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Pain mitigation for dehorning calves

Posted by Dave Lucas on Wed, Dec 17, 2014

Pain mitigation for dehorning calves

Veterinarians can use a variety of methods to help clients reduce the stress and pain associated with dehorning, according to the American Association of Bovine Practitioners Animal Welfare Committee.

In a note to AABP members, the committee notes that research has shown dehorning, and even disbudding calves at an early age of less than four weeks causes pain and distress, regardless of the method. Research has also demonstrated that calves benefit from the mitigation of both the pain associated with the procedure itself and during the recovery and healing period.  The administration of local anesthesia such as lidocaine, in combination with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as meloxicam, has been shown to provide effective pain mitigation during and after hot iron, cautery and amputation dehorning methods, according to research cited by the committee.  

AABP also notes that using a local anesthetic does not appear to address the immediate pain associated with the use of caustic paste, and in fact may make it worse. However, providing an anti-inflammatory drug such as meloxicam prior to the application of caustic paste can minimize post-procedural pain. When combined with a sedative (xylazine), research has shown that caustic paste results in less pain to calves than dehorning with a hot iron combined with a sedative and local block. Use of xylazine as a sedative also can help mitigate distress associated with the handling and restraint required for dehorning.

It is important to note that meloxicam is not labeled for use in cattle in the United States, but veterinarians can administer it under the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act (AMDUCA).

In a recent letter from the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine it was stated that extra-label use of drugs “is limited to treatment modalities when the health of an animal is threatened or suffering or death may result from failure to treat. We (the CVM) consider the use of analgesics and anesthetics for the purpose of alleviating pain…an acceptable justification for using approved drugs in an extralabel manner.” Based on the terminal plasma half-life reported in dairy calves of 40 hours, a conservative meat withdrawal interval of 21 days is recommended.

According to AABP, meloxicam is available through several commonly used distributors. Current prices for a 1,000-count bottle of 15mg tablets means you can medicate calves at 0.45 mg/lb (1mg/kg) for less than a dime per hundredweight.

Topics: AVMA Policy, Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Dehorning Process, Disbudding, AVMA, Butane Dehorning, Age at dehorning, Dehorning Methods, Animal Welfare, Dehorning Pain, Dehorning

Where are approved drugs for dehorning pain?

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Jun 18, 2013

DehorningAccording to a recent survey, about 18 percent of U.S. dairy producers use pain management for dehorning or disbudding. A slightly greater percentage of bovine veterinarians use pain relief for castration, which is typically performed at the same time as dehorning. One reason may have to do with the lack of approved pain medication.  Currently, no drugs are approved by the Food and Drug Administration Center for Veterinary Medicine (CVM) for managing pain in livestock. This leaves the veterinarian and producer liable for problems arising from extra-label use, including milk and meat withdrawal. Numerous compounds are approved for managing pain in companion animals like dogs and cats. Why not pigs, sheep and cattle?

CVM requires proof of both safety and effectiveness before labeling a drug to treat or prevent a specific condition in a specific species. Food animals like cattle tend to be quite stoic, or seemingly indifferent to pain; currently, no validated methods exist for evaluating pain responses in food animals. However, despite the lack of approved analgesics for livestock, evidence is mounting that large-animal veterinarians are taking pain management more seriously than ever.

The latest issue of Veterinary Clinics of North America: Food Animal Practice is the first issue devoted entirely to the subject of pain management, featuring 12 different articles on topics such as behavioral responses of cattle to pain, managing pain associated with castration, lameness or surgery, and injectable anesthesia in ruminants. In one article, “Bovine Dehorning: Assessing Pain and Providing Analgesic Management,” university researchers look at various methodologies for evaluating pain following dehorning, review published literature, and recommend a multimodal approach to analgesia using local anesthetic, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) and, when possible, a sedative-analgesic.

Earlier this year, the Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) updated its Animal Welfare Policy on Dehorning and Castration to include the use of local anesthetics and NSAIDs to relieve both postoperative and preoperative pain for dehorning procedures other than disbudding. Within the past 18 months, the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) updated its welfare standards to specify disbudding as the “preferred” method for horn removal, recommending “cautery” at less than one month of age with local anesthesia, and approving local anesthesia and sedation for dehorning up to three months of age.

All these initiatives point to an increasing industry awareness of the importance of analgesia, and a growing willingness to use a variety of pain management strategies and compounds, federally approved or not. At the same time, CVM is encouraging researchers to provide validated methods for evaluating pain, and drug companies to develop innovative analgesics, all of which may soon lead to the development and approval of pain medications for livestock.

