Horn Talk Blog

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

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