A Brief Guide to Humane Animal Handling

The success of humane slaughter is dependent on good animal handling so animals are slaughtered in an unstressed state. Sheep and goats have specific behavior characteristics, which must be taken into consideration when they are being moved.

  • With a wide field of vision and can see moving objects even at long distances, so whenever possible their far vision should be restricted.
  • Sheep and goats are gregarious animals and should be in the company of compatible animals.
  • Goats especially are extremely agile, and frequently climb and jump out of enclosures. Pens and enclosures should be high enough to discourage jumping and built to discourage climbing.

Appropriate handling systems improve safety for workers and livestock. It allows for appropriate sorting and grouping for feeding, medical treatments, loading and transporting. The lower stress also improves quality of life for livestock and ultimately improves the meat texture and flavor. Handling systems must be designed and operated so they:

  • Do not impede movement of goats and sheep.
  • Reduce the amount and intensity of noise.

Lambs passing through chute

Lambs passing through small chute setup

Use solid sides in chutes and crowd pens leading up to chutes. Solid sides in these areas help prevent animals from becoming agitated when they see activity outside the fence—such as people, eratic movements or other animals. The gate on the crowd pen should also be solid to prevent animals from attempting to turn back towards the holding pens.

Use lighting to your advantage. Lighting should be diffuse. It’s important to prevent bright glaring lights or lights that cast shadows that can cause balking. Remember:

  • Animals tend to move from a darker area to a more brightly lit area and may refuse to enter a dark place.
  • Lamps can be used to attract animals into chutes.
  • The light should illuminate the chute up ahead. It should never glare directly into the eyes of approaching animals.
  • If these options are not possible, it is best to illuminate the entire chute area.

Eliminate visual distractions. Get down in the chutes to see them from the animals’ perspective.

  • Livestock balk at shadows, puddles of water or any object that stands in their way.
  • A drain or a metal plate running across an alley can cause animals to stop. Drains should be located outside the areas where the animals walk.
  • Flapping objects, such as a coat hung over a fence or a hanging chain, will also make livestock balk.
  • Install shields or strips of discarded conveyor belting to prevent animals from seeing movement up ahead as they approach the restrainer.

Non-slip flooring is essential. Humane, efficient handling is very difficult on slick floors because animals can become agitated and excited when they lose their footing. All areas where livestock walk should have a non-slip surface.

  • Existing concrete floors can be roughened with a concrete grooving machine.
  • For sheep and goats, stamp the pattern of raised expanded metal into wet concrete.
  • A rough broom finish will become worn smooth over time and may need to be roughened again. It is also essential to use the right concrete mix for maximum resistance to wear.

Medium size handling chute

Medium size handling chute

Gates, fences and chutes should have smooth surfaces to prevent bruises. Sharp edges and protruding objects with a small diameter—such as angle irons, exposed pipe ends and channels—will cause bruises.

  • Round pipe posts with a diameter larger than 3 inches (8 cm) are less likely to bruise.
  • Vertical slide gates in chutes should be counter-weighted to prevent accidentally hitting the animal’s back, which can cause bruises.
  • The bottom of these gates should be padded with cut tires or conveyor belting.
  • The gate track should be recessed into the chute wall to eliminate a sharp edge that will bruise.

Importance of curves: Handling systems are important in gathering, feeding, and holding areas. Well-designed working and sorting chutes are key to reducing stress on livestock. There are basic details animal behaviorists have identified such as using curves. A curved handling system works on the principle that livestock always prefer to return to where they came from. Sheep and cattle in a wide curved lane will move more willingly towards a crowd pen. From the crowd pen they then move single file into a narrow into a chute towards the treatment or sorting chute. More information can be found on Temple Grandin’s Livestock Handling Systems website.

Curved Handling Sytem

In this cattle chute livestock move from the upper right through the center crowd half-circle, into single file chute for treatment and sorting.

Harsh Contrasts: Livestock do not easily walk into dark spaces. This is because grazing animals exhibit dichromatism meaning they are sensitive to harsh contrasts between light and dark colors. Dichromatism sight enhances night vision and helps the grazing animal detect motion, but can cause stalls in handling systems. They may refuse to walk over a shadow or step onto a concrete or steel floor from a dirt floor. The high contrast of the color change to the floor or a sharp shadow may alarm them especially if in an unfamiliar location. Loading into a trailer might be difficult until the lead animal figures out that the floor is safe.

Livestock may see dark shadows as “holes”.  Likewise bright sunlight patterns may be visually confusing and startle or appear as barriers. Check for perceived obstructions. Livestock should have a clear, unobstructed view towards where they are meant to move. Livestock move better if they follow their known route. Entrances to sheds, loading ramps and working chutes should be placed near the route cattle and sheep normally take. They should move fluidly. If they more erratically or hesitantly they are stressed or confused and may panic. Impose as few changes as possible to their normal routine.

Redirect air flow and noise. Air hissing and ventilation drafts blowing in the faces of approaching animals can seriously impede movement. Ventilation systems may need to be adjusted. Animals are very sensitive to noise. High-pitched motors, clanging and banging metal, and hissing air should be muffled. Playing a radio in the finishing barn may get the animals accustomed to different kinds of sounds.

Lamb in calm restraint

Lamb in calm restraint

Provide the correct restraint. Generally, the most calming entrance to the processing room and to the slaughter restraint is a chute with solid sides that prevent stressful distractions and keep both workers and animals secure and safe. The chute floor should be a non-slip surface that is clear of supports or protruding edges that could cause stumbling or injury.

The entrance to the restraint should be similar to the chute, and the animal should enter willingly, without prodding. Any motion of the restraint should be quiet and keep the animals secure. In most cases restraining the animal in an upright, comfortable position before slaughter is preferred.

