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What Is a Cloven Hoof?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 21, 2024
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A cloven hoof is a hoof which is split into two distinct segments. Deer, cattle, and goats all have cloven hooves, among other mammals, and animals with cloven hooves are generally found in the order Artiodactyla. In biology, cloven hooves can help to distinguish an animal, and they are also considered important for religious reasons because some religions involve cloven hooves in their dietary restrictions.

The shape of a cloven hoof involves two toes which are clearly split and surrounded by hard hoof material. The toes may also be capable of some limited independent movement, and they are subject to the same diseases of the hoof that single-hooved animals have. In addition, an animal with cloven hooves may also have horns; the only animals with true horns also have cloven hooves. Many animals in this order are also ruminants, meaning that they have specially adapted digestive systems to make it easier to extract nutrition from plant material.

In some religious faiths, people can only eat meat from animals with cloven hooves; some religious may also specify that these animals must also be ruminants. This is why observers of the Jewish faith eat beef, but not pork, because while both animals have cloven hooves, pigs are not ruminants. Many Christians are familiar with the section of the Bible which covers clean and unclean animals, in which the cloven hoof is an important distinguishing feature. The cloven hoof has also been associated in some cultures with the devil; Satan is often depicted with cloven hooves in Christian religious art and writing, for example.

The tracks left by a cloven hoof are quite distinctive. In regions with wild populations of ungulates like deer, the small double pockmarks of cloven hooves in the soil are quite common, and they are used for trailing these animals in their natural environment. The tallest member of Artiodactyla is the giraffe, which sports a special set of cloven hooves designed to support the giraffe's unique skeletal structure.

Care for livestock and animals with cloven hooves is important. The hooves must be regularly trimmed to prevent excessive growth, and they should ideally be cleaned, especially in the cleft, to make sure that the hoof stays healthy and dry. Hooved animals in general also need to be kept on dry, clean bedding, as their hooves can become severely infected if they are exposed to moisture, mold, and bacteria. Many of these animals are trained to lift their feet for examination and handling so that their owners can be assured that they are in good health.

Do All Animals With Cloven Hooves Have Antlers?

Most of the cloven-hooved animals have some kind of cranial appendage. Many animals have cloven hooves, such as:

  • Antelope
  • Bison
  • Cattle
  • Caribou
  • Deer
  • Elk
  • Gazelle
  • Giraffe
  • Goat
  • Hart
  • Ibex
  • Moose
  • Oxen
  • Reindeer
  • Sheep

Oxen and antelope have relatively simple bony protrusions that are often shaped in a twisted, fluted or spiral form and permanently covered in a keratin sheath. Keratin makes up the primary part of human hair, fingernails and toenails.

Cervids are members of the deer family. Caribou are the only cervids in which some females bear antlers. Antlers grow from a pedicle, an attachment point on the animal's skull. Have you ever noticed that an antler looks like it feels velvety? This is because while the antlers are growing, highly vascular skin covers it to keep the rapidly growing bone supplied with the essential nutrients and oxygen. This skin has a velvety appearance and texture and only stays until the antlers are fully grown. When the velvet is gone, the antler bone dies, revealing the mature antler, which will fall off after a while. The animal will grow another set of antlers the following year.

You've probably noticed the horn-like protuberances on giraffes' heads. These are called ossicones and are derived from ossified cartilage. Ossicones are similar to the horns that cattle and antelopes don, and they remain covered in skin and fur rather than eventually exposing the bone like those of the deer family.

Cloven Hoof vs Hoof of Other Varieties

Animals with hooves are also known as ungulates which mainly consists of large mammals, like those you commonly see at the zoo. Additionally, all hooved animals are mammals. There are many different types of hooved animals, but the types of hooves can vary widely in size and shape, from odd-toed ungulates to even-toed. Horses, tapirs and rhinoceroses are a few examples of odd-toed ungulates. The even-toed variety consists of pigs, giraffes, sheep, cattle, deer, camels and hippopotamuses.

