According 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?