Fifty years ago, such an extensive examination of pain management in food animals would have been unthinkable. Consumers today are better educated than ever, and want assurances that their food is produced in a safe and humane matter. As the food animal system moves toward greater transparency, pain management will become increasingly important for producers, veterinarians, researchers, drug companies and regulatory agencies alike.

Back in 2008, a leading veterinary researcher and educator predicted that some type of analgesia could be mandated for castration and dehorning “within the next five to 10 years.” Will 2013 be the year that pain management will become a required management practice for producers? Will your operation be ready?

Topics: Pain, CVM, Disbudding, AVMA, FDA, Dehorning Pain, Dehorning, DCHA

New Study Looks At Range Of Responses To Dehorning.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Mon, Apr 29, 2013

Texax Tech Study on DehorningA wide range of behavioral and physiological responses occur in calves that are dehorned. A recent Texas Tech University study examined these responses in three-month-old Holstein calves undergoing dehorning or castration or both, and the effectiveness of pain relief in reducing these responses. The results provide a fuller picture of observable and biological responses to two very common management practices, with implications for both the beef and dairy industry.

We should note first of all that, at three months of age, the calves in this study were well beyond the point where more humane disbudding methods such as caustic paste could be performed. Horn buds attach to the skull by eight weeks, which is one reason why many industry organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommend dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.” The dairy calves in this study were dehorned mechanically using a Barnes or “Gouger” dehorner.

Second, pain relief was administered just prior to the procedure in the form of a local anesthetic and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is consistent with the AVMA’s updated welfare policy on dehorning, which recommends such pain relief methods for dehorning procedures other than early-age disbudding.

The study results show:

  • Calves that were dehorned spent more time head shaking and ear flicking than control animals -- typical behaviors associated with dehorning pain.
  • Dehorned animals showed a rise in concentrations of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, as well as other physiological responses to inflammation.
  • Calves that were dehorned and not given pain relief spent less time eating than control calves, and lost roughly one percent of their body weight in the 24 hour time period following the procedure.
  • In contract, calves that received pain relief in the form of an anesthetic and analgesic immediately prior to dehorning gained approximately 1.4 percent of their bodyweight in the 24 hours after the procedure – the same amount of weight gained by control calves over the same time period.

Although the differences in weight gain between the calf groups were not statistically significant, the findings suggest that the use of both local anesthesia and analgesia prior to dehorning can minimize “detrimental consequences” on calf performance and therefore economic losses. We took a look at some of the other economic benefits of pain relief for dehorning in a blog post last fall.

Such losses can be further minimized by disbudding at the youngest age possible, ideally at or within a few days of birth, preferably with a non-invasive method like caustic paste. Todd Duffield from the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College has noted that it is generally accepted that the younger the animal is the less painful the dehorning procedure is.

Early disbudding and pain relief aren’t topics typically raised in discussions over improving economics in the beef and dairy industry – but maybe it’s time they were.


Does early disbudding and pain relief make economic sense for your operation?

Topics: Pain, Disbudding, Weight Gain, Dehorning

Using Dehorning Paste in Group Housing

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Mar 19, 2013

Dehorning with Duct TapeDehorning paste is caustic, but when used properly is very safe and animal well-being friendly. To prevent the paste from running into the animal’s eyes or being rubbed onto other animals, most producers apply a ring of Udder Balm, petroleum jelly or some other protective barrier around the horn bud prior to application. It’s also a good idea to keep the animal indoors, out of rain and away from other animals for at least six hours.

That’s the proper protocol for using dehorning paste. However, through on-farm ingenuity, some producers and calf managers apply duct tape to the animal’s horn buds immediately after paste application to prevent contact with eyes or other animals. Although this isn’t necessary if proper caustic paste application instructions are followed, we offer the following tips for maximum safety and effectiveness:

  • Feed a suckling calf just before paste application and immediately after tape removal. A full, sleepy calf makes your job much easier.

  • Wear protective gloves to apply both the paste and tape.

  • Cut or tear off two pieces of tape – enough to cover the paste application site and a bit beyond – and place them in a criss-cross pattern over each horn bud.

  • Keep the calf out of rain for at least six hours. This rule applies with or without duct tape.

  • Some managers wrap duct tape completely around the calf’s head. This is not optimal as it can interfere with breathing or swallowing, and is difficult and stressful to remove later.

