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

Where are approved drugs for dehorning pain?

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Jun 18, 2013

DehorningAccording 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?

Topics: Pain, CVM, Disbudding, AVMA, FDA, Dehorning Pain, Dehorning, DCHA

New Study Looks At Range Of Responses To Dehorning.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Mon, Apr 29, 2013

Texax Tech Study on DehorningA wide range of behavioral and physiological responses occur in calves that are dehorned. A recent Texas Tech University study examined these responses in three-month-old Holstein calves undergoing dehorning or castration or both, and the effectiveness of pain relief in reducing these responses. The results provide a fuller picture of observable and biological responses to two very common management practices, with implications for both the beef and dairy industry.

We should note first of all that, at three months of age, the calves in this study were well beyond the point where more humane disbudding methods such as caustic paste could be performed. Horn buds attach to the skull by eight weeks, which is one reason why many industry organizations like the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recommend dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.” The dairy calves in this study were dehorned mechanically using a Barnes or “Gouger” dehorner.

Second, pain relief was administered just prior to the procedure in the form of a local anesthetic and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). This is consistent with the AVMA’s updated welfare policy on dehorning, which recommends such pain relief methods for dehorning procedures other than early-age disbudding.

The study results show:

  • Calves that were dehorned spent more time head shaking and ear flicking than control animals -- typical behaviors associated with dehorning pain.
  • Dehorned animals showed a rise in concentrations of cortisol, a hormone released in response to stress, as well as other physiological responses to inflammation.
  • Calves that were dehorned and not given pain relief spent less time eating than control calves, and lost roughly one percent of their body weight in the 24 hour time period following the procedure.
  • In contract, calves that received pain relief in the form of an anesthetic and analgesic immediately prior to dehorning gained approximately 1.4 percent of their bodyweight in the 24 hours after the procedure – the same amount of weight gained by control calves over the same time period.

Although the differences in weight gain between the calf groups were not statistically significant, the findings suggest that the use of both local anesthesia and analgesia prior to dehorning can minimize “detrimental consequences” on calf performance and therefore economic losses. We took a look at some of the other economic benefits of pain relief for dehorning in a blog post last fall.

Such losses can be further minimized by disbudding at the youngest age possible, ideally at or within a few days of birth, preferably with a non-invasive method like caustic paste. Todd Duffield from the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College has noted that it is generally accepted that the younger the animal is the less painful the dehorning procedure is.

Early disbudding and pain relief aren’t topics typically raised in discussions over improving economics in the beef and dairy industry – but maybe it’s time they were.


Does early disbudding and pain relief make economic sense for your operation?

Topics: Pain, Disbudding, Weight Gain, Dehorning

Mechanical Dehorning Increases Risk of Infection

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Feb 26, 2013

Dehorning infectionThis site gets a fair amount of traffic from people looking for ways to manage infection in dehorned calves. We think it’s a subject worth revisiting, as infection is always a potential complication of mechanical dehorning with tubes, Barnes/gouger or guillotine dehorners.  These and other invasive methods result in open wounds and can expose sinuses to dirt, dust and disease-carrying insects.

Dehorning equipment can also play a part in infection. A study of heifers on a California dairy showed the risk of bovine leukosis virus (BLV) jumped from 8 to 77% when the heifers were gouge dehorned; the main culprit was infected blood on the equipment.1 Other diseases associated with contaminated dehorning equipment include tetanus1, anaplasmosis and bovine cutaneous papillomas.2 The risks increase for older calves and for animals with compromised immune systems.

The best way to prevent post-dehorning infection is to avoid invasive methods altogether and practice early-age disbudding. Caustic paste disbudding is one such method that can effectively prevent horn growth in calves under eight weeks of age, before horn buds attach to the skull.

If using mechanical methods to dehorn calves older than eight weeks, there are steps you can take to minimize the risk of infection before, during and after dehorning.

Before dehorning:

  • Make sure all dehorning instruments are as sterile as possible. Store them in a bucket of water with antiseptic, and clean with disinfectant between animals.
  • Sharpen all dehorning instruments.

During dehorning:

  • Try to schedule dehorning when fly activity is at a minimum.
  • Try to avoid dehorning on excessively dusty or wet days.
  • If dehorning an older animal with large horns, try to cut cleanly through bone instead of crushing it.

