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

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

    What the AVMA Says About Disbudding and Dehorning Cattle

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Sep 1, 2011

    The American Veterinary Medical Association, which represents more than 80,000 veterinarians, is one of the most respected and trusted voices on animal health and welfare issues. In 2006, the AVMA created its Animal Welfare Division to focus on the great challenges animal welfare issues present to the profession as well as to producers.

    Cattle dehorning is one of the main issues where the AVMA has taken a leading and active role. The AVMA's Policy on cattle dehorning contains two basic tenets:

    • Dehorning should be done at the earliest age practicable.
    • Disbudding is the preferred method of dehorning calves.

    Recently, the AVMA released a 7-page, well-researched backgrounder titled "Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle." For anyone interested in this topic, it's a must-read report. Here's what it covers:

    • Cattle horn anatomy
    • The difference between disbudding and dehorning
    • How disbudding and dehorning are regulated in other countries (it's not regulated in the U.S.)
    • The benefits of disbudding and dehorning
    • Animal welfare concerns from a science and risk-based perspective
    • Pain management
    • Alternatives

    As usual, this AVMA Backgrounder is extensively researched and well thought-out.

    Another AVMA resource to look at is their video on the organization's Policy on Pain Control for Dehorning. We've blogged about this video before but it's worth revisiting.

    What are your thoughts about AVMA's policy and research on disbudding and dehorning of cattle?

    Become a Guest Blogger

    Topics: AVMA Policy, Animal Welfare

    What the Humane Society Says About Dehorning

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Aug 11, 2011

    In its recent report, The Welfare of Calves in the Beef Industry, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) repeatedly refers to dehorning and disbudding as “mutilations”, asserts that these procedures should be discontinued, and proposes genetic selection for polled (naturally hornless) cattle. The HSUS denounces the use of any “mechanical” dehorning method as well as “bloodless” caustic paste, which it states, incorrectly, requires “multiple applications.”

    The HSUS report also expresses concern that dehorning is “commonly performed without pain relief” and that “the majority of [beef production] facilities dehorned calves only after the horns began growing.” These concerns are shared by many within the industry. Organizations such as the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) advocate early-age disbudding as well as the use of local anesthetic during dehorning.

    Regarding the use of polled cattle, the vast majority of dairy cattle in the United States, and a significant percentage of beef cattle, is not polled. For owners of these herds, dehorning remains an essential management practice for both human and animal safety.

    Regarding HSUS’ claims about caustic paste, we are unaware of any paste products labeled for “multiple applications.” The label for Dr. Naylor Dehorning Paste, for example, states, “Apply Dehorning Paste once only [our emphasis] over horn button and roughened ring around horn button.” A protective ring of petroleum jelly or Udder Balm will confine paste to the paste application area, while isolating the calf for several hours will prevent paste from getting on the dam or other animals.

    Contrary to the HSUS, we see dehorning as a necessary management practice for the safety of calves and their human handlers. We also believe the industry can and should be doing a better job of moving closer to the recommendations advocated by the AVMA and others. From an animal welfare perspective, as well as from economic and public relations perspectives, dairy and beef producers should give strong consideration to the practice of early-age disbudding with caustic paste, which has been shown to be less painful than other methods.

    What do you think of the Humane Society’s report?

    Topics: Research, AVMA Policy, Dehorning Methods, Animal Welfare

    PETA Proposes an End to Dehorning

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Fri, Jul 15, 2011

    In an April press release, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) called on grocery chains, restaurants and dairy operations to adopt PETA’s “new” animal welfare guidelines for dairy farms to “dramatically improve the lives of cows and calves.” Among PETA’s new standards is an outright ban on dehorning, “in which cows have… their horns cut out of their skulls.”

    First of all, I think it’s important to point out that dehorning does not necessarily involve cutting horns “out of [the] skull.” A calf’s horn buds don’t attach to the skull until around eight weeks of age. Until then, they are free-floating and can be easily and less painfully removed by the application of caustic paste or a hot-iron, with no cutting at all.