  • Remove tape after six hours. Some producers allow the duct tape to fall off on its owner; however, experience with this is limited.

  • Once the tape is removed, the application sites may still be damp. Allow application sites to dry completely before the calf goes outside or has contact with other animals.

Do you use duct tape for caustic paste disbudding?

Topics: Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Duct tape

Mechanical Dehorning Increases Risk of Infection

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Feb 26, 2013

Dehorning infectionThis site gets a fair amount of traffic from people looking for ways to manage infection in dehorned calves. We think it’s a subject worth revisiting, as infection is always a potential complication of mechanical dehorning with tubes, Barnes/gouger or guillotine dehorners.  These and other invasive methods result in open wounds and can expose sinuses to dirt, dust and disease-carrying insects.

Dehorning equipment can also play a part in infection. A study of heifers on a California dairy showed the risk of bovine leukosis virus (BLV) jumped from 8 to 77% when the heifers were gouge dehorned; the main culprit was infected blood on the equipment.1 Other diseases associated with contaminated dehorning equipment include tetanus1, anaplasmosis and bovine cutaneous papillomas.2 The risks increase for older calves and for animals with compromised immune systems.

The best way to prevent post-dehorning infection is to avoid invasive methods altogether and practice early-age disbudding. Caustic paste disbudding is one such method that can effectively prevent horn growth in calves under eight weeks of age, before horn buds attach to the skull.

If using mechanical methods to dehorn calves older than eight weeks, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of infection before, during and after dehorning.

Before dehorning:

  • Make sure all dehorning instruments are as sterile as possible. Store them in a bucket of water with antiseptic, and clean with disinfectant between animals.
  • Sharpen all dehorning instruments.

During dehorning:

  • Try to schedule dehorning when fly activity is at a minimum.
  • Try to avoid dehorning on excessively dusty or wet days.
  • If dehorning an older animal with large horns, try to cut cleanly through bone instead of crushing it.

After dehorning:

  • Treat wounds with a blood coagulant powder. If flies are present, apply an insecticide around the wound, not directly on it.
  • Monitor physically dehorned animals for signs of infections, such as loss of appetite, fever, nasal discharge abnormal head carriage and bad breath. If you see these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately.


How do you prevent post-dehorning infection in your operation?



1. Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division. April 20, 2012.

2.  Marei-Liesse G. Lassauzet, et al. Effect of Brucellosis Vaccination and Dehorning on Transmission of Bovine Leukemia Virus in Heifers in a California Dairy. Can J Vet Res 1990; 54: 184-189.

Topics: infection, flies, Dehorning

AVMA Updates Welfare Policy On Dehorning

Posted by Dave Lucas on Fri, Jan 18, 2013

AVMA updated dehorning policyEvery five years, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reviews its animal welfare policies. The 80,000-member organization recently updated its Animal Welfare Policy on Castration and Dehorning with input from AVMA members and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP). On the subject of dehorning, the Animal Welfare Committee made two changes:

  • The policy now contains a mention of the importance of genetics in selecting for the polled (hornless) trait.

  • The policy now includes language recommending the use of local anesthetics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve postoperative pain as well as preoperative pain for dehorning procedures other than disbudding.

We applaud the AVMA for expanding its recommendation for pain relief during dehorning. We’re also pleased to see the organization drawing a sharper distinction between disbudding and “other dehorning procedures.” This is a tacit acknowledgement that disbudding is indeed less invasive and more painful than other methods of horn removal.

Other elements of the policy remain unchanged, including statements that:

  • Dehorning is painful.

  • Dehorning is important for human and animal safety (this is where the AVMA parts ways with most animal activists).

  • Dehorning should be performed at the earliest age practicable.

  • Research leading to new or improved pain relief methods is encouraged.

  • Disbudding is still the preferred method for dehorning calves.

The AVMA is arguably the largest supporter of animal welfare in the United States, and its recommendations should be taken seriously by both livestock producers and animal activists alike. We hope the AVMA considers including a recommendation for caustic paste disbudding, the least invasive dehorning method, in its next round of welfare policy updates.

What do you think of the AMVA’s revised position on dehorning?

Topics: Pain, Caustic Paste, AVMA, Welfare, Dehorning

What Is The Best Age To Dehorn?

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Dec 11, 2012
Dehorn at birth

When Is the Best Age To Dehorn?