After dehorning:

  • Treat wounds with a blood coagulant powder. If flies are present, apply an insecticide around the wound, not directly on it.
  • Monitor physically dehorned animals for signs of infections, such as loss of appetite, fever, nasal discharge abnormal head carriage and bad breath. If you see these signs, contact your veterinarian immediately.


How do you prevent post-dehorning infection in your operation?



1. Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division. April 20, 2012.

2.  Marei-Liesse G. Lassauzet, et al. Effect of Brucellosis Vaccination and Dehorning on Transmission of Bovine Leukemia Virus in Heifers in a California Dairy. Can J Vet Res 1990; 54: 184-189.

Topics: infection, flies, Dehorning

AVMA Updates Welfare Policy On Dehorning

Posted by Dave Lucas on Fri, Jan 18, 2013

AVMA updated dehorning policyEvery five years, the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) reviews its animal welfare policies. The 80,000-member organization recently updated its Animal Welfare Policy on Castration and Dehorning with input from AVMA members and the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP). On the subject of dehorning, the Animal Welfare Committee made two changes:

  • The policy now contains a mention of the importance of genetics in selecting for the polled (hornless) trait.

  • The policy now includes language recommending the use of local anesthetics and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to relieve postoperative pain as well as preoperative pain for dehorning procedures other than disbudding.

We applaud the AVMA for expanding its recommendation for pain relief during dehorning. We’re also pleased to see the organization drawing a sharper distinction between disbudding and “other dehorning procedures.” This is a tacit acknowledgement that disbudding is indeed less invasive and more painful than other methods of horn removal.

Other elements of the policy remain unchanged, including statements that:

  • Dehorning is painful.

  • Dehorning is important for human and animal safety (this is where the AVMA parts ways with most animal activists).

  • Dehorning should be performed at the earliest age practicable.

  • Research leading to new or improved pain relief methods is encouraged.

  • Disbudding is still the preferred method for dehorning calves.

The AVMA is arguably the largest supporter of animal welfare in the United States, and its recommendations should be taken seriously by both livestock producers and animal activists alike. We hope the AVMA considers including a recommendation for caustic paste disbudding, the least invasive dehorning method, in its next round of welfare policy updates.

What do you think of the AMVA’s revised position on dehorning?

Topics: Pain, Caustic Paste, AVMA, Welfare, Dehorning

When It Comes To Dehorning, Pain Relief Pays.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Oct 18, 2012

When it comes to dehorning, pain relief pays.Dehorning is a painful, stressful procedure. 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 a local anesthetic (nerve block) on dehorned calves, and only two percent used analgesia (like nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs or NSAIDs). A similar survey of Ontario dairy farms found only 23 percent of producers use lidocaine nerve blocks at the time of dehorning.

Those numbers might improve if producers were aware of the economic benefits associated with the use of pain relief and stress reduction. For example:

  • Reduced disease. All producers know that pain and stress increase an animal’s susceptibility to disease. An article published in the Journal of Animal Science in 2011 showed that calves treated with NSAIDs prior to castration experienced less bovine respiratory disease (BRD) in the feedlot. BRD steals dairy profits through treatment costs, reduced milk production and death loss; the impact is even greater on the beef side, where the disease costs an estimated $800 and $900 million a year. Producers can help reduce these losses by using pain relief for invasive procedures like dehorning.

  • Higher performance. Dr. Temple Grandin has written extensively on the impact of stress and fear on animal performance and meat quality. She has cited numerous studies showing that stressed animals experience significantly lower weight gains, reduced reproductive function including abortion, lower rumen function and lower milk yields. Conversely, reducing stress “will help reduce sickness and enable cattle to go back on feed more quickly,” she wrote. The Journal of Animal Science article showed that pain relief used in calves at castration can increase average daily gain.

So why aren’t more producers using pain management for dehorning? Cost is a factor, of course. So is lack of certainty over effectiveness, especially for paste disbudding which is minimally invasive to begin with. Then there’s the issue of training and anatomical knowledge, which may be necessary for determining dose, route, duration and frequency of drug administration.

 As the food animal system moves toward greater transparency, consumers increasingly want assurances that their food is produced in a safe and humane manner. Not only is pain relief good for the calf, and reassuring for the consumer, but it may actually be profitable as well.

Does pain relief pay in your operation?

Topics: Pain Relief, Dehorning Paste, Animal Welfare, Dehorning Pain, Dehorning

The Decline of Tail-Docking.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Sep 11, 2012

Tail-docking is declining.This past week, the Wall Street Journal ran an article on the decline of tail docking in the dairy industry. It cited the recent resolution by the National Milk Producers Federation to alter its position and oppose routine tail docking except in cases of traumatic injury to the animal.

