Horn Talk Blog

What is the Most Ethical Dehorning Method?

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, May 19, 2011

“Ethical” is a word tossed around a lot lately in the animal welfare debate. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, ethical can be defined as, “relating to ethics [the discipline of dealing with what is good or bad]”, “involving or expressing moral approval or disapproval” and “conforming to accepted standards of conduct”.

Let’s start with the issue of dehorning as “good” or “bad”. Some say “bad”, because it’s painful for the animal. However, vaccination is also a painful procedure. Few would argue that vaccination is “bad”, because it ultimately confers the benefit of disease prevention. Does not dehorning also confer the benefit of preventing injuries from horned herd-mates? According to the American Veterinary Medical Association, dehorned cattle are less likely to suffer bruising, inflict injury to the udders, flanks or eyes of other cattle, or injure horses, dogs and handlers.1 Ultimately, dehorning benefits not only the animal that undergoes the procedure, but also all the other animals and humans it encounters throughout its life.

The issue, then, comes down to the ethics of the dehorning method itself. There are several ways to dehorn cattle, ranging from caustic paste disbudding in young calves to hand saw dehorning in mature animals. The pain inflicted on the animal, and the risk of injury posed by each of these methods, vary widely. Surveys tell us most dairy farmers use a hot-iron to disbud calves,2 while most cow-calf producers use Barnes or Guillotine dehorners.3 These methods would therefore seem to fit the definition of ethical as conforming to accepted standards of conduct. But just because a practice is widely accepted does not necessarily make it morally acceptable. And, accepted standards of conduct can change over time as we’re witnessing now in the animal welfare debate.

Is it ethical to dehorn animals with saws, tubes, knives, Barnes and other tools when other less painful, equally effective methods exist?

Is it ethical to perform dehorning – or any potentially painful animal management practices – without the use of pain relievers or sedatives?

What are your views of the ethics of dehorning?


  1. AVMA Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. January 28, 2010.
  2. 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.
  3. USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.

Topics: Pain Relief, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Barnes Dehorner, Dehorning Methods, Animal Welfare

Top 5 Producer Concerns About Using Caustic Dehorning Paste

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, May 12, 2011

Caustic Dehorning PasteWhenever I ask dairy or beef producers why they don’t use caustic paste to dehorn their animals, I tend to hear the same responses over and over. Here are the top five producer concerns – and my responses – when it comes to not using dehorning paste:

  1. “Caustic paste isn’t as effective as other dehorning methods.”

    When used according to label directions, in calves eight weeks of age or younger, paste can be just as effective as a hot iron in destroying horn-producing cells (view a video of the correct technique). It’s true that paste won’t work on developed horns in older animals; neither will a hot-iron at this stage. But, if you still have any doubts about the effectiveness of caustic paste, please read these recent guest blogs from the owner of a heifer-raising facility and an extension veterinarian.

  2. “I heard about a calf that was blinded by caustic paste.”

    Eye ablation can occur under rare circumstances when: a) paste is improperly applied, and b) the calf is let out into rain or snow before the paste has dried. That’s why dehorning paste manufacturers recommend applying a protective barrier of Udder Balm or petroleum jelly in a ring around the outside of the application area, and using only a nickel- or quarter-sized amount of paste (depending on the age of the animal). We also recommend keeping treated animals indoors, out of rain, for six hours to allow the paste to dry. These two simple steps will effectively prevent virtually 100 percent of eye injuries in treated calves.

  3. “I’ve heard you can’t let calves nurse after they’ve been treated with caustic paste.”

    This one is true – to a point. Treated calves should remain isolated from all other animals, including their dams, for six hours after treatment. Some cow/calf producers know this and wait until after the calf has nursed before they apply dehorning paste. Again, this kind of incident can easily be prevented simply by following label directions.

  4. “Dehorning paste is just too much trouble for me.”

    Compared to herding the animal into a squeeze chute and scooping out the horns with a Tube or Barnes dehorner, or chopping them off with a keystone dehorner, disbudding with caustic paste is indeed a slower, more methodical process. But it’s no slower than holding a hot iron to the calf’s head for several seconds, and significantly less likely to result in blood loss, injury or infection. With paste, there’s no need for a squeeze chute or extreme physical restraint. In fact, if paste is applied to very young calves, bloated and sleepy after a meal, only very light restraint (if any) may be necessary.

  5. “My current dehorning method works just fine.”

    I totally understand the desire to stick with an effective management practice, especially if you’ve never experienced an injury to calf or crew, or an animal performance issue related to dehorning. But times are changing. As I noted in a previous blog, some veterinarians are already predicting analgesia will be required for dehorning five to 10 years. Meanwhile, consumers are putting increasing pressures on our industry to adopt more humane animal management practices. These pressures will inevitably result in new industry initiatives and audit programs.  

Now is the time to get ready. Now is the time to start exploring alternative, less invasive means of horn removal. Because, to paraphrase Charles Darwin, it’s not always the strongest who survive, but the ones most responsive to change.

What are your concerns about using caustic dehorning paste?

CY Heifer Farm

Topics: Dehorning Paste, CY Heifer Farm, Caustic Paste, Barnes Dehorner

"Dehorn Calves Early" (Hoard's West - Nov. 2010)

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Feb 17, 2011

"Dehorn Calves Early" (Hoard's West - Nov. 2010) is authored by Aurora Villarroel, DVM, Assistant Professor, Rural Veterinary Practice, College of Veterinary Medicine, Oregon State University.

Dr. Villarroel says "... in my experience dehorning paste is actually the best [dehorning] method available. However, you need to pay attention to two things to make it work well: timing and housing." Her article includes a step-by-step paste dehorning process. Read the full article...

Topics: Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Barnes Dehorner, Dehorning Process, Dehorning Methods, Animal Welfare, Scoop Dehorner, Dr. Aurora Villarroel, Hoard's