The device needs to apply sufficient pressure to provide the sensation of being securely held, but not excessive pressure that would cause pain or discomfort. Head-holding devices if used should avoid excessive bending of the animal’s neck.


Vigilance: Grazing animals’ sensory systems are constantly vigilant. Prey species animals are always on the lookout for predators. With eyes located on each side of an animal’s head they can easily scan the horizon for danger while grazing. Grazing animal vision is designed to detect motion. This allows them to be constantly aware of any sudden movement that may signal the approach of danger. Many of the things that grazing animals perceive as frightening have the visual quality of either rapid movement or high contrasts of light and dark. Rapid movement is perceived as dangerous because it mimics predatory behavior. They cannot quickly focus on a fast-moving object that is nearby. Slow, steady movement in close quarters with the animals is less threatening to them. When moving livestock through chutes solid sides are used to prevent animals from seeing movement and people deep in their fight zone.

Child moving sheep

Child moving sheep

All workers and handlers should be quiet and calm. If dogs are used for moving sheep or goats (note border collie in the above picture working at the edge of groups flight zone) they should be trained to stay at the edge of the flight zone and to reduce pressure when the animals are moving correctly. Working sheep or goats in confined quarters or allowing nipping or unnecessary barking should be avoided. Yelling and arm-waving excite and agitate animals. Use of electric prods in most cases is strictly prohibited. Every possible effort should be made to ensure that the sheep or goats are kept moving on their own without poking, prodding or shouting. If a group of animals balk at a smell or a shadow up ahead, be patient and wait for the leader to cross the shadow. There is usually no reason to touch or prod them as they will generally figure it out and move forward when human pressure is reduced.

Willful acts of abuse are NEVER permitted. Willful act of abuse include dragging a conscious animal, applying prods to sensitive parts of the animal, slamming gates on livestock, purpose fully driving livestock on top of one another, or hitting or beating an animal. In sheep and goat operations, lifting an animal by the wool or skin, or throwing is also is an act of abuse.

Livestock will follow the leader and handlers need to take advantage of this natural behavior to move animals easily.

  • Animals will move more easily into the single-file chute if the chute is allowed to become partially empty (though livestock must be able to see the animal ahead) before attempting to fill it. As animals enter the crowd pen, they will head right up the chute.
  • The crowd gate may be used to follow the animals but should never be used to forcibly push them.
  • The handler should concentrate on moving the leaders into the chute instead of pushing animals at the rear of the group.
  • One-way or sliding gates at the entrance to the single file chute must be open when livestock are brought into the crowd pen. Livestock will balk at a closed gate.

Calm animals are easier to handle and move than excited animals. As animals are being collected and moved keeping them within their known flock or herd helps lessen stress as this is their normal way to protect themselves from predators. When dividing groups an individual will stand more quietly and remain calmer if they can see another animal within 1 meter of them. Especially an isolated individual may lunge and become excited if they see herd mates moving away. Animals can become agitated very quickly, and it can require 20 to 30 minutes for them to become calm again. Livestock must not be rushed or run along alleyways, passageways or gateways. Calm animals will move naturally through well-designed systems with a minimum of driving and prodding.

Fear Signals: Bunching tightly is a fear behavior and makes it more difficult for a predator to single out a single animal. This is the same with milling and circling behavior. Dominant animals move to the middle and safest area of the tight circle and the weakest ones pace and mill at the outer edges of the circle. Milling animals are frightened and highly stressed and unpredictable.

Movement through a gate

Movement through a gate

To keep animals calm and move them easily, the handler should work on the edge of the flight zone. A flight zone is an animal’s personal safety zone. The size of the flight zone varies by animal breed, temperament, previous handling experience and angle of the handlers approach. When the handler increases pressure by penetrating the flight zone (within the circle to position A) the animal will move forward. When the handler reduces pressure by stepping back (to position B) the animal will slow down or stop moving. The handler can change the animal’s direction by moving around the circle towards the head of the animal. Deep penetration of the flight zone (into the shaded area) should be avoided. Animals may become upset and act unpredictably when a person is inside their personal space and they are unable to move away. They may challenge you or panic. Also notice and respect the animals blind spot represented by the V shape in the diagram directly behind the animals head.

Child moving goats

Child moving goats

Encourage movement with non-electric driving aids such as flags, paddles and sticks with streamers. Animals can easily be turned with these aids. To turn an animal, block the vision on one side of its head with the aid. If the leader balks at the chute entrance, a single touch with the non-electric prod device may be all that is required. Once the leader enters, the rest of the animals will follow.

The point of balance is at the animal’s shoulder. Unless panicked all species of livestock will move forward if the handler stands behind the point of balance. They will back up if the handler stands in front of the point of balance. Many handlers make the mistake of standing in front of the point of balance while attempting to make an animal move forward in a chute. If the animals are moving through the chute by themselves, leave them alone. It is not necessary and not recommended to prod every animal and often they can be moved by lightly tapping.

Wide angle view

Wide angle view

Wide Angle Vision: Wide Angle Vision allows sheep and cattle to detect movement behind them without moving their heads. This causes poor depth perception. They have a blind area in front of their nose and directly behind them. Staying within their vision generally is calming as they want to see where people are when they are being moved. Grazing animals are sensitive to body posture. They know the difference between someone on a horse and someone on the ground. Depending upon their experience one may be threatening and the other not. They are sensitive to body posture and know the difference between a stalking predator and one that is just walking by. Try not to move like a stalker. The more casual and relaxed the better. Remember your eyes send a message. All grazing animals interpret a hard stare as a threat. They are more willing to approach if you look down or to the side.