    What PETA seems to object to is the practice of dehorning itself since it violates the “rights” of the animal. What PETA may not realize is the level of danger horned cows pose to other animals, including other cows, dogs and horses, not to mention human handlers. Horned cattle are more aggressive, more dangerous to handle and transport,1 and twice as likely as dehorned cattle to have bruises.2

    The American Veterinary Medical Association, arguably the most credible proponent of animal health and welfare in the United States, has repeatedly voiced its support for the practice of dehorning, provided steps are taken to reduce pain and distress.

    PETA might have more credibility with the dairy and veterinary communities if it encouraged the adoption of more humane methods of horn removal, such as early-age disbudding.

    What do you think of PETA’s proposed welfare standards for dairy cattle?


    1. 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
    2. Temple Grandin. Bruise Levels on Fed and Non-Fed Cattle. Proceedings Livestock Conservation Institute. April 5-7, 1995. http://www.grandin.com/references/LCIbruise.html


    Topics: AVMA Policy, Caustic Paste, Animal Welfare

    Dehorning and Analgesia: Practical or a Pain?

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Jul 7, 2011

    Last week’s blog about the Mercy For Animals undercover video showing dehorning in the same context as egregious animal abuse led one reader to comment:

    "Analgesia and sedation are not practical, as some users will skip them to save time, leaving the industry open to videos of abuse."

    The writer is correct about some producers skipping analgesia during dehorning. 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 anesthetic (nerve block) on dehorned calves, and only two percent used analgesia (pain relief). A similar survey of Ontario dairy farms found 23 percent of producers use lidocaine nerve blocks at the time of dehorning.

    Yes, administering pain-relieving injections and/or medications takes time and costs money. But it’s the right thing to do. Not only because of the AVMA recommendation, but also because pain relief reduces stress on the animal, potentially impacting everything from weight gain to disease resistance. And, to the writer’s point, using analgesia and/or sedation leaves the producer less vulnerable to accusations of animal abuse.

    Options for pain relief include xylazine to help calm the animal, lidocaine, an injectable anesthetic (nerve block) to control acute pain, and ketoprofen, a non-steroidal, anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) for post-operative pain relief. Most important, early-age disbudding with caustic paste has been shown to be less painful than hot-iron dehorning, even when a local anesthetic is used.

    Do you use pain relief for dehorning? Why or why not?


    Todd Duffield, DVM, DVSc. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Current Data on Dehorning Calves, AABP Proceedings, Vol. 41, September 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: Pain Relief, AVMA Policy, Hot-Iron Dehorning

    New Mercy For Animals Video Shows Animal Cruelty and Dehorning

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Jun 30, 2011
    Mercy For Animals (MFA) has released another undercover video, this one documenting animal cruelty by some workers at the E6 Cattle Company, a calf raising operation in Hart, TX. The abuses have been rightly condemned by company owners, animal welfare activists, and the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which called the beatings “barbaric, inhumane and unacceptable.” The workers were fired.

    The video also depicts workers burning horn buds off calves with a hot-iron and, in one scene, a branding iron.

    The acts of cruelty shown are truly repugnant and definitely not typical of responsible calf raising facilities or any livestock operation for that matter. But the dehorning procedures depicted are standard management practices on many farms, and are not, in themselves, gratuitously cruel. By including these scenes in its compilation of abuses, MFA has, unfortunately, lumped dehorning into the same “horrifying” category as euthanizing calves with hammers and pickaxes.

    Dehorning is a necessary management practice that greatly reduces the risk of injury to humans, horses, dogs and, of course, calves themselves (udders, flanks and eyes are particularly susceptible to gouging). The AVMA’s Animal Welfare Policy recommends that dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable”, while noted animal welfare activist Dr. Temple Grandin has said, “There is no excuse for not dehorning very young calves.”

    The majority of dairy producers and many beef producers practice hot-iron disbudding, which is certainly preferable to dehorning at later stages with more invasive methods. That said, hot-iron dehorning is painful, and producers should use analgesia and/or sedation whenever possible.

    A more humane alternative is caustic paste disbudding, which has been shown to be less painful than hot-iron dehorning. The non-sedated, non-medicated calf in this video, for example, barely reacts when dehorning paste is applied.

    Do you think dehorning should have been included in Mercy For Animal’s undercover video of abuses at E6 Cattle Company?