The NMPF now recommends the practice be phased out completely by 2022, giving producers time to implement on-farm management changes to address udder hygiene, parlor design, worker safety and other reasons commonly cited for tail docking. The American Veterinary Medical Association and American Association of Bovine Practitioners already oppose tail docking, and the practice has been banned in California; other states will surely follow.

Activists undoubtedly see the decline in tail docking as a victory. However, the NMPF resolution also represents a victory of sorts for the dairy industry by taking control of the issue, and shaping it to minimize its impact on producers. In a letter to NMPF members, President Jerry Kozak wrote, “Rather than give the animal rights community a tool with which to beat on dairy farmers, it’s more prudent to be proactive, and use our heads to handle this ourselves.”

What does this mean for dehorning? It means the industry may soon need to take control of this narrative – as the NMPF has done with the issue of tail docking – and shape it so it not only aligns with changing welfare standards, but allows producers time to adjust for minimum negative impact on their operations.

What do you think of the new NMPF resolution opposing tail docking?

Topics: AVMA, AABP, NMPF, Dehorning, tail docking

How to Talk to a Reporter or Consumer about Dehorning.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Jul 19, 2012

ReporterUndercover video is the latest tactic used by animal rights activist groups to pressure farmers into abandoning common management practices. One major dairy product manufacturer is being targeted for accepting milk from farms where cows are dehorned. If your operation is among the majority that practices dehorning, be prepared for a call or visit from the media seeking comment on this issue. A calm, measured response can go a long way to help consumers see beyond the sensationalism, and paint a much more realistic portrait of animal agriculture. These points can also be used in farm social media to connect directly with consumers.

Key points to keep in mind when talking about dehorning:

  • Dehorning is necessary for human and animal safety.

  • Cow horns are dangerous for dogs, horses, other cows and all animals and people on a farm.

  • Many calves are dehorned early in life, before horn buds have a chance to attach to the skull. This procedure is called “disbudding.”

  • Early-age disbudding is preferred to minimize discomfort.

  • For older animals, dairy farmers and veterinarians work together to ensure horns are removed safely and humanely.

  • Dairy farmers are highly motivated to take very good care of their cows. All dairy farmers work regularly with veterinarians to keep their cows healthy.

  • Some cattle are bred hornless, but this is not practical for dairy cattle. It takes many generations (decades) to ensure cows inherit the proper traits, and may adversely affect the animals’ overall health.

Anyone can be victimized by an undercover video campaign. This excellent article posted on Dairy Herd Network, Are you ready for the cameras?, offers practical suggestions for dealing with the aftermath of a public relations crisis, including lining up resources and support to help your operation survive. It also offers great advice for any producer ready to step up and proactively present a more balanced viewpoint on animal agriculture.

Topics: Disbudding, Videos, Dehorning

10 Most Popular Posts on Horn Talk

Posted by Dave Lucas on Fri, Jun 22, 2012

Eighteen months ago, I wrote my first blog post for Horn Talk -- the first and thus far only blog dedicated exclusively to the subject of dehorning. Since then, Horn Talk, which is part of the Dehorning.com website, has logged thousands of page views from people all over the world. We’ve covered topics ranging from pain relief during dehorning to food traceability, and explored the perspectives of producers, veterinarians, activists and consumers on two continents. We’ve also been fortunate to feature guest blogs from the some of the brightest minds in the industry. Along the way, some posts seemed to have struck a nerve more than others. Here, in reverse order, are the 10 most popular posts to date on Horn Talk.

#10: Top 2 Consumer Misconceptions About Dehorning. This post had something for everyone: dairy farmers, beef producers, veterinarians, animal rights activists and, of course, consumers.

#9: UBC Survey: Is Pain Relief Needed When Disbudding Or Dehorning Calves? Dehorning is an invasive procedure, and pain relief is a topic we've returned to time and again on Horn Talk.

#8: New Mercy For Animals Video Shows Animal Cruelty And Dehorning. There’s no excuse for abusing calves. It’s especially unfortunate when a procedure like dehorning gets swept up in the scandal and forces the industry to repeatedly defend standard management practices that reduce the risk of injury to humans and animals.

#7: A Step-By-Step Guide To Using Dehorning Paste. It's not difficult to apply dehorning paste, but instructions should be followed carefully for best results. This post featured both a video and written instructions.

