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Should I get My Goats With or Without Horns?

Updated: Feb 10

If you’ve spent any time in goat chats or groups, you know that this is a hot topic that many feel strongly about - and aren’t afraid to let you know! However, not everyone has the same circumstances or herd goals so we hope that the information presented in this article will help you decide the most humane horn policy for your herd.

A male Nigerian Dwarf goat with a full set of horns.
Whiskey in all his horned glory!

It comes down to this: horns are a personal preference based on many factors in your own personal situation and the purpose of your goats.


After nearly 15 years of keeping goats, we have had horned, polled, and disbudded goats in our herd. Currently, our preference is to have our does without and our bucks with full horns or polled. In this guide, we unpack our real-life insights and experiences with all things horns to help you make an educated choice for your goat herd’s horn status. 


Horn Terminology and Definitions

Before we get started, let’s go over the commonly used terminology when discussing horns and horn removal methods. Understanding what each term means and what each procedure entails, will help you to make the most informed decision possible. Many of these are discussed in greater detail throughout the article.


  • Horned: the natural state of a horned goat with permanent, bony, and typically curved protrusions, known as horns, on its head.

  • Disbudded:  removing horns prior to any significant growth. 

  • De-horned: The removal of existing horns from mature goats, usually surgically.

  • Polled: A dominant genetic trait where goats express a naturally hornless head, completely lacking the formation of horns.

  • Scurs: Small, undeveloped, or rudimentary horn-like structures that develop from any surviving horn bud cells after disbudding. 

  • Polled-scured: Goats that are genetically polled may exhibit small scurs, which are non-functional horn-like growths.

  • Horn buds: Small groups of horn cells on the head of a young goat, representing the early stage of horn development.

  • Disbudding: The removal of horn buds in young goats to prevent the growth of horns using a hot iron to cauterize the horn-producing cells.

  • Horn Banding: Applying castration bands to the base of an already grown horn to cut off the circulation of the horn causing it to eventually fall off. (While this method is quite effective, it is extremely painful and takes months of pain for the horn to fall off. We strongly discourage attempting this method.)

  • Caustic Disbudding Paste: The application of a chemical paste to chemically burn horn buds and prevent horn growth in young goats. 

  • Clove Oil disbudding: The application of undiluted or neat clove oil on the horn buds to prevent the growth of horns. This method has been proven to be ineffective, extremely painful, and even deadly. Do not attempt this method.


Horn Facts

Unlike some breeds of sheep, both male and female goats have horns. Male goats, aka bucks, will have larger horns than females, aka does. 


A goat’s horns will continue to grow throughout their life with each passing winter leaving a ring deposit. 

Horns are designed to regulate temperature. Goat horns have a network of blood vessels that can help them cool off in the hot summer months. As their blood flows up and down the horn, it loses heat and drops the body temperature of the goat. 


Pros and Cons of Horned Goats


Pros:

  • Beautiful

  • Natural state

  • No pain or risk of injury to the goat kid during disbudding

  • Horns can help cool body temperature

  • Great butt scratchers!

Cons:

  • Risk of injury to humans and other goats

  • Risk of getting stuck in a fence

  • Disqualified from some performance programs.

  • Can lead to aggressive behavior

  • Difficult to sell


What about self-defense against predators?

A goat with horns has some protection against predators, especially a full-sized male goat. However, a determined apex predator like a mountain lion or bear will not be deterred for long by a goat with horns. It would be possible to run off small stray dogs and a lone coyote but not a pack. 


Keeping horns on your goats is not a reliable substitution for predator-proof housing or a livestock guardian dog.


Industry Standards

Dairy goats are traditionally disbudded because a horn injury to an udder would be horrendous and, if not fatal, would result in the injured goat no longer being capable of safely produce milk. This is why the industry standard is to disbud all dairy goats. Because Nigerian Dwarf goats are technically a dairy breed, their breed standard is to remove their horns and a requirement for show competitions.