Posted by Dave Lucas

The American Veterinary Medical Association has long recommended that dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.” Most researchers and producer groups recommend that dehorning take place prior to eight weeks of age, the stage at which horn buds attach to the skull. However, a growing number of industry influencers are arguing that the procedure be performed even earlier in life.

Dehorning is now recommended at or within a few days of birth in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand. This is in stark contrast to the United States, where only about a third of dairy calves and less than one-fourth of beef calves are disbudded by eight weeks of age.

Why dehorn at birth, or shortly thereafter? First and most important, it’s easier on the calves. At this age, horn buds are still free-floating and very small. Dr. Aurora Villarroel, an extension veterinarian at Oregon State University, recommends applying dehorning paste to calves under two days of age, immediately prior to feeding colostrum, to help reduce signs of pain. As she writes in her blog post from April 2011: “While the calves concentrate on nursing from the bottle, the paste will be working. Human doctors do the same thing with babies – distract them by making them nurse when they have to do procedures such as needle pricks to get blood samples.”

Another reason is economics. At this age, horn buds are still free-floating and very small, so disbudding is far less invasive. Calves disbudded within a few days of birth usually recover quickly and are less likely to experience infections, blood loss or other costly complications associated with mechanical dehorning used on older calves.

Dehorning at birth is also obviously easier on the crew, since there’s no need for squeeze chutes or even moderate restraint. Calves at CY Heifer Farm in Elba, NY, are routinely dehorned at three and four days of age. Farm manager and guest blogger Jeanne Wormuth tells us when she applies dehorning paste to sleepy, just-fed dairy calves, many don’t react at all.

Finally, early-age disbudding is good animal welfare. As Dr. Todd Duffield from the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College says, “It is generally accepted that the younger the animal is the less painful the dehorning procedure is.” A University of Guelph experiment showed that calves under four weeks of age exhibited less of a pain response to hot-iron dehorning than older calves.

So why don’t more producers dehorn at birth or shortly thereafter? Some may not believe dehorning at this age is effective. Others many find it too difficult to locate the tiny horn buds. In the case of beef producers, they may simply not be able to get their hands on the calf right away. However, in most cases, dehorning at a later age is just the way it’s always been done. If it isn’t broken, why fix it?

Producers should fix it because the world is watching. As the entire food system moves toward greater transparency, every animal management practice, from handling to housing, is being examined and questioned. If these practices are not being performed in the most humane manner possible, consumers will want to know why.

The American Veterinary Medical Association should consider revising its recommendation to specify dehorning be performed “at or within a few days of birth.” The dairy industry should also consider proactively taking control of this issue, the way it has with tail-docking, and reshape it to minimize the impact of change on producers. Dehorning at or near birth is clearly the most humane way to dehorn calves, and the standard to which we should now aspire.


Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association. June 8, 2011. http://www.avma.org/reference/backgrounders/dehorning_cattle_bgnd.asp

American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Policy. Castration and Dehorning of Cattle. Approved April 2008. 

Faries, Floron C., Jr. Immunizing Beef Calves: A Preconditioning Immunization Concept. 2000. AgriLife Extension Service at Texas A&M University.

Hopkins, Fred M., et al. University of Tennessee. Cattle Preconditioning: Dehorning Calves. July 9, 2009. 

Todd Duffield, DVM, DVSc. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Current Data on Dehorning Calves, Curresnt Data on Dehorning Calves, AABP Proceedings, Vol. 41, September 2008.

USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.

Pasture Weaning Cuts Stress, say University of Missouri Researchers. Beef, May 1, 2001.

Fulwider, W.K., et al. Survey of Dairy Management Practices on 113 North Central and Northeastern United States Dairies. J. Dairy Sci. 2008. 91:1686-1692.


Topics: Disbudding, Age at dehorning, Dr. Aurora Villarroel

When It Comes To Dehorning, Pain Relief Pays.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Oct 18, 2012

When it comes to dehorning, pain relief pays.Dehorning is a painful, stressful procedure. Although the American Veterinary Medical Association recommends the use of pain relief for procedures like dehorning, a survey of U.S. dairy farms found only 12 percent of producers used a local anesthetic (nerve block) on dehorned calves, and only two percent used analgesia (like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs). A similar survey of Ontario dairy farms found only 23 percent of producers use lidocaine nerve blocks at the time of dehorning.

