Smoke Gets in Your Eyes
Maxine Kinne

Many years ago, I held our first kid as the vet disbudded him. I'd read a book and thought I knew what to expect. The printed word didn't quite prepare me for the reality, and I didn't think I would ever be able to do that. Now, it's second nature, and I even hum the early 60's Platter's hit, "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes". Don't get me wrong - no one really likes disbudding. But if you don't want horned goats, it has to be done.

There are many positive aspects to learning how to do this odious chore. Kids can be disbudded at your convenience, not someone else's. It saves time scheduling appointments and back-and-forth travel time. The kids won't have the stress of travel added to their trauma. Doing it yourself saves money after you recoup the cost of the equipment. But most of all, mastering a new skill builds confidence.

Have your veterinarian or an experienced goat breeder disbud your goats until you think you want to try it. Then, buy your equipment and ask the person to teach you how.

Horn buds can often be felt when kids are born, especially buck kids. The buds are movable at first, but they attach and grow very quickly, especially in bucks. The best time to disbud Pygmies is between 7 to 14 days old, with bucks done on the younger side and does a little later. In mixed litters, I aim for a happy medium of 10 days. By the time you see horns sprouting above the hair line, disbudding is more stressful and dangerous because longer application of heat is required which may cause brain swelling, a very serious emergency. Also, larger kids are harder to control. Disbudding at an earlier age is much easier on the kid, and it is easier for you to do.

Kids should be current on tetanus vaccine before disbudding. In the book, Goat Medicine, authors Smith & Sherman say that kids who received ample colostrum from mothers vaccinated in late gestation have enough passive immunity to last the kid one month. If the kid's immune status is questionable or unknown, or it is over four weeks old, it should have tetanus antitoxin vaccine when it is disbudded. Drs. Smith & Sherman recommend a kid-sized dose of 250-300 IU of tetanus antitoxin.


An electric disbudding iron is the best tool for the job. For best results, it must be red hot - it will glow in a darkened room. Heating the iron to this extent usually takes between 10 to 15 minutes. Test the iron on a scrap of wood to see if it's hot enough to use. It should immediately burn a black ring in the wood. A long electric extension cords does not let the iron heat properly. If you need to use an extension cord, buy a short, heavy duty cord.

Buy the best disbudding iron you can afford. A high-wattage iron is little more expensive, but it will last much longer than a cheaper one, and it does a more rapid disbudding job. My personal favorite is the 265-watt Rhinehart X50 with the added 3/4" tip. The metal clip that held the small tip on the end of the iron failed some years ago, and we secured it with a nut. It's very dangerous when your iron falls apart during use, as mine did.

A cheap wire brush can be used to clean the tip of the iron periodically when it's in use. The wire brush gradually wears down the copper tip until it is too thin to do a good job. Over time, the copper tip will erode even without being brushed. Keep an eye on the wall thickness of the copper tip. If you notice problems with your iron or the quality of disbudding, check the tip for thickness and make sure the edges aren't too sharp. Sharp edges can cut into the skull and do not conduct enough heat to the horn bud, and you tend to get hemorrhages that are difficult to stop with more cauterization.

Restraint and Sedation

There are several methods of restraint. Many people use a special disbudding box. These can be purchased through various mail order supply houses or be homemade. My custom box is 10" square by 16" long. I keep a 4" x 6" loose block of wood inside to rest the kid's belly on. The belly block is the width of the box. There is a  3"-long x 2 1/4"-wide hole on one end for the kid's head and neck. I sit on the hinged lid during disbudding. A box this size also accommodates dairy goats with their legs folded up, minus the belly block. This square box has great stability, unlike the tall, narrow boxes that are usually available.

If you do not have a box, you can kneel with the kid between your legs. Fold the kid's legs into the normal laying down position. Kneel over the kid with its head between your thighs and sit lightly on it to stabilize it. This method is great for reburning scurs from older kids that are too large to fit into the box again. Scurs are deformed horn growths that often occur on bucks. It is difficult to get a really clean disbudding job on bucks because they have such a large horn base. If your goats frequently grow scurs, check the heat of your iron and your disbudding technique.

A third restraint technique requires the help of another person. I have never tried this because it's easier and less risky to do it alone. The kid's head and body both need to be restrained, and it is best to lay the kid flat on its side. With its legs out to the side, it cannot get up and will mostly quit trying.

In some countries, it is illegal for anyone but a veterinarian to disbud, and anaesthesia is mandatory. Not in the United States. Many U.S. veterinarians sedate the goat and/or numb the skin around the horn area before disbudding. These procedures exceed the capability of most goat farmers, and the drugs are unavailable. I do not personally feel that sedation or pain blocking is necessary for the kid's welfare. Yes, kids cry during restraint, when their hair is clipped, and during disbudding. But all signs of discomfort disappear when they are released. They usually run to mother and butt her udder to nurse.


