While copper sulfate is occasionally recommended for treatment, it’s prudent to avoid its use due to the risk of copper toxicity upon ingestion.

Dietary Triggers of Laminitis in Sheep and Equines

Laminitis, characterized by the swelling of the hoof’s delicate tissues, is a distressing ailment predominantly seen in horses but also known to afflict sheep.

This condition is frequently linked to dietary factors such as abrupt dietary shifts, excessive intake of rich feed or protein, or a diet heavy on grains but lacking fiber. In sheep, laminitis can be triggered by specific health issues including pneumonia, mastitis, and metritis.

Laminitis disrupts the hoof’s blood circulation due to digestive disturbances caused by grain overindulgence, leading to acidosis.

The severity of the condition may result in the animal’s demise before hoof symptoms appear. Survivors might show atypical hoof growth or suffer from enduring lameness.

Symptoms of laminitis encompass a limp, rigid walking manner, unusually warm hooves, pain, and tenderness around the hoof’s top edge. The animal might exhibit signs of distress such as teeth grinding and fever.

Typically, it starts in the front hooves but can escalate to all four in more serious instances. Without proper intervention, laminitis can evolve into a persistent problem, altering the hooves’ structure and causing an imbalance in the claw heights.

In advanced stages, animals might walk on their knees, and the hoof material becomes excessively tough, complicating trimming efforts.

Collaborating with a veterinary expert is crucial if laminitis is suspected in any of your animals. Immediate treatment often involves pain relief through non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and pinpointing and addressing the root cause.

For long-standing cases, regular and meticulous hoof trimming is vital. Your vet will offer advice on the trimming frequency and intensity.

While not all cases of laminitis are diet-related, maintaining a balanced diet and introducing dietary changes gradually can be instrumental in preventing this condition and other health complications. If supplementary grain is necessary, it should be integrated into the diet slowly.

Understanding Ovine Foot Abscesses

Ovine podiatric health is essential, and a prevalent issue is the formation of abscesses in the sheep’s feet. These painful accumulations of pus can manifest in the heel or toe regions.

Unlike other foot ailments that tend to afflict multiple feet simultaneously, abscesses often localize in a single claw. Traumatic incidents, such as piercing by a sharp object or mishaps during hoof trimming, are frequent precursors to these infections.

The onset of a foot abscess is marked by an inflammation of the soft tissue situated just above the hoof. Pus-filled abscesses may appear in this region or between the digits in severe instances.

The primary culprit behind these abscesses is a bacterial invasion of the compromised foot tissue, predominantly affecting the forelimbs. Typically, a single hoof bears the brunt of the infection. Combatting this condition involves the administration of antibacterial agents.

Recognizing a foot abscess involves observing certain symptoms:

  • The infected claw and the coronary band above it will swell.
  • The area may feel unusually warm.
  • The sheep might display intense discomfort or an unwillingness to apply pressure on the affected claw due to sharp pain.

An obvious sign is the presence of pus, either oozing out of a ruptured abscess or visibly accumulating beneath the skin. When the abscess is yet to burst, a veterinarian might surgically open it during a hoof-trimming session or by directly lancing the swollen area.

Consulting a veterinarian is imperative for devising an effective treatment plan, including pain relief measures, antibiotics (systemic or directly applied to the abscess), and protective bandaging or hoof blocks.

If foot abscesses are recurrent, it is crucial to collaborate with your veterinarian to pinpoint and mitigate underlying causes, thereby safeguarding the well-being of your flock.

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Sheep Hoof Care
Credit: The Ohio State University

More Common Diseases Of The Foot

  • Bluetongue

Characterized by lesions on the feet, Bluetongue is a viral infection that’s non-communicable and transmitted through insect bites. A distinctive feature for diagnosing this disease is a reddish-brown ring at the hoof’s base.

  • Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD)

This highly infectious viral ailment impacts a range of livestock including pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and deer, and is prevalent in numerous global regions.

Animals afflicted with FMD often exhibit sores or ulcers in and around the mouth, on the snout, tongue, gums, teats, or at the feet’s upper region. However, symptoms in sheep and goats tend to be subtler than those in cattle or pigs.

In the historical context, the United States successfully eliminated nine FMD outbreaks, the last recorded in 1929. Post this period, the U.S. has not encountered any FMD cases.

Similarly, Canada has remained clear of the disease since 1929. On the other hand, the United Kingdom faced a significant FMD crisis in 2001.

  • Soremouth (contagious ecthyma)

This condition manifests as lameness in affected animals, primarily due to blister formation near the hoof wall’s peak. These blisters also appear around the mouth and other body parts. The infection predominantly occurs around the mouth rather than the legs or feet.

Lesions can be managed using an ointment infused with broad-spectrum antibiotics, and proactive vaccination can serve as a preventative measure against Soremouth.

This rendition keeps the core information intact while presenting it in a fresh, engaging manner, suitable for a diverse audience looking for clear and concise details.

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Navigating Hoof Care Challenges

When managing hoof care, encountering complications is not uncommon. Don’t hesitate to seek guidance from a professional veterinarian for reliable advice.

  • Addressing Accidental Bleeding

Accidentally nicking a blood vessel while trimming (“quicking” a claw) can happen. Your response should be tailored to the wound’s severity. Products like styptic pencils or powders, including Quick Stop, are effective for minor cuts.

Alternatively, household items like cornstarch or flour can promote clotting. Applying these powders may be more effective with additional pressure on the wound. Wrapping the claw might be necessary in cases of heavy bleeding or if initial treatments fail.

Keep the wrap dry and clean to prevent complications. If bleeding persists, the animal shows significant discomfort, or the animal’s lameness continues post-injury, consult your vet promptly.

Immediate veterinary attention is crucial if the animal hasn’t received a recent tetanus vaccination (included in the CDT vaccine).

  • Managing Overgrown or Deformed Hooves

Neglected hooves, often seen in newly rescued animals, may require phased trimming. Initially, trim each claw to a more manageable length and shape. A follow-up session a week later allows for precision touch-ups.

Frequent trimming is advisable for those prone to rapid hoof growth. Professional veterinary guidance is essential in cases of severely misshapen or overgrown hooves.

  • Addressing Compacted Dirt and Debris

Sheep can suffer from hoof issues like white line disease, which leads to debris accumulation within gaps between the hoof wall and sole. Regularly remove this buildup with a hoof pick or trimmer tip.

The extent of removal should be carefully assessed to avoid exposing sensitive tissues while preventing further complications. In severe cases, regularly clean the area after debris removal. Consult a veterinarian or skilled hoof trimmer for the best course of action.

  • Correcting Uneven Hoof Trimming

An uneven trim impacting mobility requires professional evaluation. Your veterinarian can assist in rectifying the imbalance and offer advice on proper trimming techniques to prevent future mishaps.

  • The Importance of Hoof Health

Hoof maintenance is integral to a sheep’s health and comfort. Overlooking regular trimming can lead to significant foot issues.

Ensure consistent hoof evaluations and trimming, and learn the correct techniques to avoid preventable problems. Moreover, a nutritious diet is vital for maintaining overall health and well-being.

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