#6: Dr. Aurora Villarroel: My Experience With Dehorning Paste. Dr. Villarroel, an Extension Veterinarian at Oregon State University, has been one of the industry’s most passionate proponents of humane paste disbudding.

#5: PETA Proposes An End To Dehorning. Which organization has more credibility when it comes to advising dairy producers on the subject of dehorning? An animal rights group with a vegan agenda? Or the association representing more than 80,000 veterinarians in the United States?

#4: New McDonald’s Ad Campaign Features Suppliers. McDonald’s new focus on beef and produce suppliers got mixed reviews from consumers, but Horn Talk readers seemed favorably impressed.

#3: Managing Infection In Dehorned Calves. Apparently, a lot of people are searching the Internet for ways to prevent infection during dehorning (Hint: Try caustic paste disbudding). Quite a few of them are landing on this post.

#2:  Why Paste Disbudding Is Preferred At CY Heifer Farm. Horn Talk readers were intrigued by the story of a crew member’s painful encounter with a butane dehorner, and the switch to a new disbudding protocol for this upstate New York calf raising facility.

#1: How Caustic Dehorning Paste Works. One of our briefest posts ever, this straightforward explanation of how dehorning paste prevents horn growth continues to be the most popular blog post ever on Horn Talk.

Topics: Pain Relief, Dehorning Paste, How-To Dehorn Calves, Caustic Paste, Dehorning Process, Videos, Animal Welfare, Dr. Aurora Villarroel, Dehorning Pain, Dehorning

Top 2 Consumer Misconceptions About Dehorning

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, May 17, 2012

Dehorning is necessaryWe live in a society where 98% of people no longer have any direct ties to animal agriculture. Even sights as common as a prolapsed uterus or a case of scours can be horrifying for people who’ve never set foot on working farm. It’s no wonder certain typical animal management practices are sometimes viewed with confusion or even outrage. Dehorning in particular seems to elicit two common responses in non-ag audiences:

1. Dehorning is unnecessary.

2. Dehorning is cruel.

Is dehorning unnecessary? Those of us who make a living as dairy or beef producers know for a fact dehorning is absolutely essential for the safety of every cow, horse, dog and human on that farm. But don’t just take our word for it. Here’s what the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA), which represents 80,000 veterinarians, has to say about the Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle:

Dehorned cattle require less feeding trough space; are easier and less dangerous to handle and transport; present a lower risk of interference from dominant animals at feeding time; pose a reduced risk of injury to udders, flanks, and eyes of other cattle; present a lower injury risk for handlers, horses, and dogs; exhibit fewer aggressive behaviors associated with individual dominance; and may incur fewer financial penalties on sale.

Some argue dehorning is unnecessary because cattle can be bred polled, or naturally hornless. That’s true to a point (no pun intended). However, the vast majority of dairy cattle in the United States, and a significant number of beef cattle, are not polled. Breeding for this trait doesn’t happen overnight, and simply demanding producers buy and raise only polled cattle is unrealistic. For most dairy producers, dehorning remains an essential management practice for human and animal safety.

Is dehorning cruel? Some animal activist organizations would certainly have you think so, characterizing the practice as “mutilation” and claiming it involves cutting horns out of the animal’s skull. First, dehorning does not necessarily involve cutting horns out of the animal’s skull since horn buds don’t even attach to the skull until the eighth week of life. There’s plenty of time during those eight weeks for producers to disbud with a hot-iron or dehorning paste, neither of which involve any kind of cutting. Second, like any animal management practice, dehorning has the potential to be abusive in the hands of an untrained or insensitive employee. It’s up to farm owners and managers to take a zero-tolerance policy against animal abuse of any kind.

Could our industry do a better job of improving animal welfare? Yes, we could -- and we are, as evidenced by initiatives like the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) Gold Standards III which emphasizes humane handling and other welfare considerations.

Could we employ more humane dehorning methods? Certainly. Pain relief should be a routine part of any invasive procedure, which should be performed at the earliest age possible. Research has shown that early-age disbudding with caustic paste is less painful than hot-iron dehorning, even when a local anesthetic is used.

As we move toward greater transparency in the food animal system, producers will be increasingly called upon to answer questions about their management practices – and correct misconceptions. If welfare is a priority in your operation, you can feel free to answer tough questions with confidence.


Topics: Pain Relief, Caustic Paste, Disbudding, Dehorning Methods, Animal Welfare, Dehorning Pain, Dehorning