Those numbers might improve if producers were aware of the economic benefits associated with the use of pain relief and stress reduction. For example:

  • Reduced disease. All producers know that pain and stress increase an animal’s susceptibility to disease. An article published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2011 showed that calves treated with NSAIDs prior to castration experienced less bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in the feedlot. BRD steals dairy profits through treatment costs, reduced milk production and death loss; the impact is even greater on the beef side, where the disease costs an estimated $800 and $900 million a year. Producers can help reduce these losses by using pain relief for invasive procedures like dehorning.

  • Higher performance. Dr. Temple Grandin has written extensively on the impact of stress and fear on animal performance and meat quality. She has cited numerous studies showing that stressed animals experience significantly lower weight gains, reduced reproductive function including abortion, lower rumen function and lower milk yields. Conversely, reducing stress “will help reduce sickness and enable cattle to go back on feed more quickly,” she wrote. The Journal of Animal Science article showed that pain relief used in calves at castration can increase average daily gain.

So why aren’t more producers using pain management for dehorning? Cost is a factor, of course. So is lack of certainty over effectiveness, especially for paste disbudding which is minimally invasive to begin with. Then there’s the issue of training and anatomical knowledge, which may be necessary for determining dose, route, duration and frequency of drug administration.

 As the food animal system moves toward greater transparency, consumers increasingly want assurances that their food is produced in a safe and humane manner. Not only is pain relief good for the calf, and reassuring for the consumer, but it may actually be profitable as well.

Does pain relief pay in your operation?

Topics: Pain Relief, Dehorning Paste, Animal Welfare, Dehorning Pain, Dehorning

The Decline of Tail-Docking.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Sep 11, 2012

Tail-docking is declining.This past week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the decline of tail docking in the dairy industry. It cited the recent resolution by the National Milk Producers Federation to alter its position and oppose routine tail docking except in cases of traumatic injury to the animal.

The NMPF now recommends the practice be phased out completely by 2022, giving producers time to implement on-farm management changes to address udder hygiene, parlor design, worker safety and other reasons commonly cited for tail docking. The American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Bovine Practitioners already oppose tail docking, and the practice has been banned in California; other states will surely follow.

Activists undoubtedly see the decline in tail docking as a victory. However, the NMPF resolution also represents a victory of sorts for the dairy industry by taking control of the issue, and shaping it to minimize its impact on producers. In a letter to NMPF members, President Jerry Kozak wrote, “Rather than give the animal rights community a tool with which to beat on dairy farmers, it’s more prudent to be proactive, and use our heads to handle this ourselves.”

What does this mean for dehorning? It means the industry may soon need to take control of this narrative – as the NMPF has done with the issue of tail docking – and shape it so it not only aligns with changing welfare standards, but allows producers time to adjust for minimum negative impact on their operations.

What do you think of the new NMPF resolution opposing tail docking?

Topics: AVMA, AABP, NMPF, Dehorning, tail docking

Top 4 Reasons To Convert To Dehorning Paste.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Wed, Aug 22, 2012

Dehorning PasateAn increasing number of dairy producers are converting from hot-iron to caustic paste for early age dehorning. Here’s why:

1. Paste is less painful: Research from the University of British Columbia found that calves dehorned with caustic paste experience less pain than calves dehorned with a hot iron, even when a local anesthetic is used.

2. Paste is safer for crew: You may remember this guest blog by Jeanne Wormuth, manager at CY Heifer Farm, citing an employee’s burn injury as the main reason her facility switched to paste. There’s also no need for a squeeze chute or extreme physical restraint. Check out this video of a calf being dehorned with caustic paste.

3. Paste has high acceptance in the industry: Caustic paste is consistent with recommendations from the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) Gold Standards III, which recommends a “cautery” method at less than one month of age, and the AVMA Animal Welfare Policy, which recommends that dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.”  

4. Paste is preferred by consumers: With paste, there’s no smoke, no bawling and very little, if any, resistance from the calf. And there’s nothing sensational to capture in an undercover video

Still curious about paste? Check out these Top 5 Producer Concerns about Using Caustic Dehorning Paste, then try paste for yourself. Humane animal management practices are a good enough reason to switch, and are increasingly being requested by consumers. Why wouldn’t you switch?



Fulwider, W.K., et al. Survey of Dairy Management Practices on 113 North Central and Northeastern United States Dairies. J. Dairy Sci. 2008. 91:1686-1692.

USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.

Vickers, K.J. et al. Calf Response to Caustic Paste and Hot-Iron Dehorning Using Sedation With and Without Local Anesthetic. April 2005. J. Dairy Sci. 88:1454-1459

    Topics: AVMA Policy, Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Dehorning Pain, DCHA