So, what exactly is a hoof, anyway? The hoof is considered the tip of the toe on a hoofed animal, and it includes a stiff, rubbery sole surrounded by a hard wall of a thick type of keratin covering. Like human nails, keratin is the main component in an animal's toenail. However, the animal's toenail is rolled around the tip of its toe. Hoofs are made to withstand the sometimes extreme weight of the animal, and typically the weight is carried pretty evenly throughout the hoof area, both on the sole and the edge of the hoof wall. Certain animals like giraffes have uniquely formed hooves to support the animal's unique structure, for which weight distribution is more of a factor.

Like our fingernails and toenails, hooves are continually growing. However, animals tend to keep them at an acceptable length through everyday use, unlike humans, who must regularly clip and file their nails. Farm animals and other hoofed creatures raised in captivity usually require some maintenance to keep their hooves trimmed. They also must be checked for and kept clear of potential risks like excess moisture and bacteria.

A cloven hoof is also commonly referred to as a split hoof, cleft hoof or divided hoof. This type of hoof is split into two toes, also known as even-toed. Only ungulates of the mammalian order Artiodactyla have this hoof style. Typically, the cloven hoof includes two primary hooves on each leg. Many animals with cloven hooves also have two dewclaws above each hoof. The dewclaws basically act like smaller feet, often assisting with navigating more unstable surfaces like snow, mountainsides or uneven ground.

You may assume that all ungulates are land dwellers, but there are some exceptions to the rule. Whales, dolphins and porpoises are Cetaceans that are surprisingly classified as even-toed ungulates. They no longer have hooves, but research has shown that they descended from early Artiodactyls. Over millions of years, these mammals adapted to the water by replacing their hooves with flippers, also known as their pectoral fins.

Do Pigs Have Cloven Hooves, and Are They Herbivores?

Many ungulate species are considered ruminants, which means they utilize a specific form of gut bacteria to digest cellulose. Pigs do not have this type of digestive system. While most ungulates are herbivorous, pigs are one of the only species of hooved animals that are omnivorous. So, although pigs have cloven hooves, pork is not kosher in terms of the food they produce because pigs do not chew their cuds. This is why people of the Jewish faith do not consume pork, as pigs are considered unclean animals.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a cloven hoof, and how does it differ from other types of hooves?

A cloven hoof is a hoof split into two distinct toes; this is typical among animals like deer, cows, and sheep. Unlike the solid hooves of horses, a cloven hoof provides better traction and aids in navigating varied terrains. The split in the hoof allows for more flexibility and adaptability to different surfaces.

Which animals are known for having cloven hooves?

Animals with cloven hooves are predominantly artiodactyls, a group that includes bovines (such as cows and buffalo), caprines (goats and sheep), cervids (deer and elk), and suids (pigs). These species are well-adapted to their environments, with their hooves playing a crucial role in their mobility and survival.

Are there any advantages to having a cloven hoof?

Cloven hooves offer several advantages, including enhanced balance and stability on uneven terrain. They also provide a greater surface area for weight distribution, which is beneficial for larger animals. Additionally, the hoof's design helps in digging for food and water sources, making it an evolutionary advantage for grazing and foraging species.

How do cloven hooves impact an animal's diet and habitat?

Cloven-hoofed animals are often herbivores that graze on grasses and other vegetation. Their hooves are adapted to their habitats, allowing them to traverse soft, marshy ground or rocky areas without sinking or slipping. This adaptation enables them to access a wide range of foraging grounds and escape predators effectively.

Do cloven hooves require special care or maintenance?

Like all hooves, cloven hooves require regular maintenance to prevent overgrowth and infection. Domesticated animals with cloven hooves often need periodic trimming and inspection to ensure their hooves are healthy. In the wild, natural wear and tear typically keep hooves in good condition, but rocky or hard surfaces can cause excessive wear or injury.

Are cloven hooves mentioned in any cultural or religious contexts?