    Other Sources:

    Mercy For Animals Investigation Into a Texan Calf Farm. April 20, 2011. http://vegangstaz.wordpress.com/2011/04/20/mercy-for-animals-investigation-into-a-texan-calf-farm/

    Veterinary Practice News. “Abuse of Calves is ‘Unacceptable’, AVMA Says.” April 20, 2011. http://www.veterinarypracticenews.com/vet-breaking-news/2011/04/20/undercover-video-showing-abuse-of-calves-is-unacceptable-avma-says.aspx

    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

    Temple Grandin. Bruise Levels on Fed and Non-Fed Cattle. Proceedings Livestock Conservation Institute. April 5-7, 1995. http://www.grandin.com/references/LCIbruise.html

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

    Topics: AVMA Policy, Temple Grandin, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Disbudding, Dehorning Methods

    Great Video: "AVMA's Policy on Pain Control for Dehorning"

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Wed, Feb 16, 2011

    The AVMA recently posted a great video titled "AVMA's Policy on Pain Control for Dehorning." The AVMA makes some very good suggestions for reducing the pain associated with dehorning, and the video shows some calves being disbudded using a hot-iron. The YouTube video can be viewed below. The video is also available on AVMA TV.

    Caustic paste is another way producers can minimize dehorning pain. According to a University of British Columbia study published in the Journal of Dairy Science, caustic paste is less painful than hot-iron, even when both a sedative and local anesthetic are used.

    What do you think of the AVMA recommendations?


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

    Now's the time to talk about dehorning.

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Wed, Dec 29, 2010

    In 2008, when I was working on product development for an international milk replacer company, I had the opportunity to acquire the H.W. Naylor Company. This 80-year-old, upstate New York manufacturer of topical livestock medications is well known for its Udder Balm, antiseptics, hoof treatments and other products that improve animal hygiene and comfort. Having grown up on a farm, where I learned to do hot-iron dehorning, and having worked in the dairy business for more than 20 years, I was familiar with most “Dr. Naylor” products, but not its dehorning paste. So, like anybody buying a business, I did some research. What I found baffled and concerned me.

    I was surprised to learn dehorning paste was among the least popular methods of horn removal among cattle producers. Dehorning is a necessary animal management practice, of course, and, aside from raising hornless (polled) animals, the vast majority of producers dehorn their cattle. But most choose hot-irons, saws, Barnes, keystone dehorners or obstetrical wire for this procedure. Why, I wondered, were these more invasive, labor-intensive methods preferred when paste seemed so much easier?

    I was also frustrated by the scarcity of dehorning information on the Internet. Pulling together the various research papers, articles, guidelines, statistics and professional recommendations took many hours. If there was a central online clearinghouse for all things dehorning, I couldn’t find it.

    Around the time I was researching the dehorning market, the animal welfare movement was gathering steam, particularly in respect to animal handling practices and food safety. Food, Inc., a blistering documentary on commercial farming, was playing in theaters. Several national food recalls were going on. The American Veterinary Medical Association was updating its Animal Welfare Policy regarding dehorning and castration. Then came the hidden-camera exposés of, among other things, dairy farm workers burning horns off animals that were clearly too old for that procedure. All these incidents only served to fan the flames of mistrust in a culture where 98 percent of people no longer have direct ties to agriculture.

    I realized a product like Dr. Naylor Dehorning Paste – which offers a bloodless, yet effective method of horn removal – might be an attractive alternative for livestock producers looking to adopt more humane animal handling practices. And keep their farms off the evening news.

    While I personally believe paste disbudding is the best method for horn removal, I feel it’s important for others to learn as much as possible about the management practice of dehorning and draw their own conclusions. I decided to launch dehorning.com in order to:

    1. provide a comprehensive, science-based resource for dehorning information for both cattle producers and non-farm audiences;
    2. stimulate active discussion about dehorning among producers, veterinarians, consumers, food retailers, researchers and anyone else interested in the subject; and
    3. educate producers and others about the benefits of disbudding calves at an early age as advocated by the American Veterinary Medical Association and many other organizations.

    Clearly, if more producers start using dehorning paste, my company will benefit. But it’s even more important for producers and consumers to know the facts.

    So, let’s talk horns.

    What do you like or dislike about this Web site?

    What would you like to see more of?

    Topics: AVMA Policy, Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Dr. Naylor, Dehorning Methods, Animal Welfare