Some linear appraisal judges will not appraise goats with horns for their safety. 


Safety First!

If you are new to goats, and especially if your goats will be handled by young children, then it is probably best to have your goats without horns. Goats with horns can be more aggressive than those without simply because they know they have an advantage with their horns and can boss the hornless goats (and humans!) around. In a herd with all horns, this should not be an issue among the herd but can pose a risk to anyone who handles the goats. Young children tend to be right at horn height and are at the most risk of injury.


We get up close and personal with our girls when they are having babies, aka kidding, and have come close to some serious injuries from the horned mamas.


Aggressive does can also cause stillbirths by hitting or ramming pregnant bellies. Ramming is a normal goat behavior even among those without horns. However, in our experience, the horned goats tend to be more aggressive, so we no longer keep them with our doe herd.


We have had many families over the years opt for horned goats and everyone gets along great with no issues. One family reported that they keep sunglasses at their patio table so when the goats want to be in their lap for snuggles, they can access eye protection. Goats love to snuggle and can lift their heads back for kisses and inadvertently hit you in the face or eyes. The eye protection helps in this situation. 


Market Demand

We disbud all kids unless the buyer specifically requests horned kids because in our demographic, horned goats are more difficult to sell. In more rural, farm-minded areas, horned goats are the norm. Many of our customers are looking for pets, just starting out, or looking to compete in performance programs. Disbudded or polled goats are more desirable for these situations. 


You will want to explore your area’s market demand for goats to determine if you will need to offer disbudding on the kids from your herd. 


Herd Dynamics

Many people will say you can not keep horned goats with disbudded or polled goats. This is the advice we give people just starting out since in some ways, this can be true, but is not a hard and fast rule. 


The reason for this segregated philosophy is that we have noticed horned goats can get more aggressive within the herd than non-horned goats. Our top bullies are typically the horned goats. As long as the area the herd is in has room to escape bullying, they can get along. However, in smaller spaces, we found that the lower goats were routinely rammed and prevented from eating. 


A male Nigerian Dwarf goat with a full set of horns.
IlenesRascals DQ Glenfiddich "Whiskey" is most certainly the boss of the buck herd.

We keep our goats on about an acre of pasture. Every month during the hay delivery, we put them in smaller pens, about 48 x 48 pens for 1-2 hours. We began to notice that the horned goats in particular were very abusive towards the other goats. We also noticed the year of the most intense bullying, we had our highest ever rate of stillborn babies. We removed the aggressive goats from the herd and in the 3 years since, we have gone back to a typical number of stillborns (less than 2 per 50 kids). 


Our buck herd has twelve bucks on about an eighth of an acre pen and pasture. Two of the twelve are horned. The top dog is our older or the two horned bucks, Whiskey. The rest of the boys respect him and give him the space he demands space. But he is not mean and has never caused injury to any of them so we feel that the mixed dynamic in our buck herd is working well.


The Buck Exception

While all of our female goats are now without horns, in our buck herd, we deliberately have horned bucks. We prefer our bucks with horns or polled as disbudded bucks almost always continue to grow scurs, which can be painful and a lot of upkeep. Horns grow straight while scurs can grow twisted and back into the buck’s head.


A male goat with horn scurs and the scurs after they have been removed.

Because of the larger horn base on boys, it is very difficult to cauterize the entire base during disbudding. Since horn growth is from horn bud cells, even missing a small area will result in a buck growing scurs as their hormones remain intact and stimulate horn growth. (Wethers are much less likely to grow scurs as their testosterone is significantly lower than bucks.) 


Scurs can be very small or quite large depending on how much of the horn base is allowed to continue to grow. Some people opt to continue cauterizing any scur growth as the buck matures, but this is very traumatic and painful, and also not a guarantee against future scur growth.