Cloven hooves have significant cultural and religious symbolism. In Judaism and Islam, cloven-hoofed animals that also chew their cud are considered kosher or halal, respectively, and are permissible to eat. Conversely, in Christian iconography, the devil is often depicted with cloven hooves, symbolizing his connection to the animalistic and unclean.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a AllThingsNature researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By bagley79 — On Apr 28, 2012

My husband worked on a cattle farm for a few years so he is familiar with the care some cattle need with their cloven hooves.

We also have horses, and though they do not have cloven hooves, their feet need regular care and maintenance.

Their hooves need to be trimmed every few months, and during the riding season, we keep shoes on their feet.

They are used to having their feet looked at and examined when this is being done. One thing I always found interesting is that everyone of my dogs loves to chew on the part of the hooves that are trimmed off.

I think they would probably like to chew on the cloven hooves of cows just as much as horses if given the chance.

I know they like to chew on the cloven hooves of deer because I have had dogs find them in the woods and drag them home before.

By sunshined — On Apr 27, 2012

I have a friend who follows some strict dietary guidelines. She does not eat 'unclean' meat such as pork. She does eat meat of animals that have a cloven hoof such as beef and deer.

I know there are some other restrictions she follows, but that is one of the main ones I am familiar with.

Giving up bacon would be kind of hard for me since this is a food I love to eat. I like just about any kind of meat, but this is one I love for breakfast or on just about any kind of sandwich.

Her family has followed these dietary guidelines for years, so this is something that is very easy for her to do.

By John57 — On Apr 26, 2012

We live in the country, and have several acres of timber, a creek and a pond on our property. My husband is a hunter, and he is always looking for deer tracks when he is outside.

He can identify the tracks of many animals, but the cloven hoof of deer is easy to spot. Many times you can see where they have bedded down in the grass for the night, and I often see their tracks along the creek where they stop for water.

The tracks of a cloven hoof animal are really easy to spot when it has snowed. This gives you a really good picture of what their feet look like.

By lighth0se33 — On Apr 26, 2012

I live in a cabin by a lake, and deer run wild here. They leave their unique hoof prints in the sand by the lake after they come to take a drink of water.

I don't hunt, but if I did, it would be really easy to tell which way they went. Because of their cloven hooves, their prints look nothing like those of other wild animals here. They are about the same size as some of the big bird footprints, but they are easy to distinguish.

The faster they run, the more they scatter the sand, and the longer the hoof prints appear. The slower, more gentle prints leave a better detailed impression of the design of the cloven hoof.

By shell4life — On Apr 25, 2012

I have never liked goats, because when I was a child, one stepped on my foot and rammed my hand up against a fence with its head. I remember looking down at his cloven hoof on top of my little toes and being filled with hatred and fear at the same time.

It's strange how childhood occurrences can color your perception of things. I now associate cloven hooves with evil. I don't like to be around any animals who have them, even if that is their only resemblance to goats.

By cloudel — On Apr 24, 2012

@orangey03 – That is pretty sad that the owner doesn't bury his cattle. I would be concerned about the carcasses having some sort of disease that could spread!

I have only seen cloven hooves attached to their owners, thankfully. I also live by a cow pasture, and from time to time, a cow will escape and go trodding through my garden.

Even if the cow has already been recaptured by the time I get up, I know it has been there, because I can see the distinctive hoof marks in the rows of dirt. I can also see that a very heavy animal has made them, because the marks are sunken down in the soil.

By orangey03 — On Apr 24, 2012

This is pretty sad, but I live next to 50 acres of cattle, and I often end up with cloven hooves in my yard. The animals themselves are not attached.

The guy who owns the cattle doesn't bury his animals when they die. He just carts them further out in the pasture and dumps them to decay.

I have four dogs, and they always find the carcasses. After the rest of the animal is gone, the cloven hooves remain. I have had one of these in my yard for over a year, and it serves as a chew toy.

Though I'm not happy about it, I don't want to touch it, so I leave it alone. I figure that since all the flesh is gone, it can't harbor bacteria.

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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