Ohio Dairy Farmers recently released an excellent public education video on the importance of humane dehorning. The 3-minute video, Dehorning: A Humane Practice Focused on Cow Safety, is narrated by a veterinarian who explains the rationale behind dehorning, advocates early-age disbudding and the use of pain relief, and demonstrates butane dehorning on a young calf.
We applaud Ohio Dairy Farmers’ for their efforts in educating non-ag audiences about the practice of dehorning, and for their support of humane, early-age disbudding and pain management.
Caustic paste is another humane option for early-age disbudding. Caustic paste disbudding with a local anesthetic (such as the one administered to the calf in the video) has been shown to be less painful than hot-iron disbudding with both a local anesthetic and a sedative. What’s more, when disbudding is performed at 3-5 days of age, there is usually no need for squeeze chute; just mild restraint is necessary.
What do you think of the Ohio Dairy Farmers’ dehorning video?
We sometimes use the word “humane” to describe caustic paste disbudding in comparison to other, invasive methods of horn removal. Humane is not a synonym for painless, as all dehorning methods are painful. Rather, we use it to describe a procedure that’s been scientifically demonstrated to be less painful and distressful to the animal than other methods. Caustic paste disbudding is both effective and a more humane way to dehorn.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia conducted two experiments to evaluate pain response (head shaking and rubbing) in Holstein heifer calves.1 In the first experiment, calves sedated with xylazine were dehorned with caustic paste, with and without a lidocaine nerve block. In the second experiment, the response to caustic paste dehorning with only a sedative was compared with hot-iron disbudding using both a sedative and a nerve block. The results, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, showed that caustic paste dehorning with a sedative was less painful than hot-iron dehorning with both a sedative and a local anesthetic. According to researchers, “These results indicate that caustic paste dehorning with xylazine sedation might be a more humane, simpler, and less invasive procedure than hot-iron dehorning with sedation and local anesthesia.”
Age of the calf may be a factor in the reduced pain response associated with caustic paste. Paste is typically used in calves less than eight weeks old, when horn buds are small and unattached to the skull. Unpublished experiments conducted at the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College showed that hot-iron dehorning was less painful in younger calves (< 4 weeks) than older calves (6-10 weeks).2 In an article published in The American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) Proceedings, a University of Guelph researcher states, “With the possible exception of caustic paste, calves perceive and react to acute pain during dehorning, regardless of method, when no local anesthetic is used.”
For producers who pride themselves on their animal handling practices, paste disbudding is clearly the more humane choice.
Do you agree that paste disbudding is more humane?
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?
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?
Infection is a possible complication with any dehorning method, but is most often associated with invasive procedures that expose the sinus cavity and/or cause blood loss. The use of knives, tubes, Barnes (gouge) dehorners, keystone (guillotine) dehorners, obstetrical wire and saws all increase the risk of infection during dehorning.
Exposed sinuses attract disease-carrying flies, and numerous bacteria can be involved.1 The presence of flies or maggots in sinus cavities will be obvious, but other, more subtle signs of sinusitis can include lack of appetite, fever, nasal discharge and abnormal head carriage.1 Such infections can show up immediately after dehorning or even months later, after the wounds have healed.
Early-age disbudding with caustic paste or hot-iron, which do not expose the sinus cavities or cause blood loss, reduces the risk of BLV infection associated with dehorning.
If invasive dehorning methods are used, there are several management steps you should take to reduce the risk of infection in your operation:
Clean dehorning instruments with disinfectant between use on animals.
Make sure dehorning instruments are kept sharp. Try to cleanly cut bone tissue rather than crushing it, as crushed tissue may be more vulnerable to infection.
Dehorn outside of fly season or use fly deterrent.
Treat wounds with blood coagulant powder.
Monitor mechanically dehorned animals for signs of infection, such as lack of appetite, fever, abnormal head carriage and foul breath. If you see these signs, contact your veterinarian for a definitive diagnosis and treatment.
How do you control dehorning-associated infection in your operation?
No matter what disbudding method you use, there is a small chance horns will regrow. This happens because horns grow from skin at the base of the horn. If skin around the horn bud or base is ineffectively treated or left intact, regrowth is a possibility.
Horn regrowth can be anything from small scurs to fully regrown horns. Such horns will most likely grow distorted, sometimes curling and growing back into the animal’s head. This PDF article from the Canadian Dexter Cattle Association graphically depicts the consequences of a failed dehorning attempt.
When disbudding a young calf with caustic paste or a hot-iron, be sure to treat a ½-inch (approximately 1-cm) wide ring of skin around the horn bud to prevent regrowth. If dehorning an older animal, remove a ½-inch (approximately 1-cm) ring of skin around the horn base along with the horn itself.
Monitor calves after dehorning to make sure there is no regrowth.
If horn regrowth does appear, dehorn the animal again as soon as possible. If you’re unsure how to deal with the regrowth, consult your veterinarian.
What dehorning method do you use and what has been your experience with horn regrowth?
“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?
Whenever 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:
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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.
“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?
This week's blog post is written by Dr. Aurora Villarroel, an Extension Veterinarian at Oregon State University. Dr. Villarroel's objective is to enhance the health of food animals in Oregon, especially ruminants. She currently teaches courses at the School of Veterinary Medicine related to cattle, sheep and goat medicine and surgery. Her research interests include veterinary epidemiology, herd health and production medicine, with special focus on dairy cattle. She is the recent author of "Dehorn Calves Early."
By Guest Blogger: Aurora Villarroel, DVM, MPVM, PhD, Dip.ACVPM, Extension Veterinarian, Department of Animal Sciences, Oregon State University
I have noticed that the caustic dehorning paste is rarely used in farms in the U.S., and I keep hearing dissatisfaction among dairy farmers that have tried it. I started using the paste in Spain more than 20 years ago, and in my experience it is the best dehorning method available, by far.
There are two things you need to pay attention to: timing and housing.
Timing: the secret for the dehorning paste to work well is to dehorn before two days of age! The main reason for this is that after two days of age, calves can figure out how to scratch their heads against something to rub the paste off, and they can stand on three legs to scratch with the other. Additionally, applying the dehorning paste immediately before feeding colostrum (preferably with a nipple) will reduce signs of pain. 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.
Housing: calves need to be protected from rain for 24 hours after applying the paste. If rain falls over the active dehorning paste, there will be run off towards the eyes that can blind the calf.
Like with any other product, follow manufacturer directions (package insert); the amount of paste to apply on each horn is equivalent to a dime. Using too much paste is the most common mistake of beginners. It will result in big bald spot around the horn area, but the hair will grow back in a couple of months.
Clients who have switched to paste dehorning in newborn calves are very happy with the results: quick, simple and painless.