Our personal experience with the crazy buck horn growth was one year, we kept a buck who we disbudded ourselves around one week old. As his scurs began to grow, we took him to our trusted vet to disbud again but under gas anesthesia. Our vet offers a guarantee against scurs, so when they began growing again, we took him in and our vet performed the procedure for the third time. Within a few months, he had scurs growing again! At this point, we accepted it and stopped putting him through the procedure. It was clear after this experience that even the best disbudding method can leave bucks with life-long scur issues that leave them susceptible to future injuries and painful procedures.


The Disbudding Process

The most common and accepted method of horn removal is disbudding. The process should be discussed here as it is important to know exactly how the horns are removed when deciding this for your new goat kids. The typical disbudding process is done with a very hot iron that cauterizes the horn cells before they have had a chance to get very big.


The disbudding iron is heated to about 800 degrees and each horn base is burned 3-4 times for about 3 seconds. In males, a second application of the iron is done in a "figure eight" pattern as their horn base shape is "teardrop" not circular. After the initial burn, the nerves are dead and it is no longer painful. The iron is very hot and serious brain damage can be caused by overheating the kid's head. This is why we do a series of 3-second applications of the iron.


A baby goat just disbudded with a figure eight pattern of burns to remove the horn buds before they can grow
A buck kid with a "figure eight" burn pattern

Breeders who disbud their own kids or hire other non-veterinary help do not use anesthesia. Some administer pain meds. Having performed hundreds of disbuddings, we acknowledge that the procedure is painful; however, it is not a lasting pain. The kids are up bouncing and playing within minutes of going back to mom and having a snuggle and bit of milk.


Most vets use an injectable anesthesia that can be quite dangerous to goats. We are fortunate and our vet uses gas to anesthetize our goats as it is much more effective and safe. A friend reported that her kids who were disbudded under traditional anesthesia at her vet had a much longer and more difficult recovery than those of her kids who did not.


We use a small dose of CBD to help calm the kids before the procedure. We also administer a pain, injury and trauma blend of homeopathic remedies. It is made of Arnica, Aconite, and Bellis Per in 30C and 200C potencies. Since including this remedy in the disbudding process, we have seen very few complications or swelling.


A baby goat that has just been disbudded with correct circular burn patterns on her horn buds to remove the horns before they can grow
A doe kid with a circle burn pattern.

We had 2-3 years of not disbudding our own goats as the disbudding process is so intense. However, we ended up going back to it because our horned goats were too aggressive with us and the herd. We had one doe who was so mean, she would headbutt the other does and we believe she caused several does to deliver stillborns.


We feel that this short experience of pain will provide the goats with a better life long term as they are less likely to end up at the auction because of behavior problems or injuries within the herd or to humans.


The process is not without risks. Brain injury, death, and infection are all risks from disbudding. Even though this is one of our most hated procedures, we prefer to do it ourselves as we know how to avoid these risks with careful attention to detail and the use of homeopathics. Our method of using two sizes of iron tips is also a crucial step included to provide a safer disbudding than what most offer.


*We are working on an in-depth article and video on disbudding. Contact us if you'd like to see some rough videos we have.


What are scurs and how are they formed?

Scurs are small, incomplete horn growth that can be with or without a blood supply. In our experience, a goat with scurs will have them come off at some point in their life from normal play with other goats. When this happens, it can be no big deal if there is not a blood supply or it can be quite traumatic if there is vascular activity. The bloodless scurs are more common in does than bucks.


An adult male goat with broken horn scurs

The broken scur bud will bleed a lot and can be very alarming to see. It is very sensitive as all of those nerves are exposed. When this happens, we keep a close eye on the goat and treat the scurs with either aluspray or blue coat to create a liquid bandage. 


Depending on the time of year, we also will keep the goat covered in fly spray to prevent fly strike and/or the constant irritation of flies buzzing his head.


A lot of goats get scurs and it's not usually a big deal if they are small, especially in does and wethers. Disbudding before 10 days old, using two sizes of iron tips, using a "circle eight" method on boys, and ensuring the iron has time to heat up in between each side are all ways to minimize scur growth.


What does Polled mean?