The tip of the iron should be slightly larger than the apparent horn bud, especially in buck kids. Their scur-growing ability is amazing. I think it is pointless to burn off a buck's scent glands, as he only grows up to urinate all over himself. ;-)

Shave off the hair around each horn bud. The small electric shaver for beards/moustaches works great. This improves visibility, may decrease burning time and certainly reduces the amount of smoke. It also allows heat to dissipate from the head faster. A cordless electric moustache trimmer works great for this and gives good control over the size of the shaved area.

Hold the head from underneath the chin for the greatest stability and control. Fold down the ears and hold them to avoid burning and scarring. Center the iron over the horn bud.

There is great debate about how many seconds to burn. I don't count elapsed time - I do it until it's done to my satisfaction. Several factors besides the length of the electrical cord can interfere with the amount of heat in the iron. Also, irons lose heat faster on cold or windy days, so work in a protected area without drafts to let the iron stay hotter.

It is important to rock the iron in all directions to distribute heat evenly around the horn bud. This can reduce the number of times you have to apply the iron. It is very difficult to describe the pressure needed. We aren't trying to drill through rock here. It's a matter of pressing down firmly enough to maintain control so the iron doesn't slide off, and adding a little to that amount of pressure.

Always alternate sides, never doing the same one twice in a row. This gives time for the iron to reheat and to avoid heat build-up on one area. After this burn, the most or all of the skin is burnt through and separated, and the very top layer of skin over the horn buds can be pulled off. (Dogs love this crispy treat.)

My cheeks are puffed out to blow
the smoke away for better visibility.

It is easy to want to rush through the whole process, just to get it over with. Waiting between each burn does make the whole procedure last longer, but it allows the iron to reheat and the head to cool. Don't get in a rush. The whole point is to do a good job on every goat. so neither of you has to go through this again.

My first burn defines the area around each bud and lasts a few seconds. I wait about 30 seconds between each burn, and sometimes a little more. During the third burn, I can usually feel the iron contact the bone - it feels hard. This may not occur during the first burn or the fourth. But when it happens, I scoop the tip of the iron forward off of the horn bud to remove the horn bud and expose the skull. Then I cauterize the whole perimeter once more to get the characteristic copper-colored ring all the way around. Last of all, I use the iron's tip edge to cauterize any small bleeders and portions that look less well done. If the center of the horn bud has extra tissue over it, I like to burn an X into it.

The last thing is spray each horn bud with an antiseptic. I prefer furacin aerosol spray and have a lifetime supply, but it was taken off the market a few years ago. Lacking my favorite product, I would use McKillip's Dusting Powder.

The dairy goat breeder who disbudded for me before teaching me how to do it said that he had noticed that some Pygmies seemed to bleed from the left horn bud when it was flicked off. I have also noticed that if a goat is going to bleed, it is usually on the left side. For whatever reason, an occasional kid will bleed profusely when the cap is removed. This is usually easily cauterized with additional application of the iron. If not, I've found that a few minutes of firm pressure with a wadded up paper towel works very well, and I keep several right with my disbudding equipment. Of the several hundred kids I've disbudded, only 3 or 4 have hemorrhaged, and they all stopped with pressure on the noggin for a couple of minutes.

An unusual thing happened when I disbudded a certain buck kid in 1992. After I had shaved him and was about to position the iron for the first burn, I noticed that his horn buds were fairly close to his eyes. His sire was one I had bought and just begun using, so I paid particular attention to see if more of his kids had this anomaly. None did. It's just another one of those things to be aware of. However, this particular kid's eyelids swelled. That usually happens when too large an iron is used. The swelling looks horrible, but it usually goes away on its own in 2-3 days. An injection of 0.25 cc dexamethasone (ask your veterinarian) will alleviate the swelling if it's very bad.

Too much heat applied to the head can cause the brain to swell. This can be due to burning for too long at any one time or using too large an iron, like the ones used on calves. I have dealt with brain trauma twice. The first time, someone else did the disbudding. During his first burn, he remarked that the doeling was very fine-skinned, as the first burn very quickly penetrated all the way to her skull. I didn't think much of his comment until 36 hours later when she very suddenly went into convulsions. A few years ago, I encountered the same thing, again in a doeling who seemed very much finer-skinned than most. Thirty-six hours after she was disbudded, she began to scream and run around frantically. It is imperative to give dexamethasone immediately to stop the swelling. I keep this drug on hand at all times. It is also very effective in treating swelled eyelids, as mentioned above.

Related Reading
Homemade disbudding box

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