The term poll refers to the top of the goat’s head. If a goat has a white spot on their head, their registration description would read, “white poll”. The term “polled” refers to goats with the polled gene and who will naturally never develop horns. Some will develop small scurs, but this is rare. Polled goats can be a great option for people who do not want horns and also do not want their babies to go through the disbudding process.


We offer polled kids but we can’t determine how many we will have of each gender in a given breeding. It is a dominant gene so the textbook percentage should be 50-50 but obviously, nature doesn't always follow the statistics!


Polled is a dominant gene so it will express (be seen) if a goat carries it. There are no hidden carriers of the polled gene. If a polled kid results from a breeding of two horned goats, then either the parentage is not correct or one of the parents is actually polled but was mistakenly disbudded. 


Polled kids are typically born with zero horn buds and a different pattern of hair growth on the top of their heads. Horned goats will have a swirl of hair and polled will not. As they grow, polled goats may grow little horn buds but they will be more rounded than true horns. They will also not break through the skin. I like to say that horns are like Hershey kisses and polled buds are like gum drops. 


Even with these signs to look for, sometimes a goat will present with no buds and no swirls and still develop horns. It can take up to 2 weeks, especially for does, to confirm that they are polled.


Removing Large Scurs or Existing Horns

Removing the horns of a mature goat is possible but comes at a great cost to the animal. The methods available are painful and require a long recovery. 


If a goat develops large scurs after a botched disbudding, the owner may want to try to remove these after they are too big to use a disbudding iron. Other times, people acquire grown goats who were never disbudded and want to remove the full grown horns. Our recommendation is to find a home for these goats where they can live as they are or accept them. Trying to remove horns after they have grown is dangerous and extremely painful for the goat. 


Banding horns is usually done with super small and tight rubber bands used for castration. The band is put over the horns as low as they can go. Because the horn is alive with nerves and blood flow, the band will cut off the blood flow causing the horn to die. This process is extremely painful for the goat and can take months of this excruciating pain to achieve any results.  


A nearby farm used this method to remove a thick scur and the goat hid in the corn of the pen and would not let anyone come near her for the entire time she was banded. Her personality went from sweet and trusting to skittish and afraid. This never went away even after the band was removed. She was forever afraid, especially of anyone going near her head. 


Surgical removal is done by a veterinarian under anesthesia however, it is a very long and painful recovery. I do not know anyone personally who has done this procedure but I have read several sad stories on different goat groups about completely open sinus cavities, open skull wounds and months of recovery. 

I would not put any animal through either of these procedures in good conscience. 



a goat with bicycle handle bar covers on her horns

Horn coverings seem like an humane option and we have seen some very comical ideas like tennis balls. However, it is not a viable long-term solution.


This photo (left) is of Bam Bam with bike handles over her horns to protect the young buck she was with as she continually used her horns to try to flip him.


While these covers did help to protect the buck from her sharp horns, she developed a fungus on her horns because they were covered for over a month. We are in a very dry climate so I can not imagine how much worse it would be in an area with any humidity. So covering their horns long-term is not an option.


Our recommendation is to re-home a horned goat if you cannot accommodate them as is. 


Alternative Disbudding Practices

Clove oil disbudding was an idea someone came up with to try to burn off the horn buds without using the hot iron. There was a whole Facebook group dedicated to the topic. After a few years of goats suffering and dying, it was determined that it was not a viable method of removing horns and no one should continue to use it. 


Caustic paste disbudding is where a paste is applied to the horn base and it burns the horn cells chemically. According to studies, pain behavior is observed for up to 4 hours after the procedure. Other risks include chemical burns on other goats who come in contact with the paste as well as deep chemical burns. We do not recommend this method. 


A young male goat with horns
Red Rooster CTL Kevin Bacon

In Conclusion

Responsible goat ownership looks different for each situation and it’s sad to see such a divide on the horn issue. Having all of the facts hopefully will provide the opportunity for you to make a humane decision for your goat herd’s horn status. 










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