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 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

Typical Dehorning Practices Leave Room For Improvement

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Aug 18, 2011

When it comes to dehorning, if you’re a typical dairy producer in the United States, chances are

  • you use a hot-iron1
  • you dehorn between eight and 12 weeks of age1
  • you don’t use anesthesia or analgesia1
If you’re a typical beef producer, you most likely dehorn
  • with a saw, Barnes or keystone (guillotine) dehorner2
  • around 13 weeks of age2
  • with no anesthesia or analgesia

What about dairy and beef producers outside the United States? Well, if you’re a producer in Europe, you are far more likely to practice early-age disbudding and use anesthesia and/or analgesia than your American counterparts.3 In the EU, 80 percent of dairy cows and only 26% of beef cattle are dehorned, and very few are polled.3

These are just averages, of course, and there is great variation in dehorning practices even within the same production segment. For example, cow-calf producers in the western U. S. are far less likely to use saws, Barnes or keystone dehorners (14%) than cow-calf producers in the eastern U.S. (59%).2 But these numbers do provide a broad look at the practice of dehorning in general, and highlight areas where improvements can be made, especially in the areas of pain relief and early-age disbudding.

When it comes to dehorning, what improvements do you think are needed?


  1. 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.
  2. USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.
  3. Cattle Dehorning and Alternatives in the EU. The CattleSite.com. November 2010. www.thecattlesite.com/articles/2540/cattle-dehorning-and-alternatives-in-the-eu

Topics: Research, Pain Relief, Dehorning Methods

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

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

Dehorning in Europe

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Jun 23, 2011
Last November, the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Consumers, Animal Health and Welfare Directorate released a study on alternatives to cattle dehorning in the European Union. It provides a fascinating glimpse into food animal management practices overseas, highlighting some surprising similarities and differences between operations in Europe and here in the U.S.

Nearly 100 dairy and beef farmers in Italy, Germany and France were interviewed about their practices and attitudes toward dehorning. Compared to U.S. producers, farmers in Europe were slightly less likely to dehorn dairy cattle (approximately 80 percent hornless), and much less likely to dehorn beef cattle (less than 40 percent hornless).1

Most E.U. farmers prefer disbudding over dehorning. Hot-iron disbudding is the most used method, however, the use of caustic paste appears more frequent in the South and the Eastern member states. Surprisingly, most beef farmers in Europe prefer hot-iron disbudding, in contrast to U.S. beef producers, who mostly use mechanical methods. Reasons cited for disbudding as opposed to dehorning include ease for the operator and less pain and stress on calves.1

These findings are consistent with dehorning practices in other countries, including Canada, where the CVMA recommends disbudding in the first week of life, and New Zealand and Australia, where authorities recommend disbudding at the youngest age possible.2

Raising polled animals is an alternative explored in the study. Currently, the prevalence of polled cattle in Europe is very low, less than one percent for dairy and less than four percent for beef.1 European farmers have indicate they may be interested in polled bulls with high genetic merit, and the development of breeding programs for Holstein and Charolais cattle are underway.  Some negative traits have appeared in German Fleckvieh breeding programs, and more research is needed to determine if these are linked to the polled gene.

What do you find most and least surprising about dehorning practices in Europe?

  1. Cattle Dehorning and Alternatives in the EU. The CattleSite.com. November 2010. www.thecattlesite.com/articles/2540/cattle-dehorning-and-alternatives-in-the-eu
  2. AVMA Backgrounder: Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. January 28, 2010.
Disbudding and Dehorning

Topics: Disbudding, Dehorning Methods

Dehorning Adds Value in Preconditioning Programs

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Jun 16, 2011

The purpose of a preconditioning program is to maximize calf value, mainly by boosting immunity, enhancing performance through subsequent production stages and improving carcass quality. Most major calf preconditioning programs now recommend dehorning along with vaccination, castration and other management practices. It’s easy to see why. Market surveys from across the United States show dehorning adds significant value at sale time:

  • A 2005 Arkansas livestock market survey found polled/dehorned feeder calves sold for an average of $3.70 per hundredweight more than horned cattle.1

  • Reports from Eastern Oklahoma show polled/dehorned cattle sold for $3.23/cwt more than horned cattle (Cattle Business in Mississippi, 2009).2

  • Reports from southeastern states estimate that polled/dehorned calves sell for $1.50 to $2.00/cwt more than horned calves (CBM, 2009).2

Higher carcass quality is one of the main reasons dehorned cattle command price premiums like these. Audits have shown horned cattle can have twice as many bruises than hornless cattle, and that bruises are mostly to the rib, loin, round and other costly cuts.3 According to the 2005 National Beef Quality Audit, the percent of cattle without horns passing through packing plants is the highest it’s ever been, at 78 percent.4 Not coincidentally, the percent of animals without bruises is also the highest it’s ever been, at 65 percent.4

There are at least two ways you can make the most of the dehorning premium in your operation:

  • Practice early-age disbudding, which minimizes stress on the animal and reduces production losses associated with invasive, mechanical dehorning at a later age.

  • Participate in preconditioning programs that incorporate dehorning in their calf management protocols, such as Merial’s SUREHEALTH program.

How do you incorporate dehorning in your calf preconditioning program?


  1. Jeremy Powell. Preconditioning Programs for Beef Calves. University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture. http://www.uaex.edu/Other_Areas/publications/PDF/FSA-3074.pdf
  2. Justin Rhinehart. Dehorning: Economically Important But Often Overlooked. Cattle Business in Mississippi, 2009. http://msucares.com/livestock/beef/stocker_sep2009.pdf
  3. Fred M. Hopkins, et al. Dehorning Calves. Agricultural Extension Service, University of Tennessee, PB 1684. http://www.tnbeefcattleinitiative.org/pdf/production/PB1684.pdf
  4. National Beef Quality Audit 2005. http://meat.tamu.edu/nonconform/belknbqa.pdf
Dehorn Calves Early

Topics: Research, Preconditioning Programs, Dehorning Methods

Managing Infection in Dehorned Calves

Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Jun 9, 2011

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.

Several diseases can be spread by dehorning instruments contaminated with blood from infected animals. Researchers at the University of California found that gouge dehorning significantly increased the risk of bovine leukemia virus (BLV) infection in dairy heifers.2 Conversely, not dehorning with a gouge dehorner reduced the risk of BLV transmission by up to 80 percent.2 Other diseases associated with contaminated dehorning equipment include anaplasmosis, bovine cutaneous papillomas3 and tetanus.3

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?


  1. The Merck Veterinary Manual, 9th Edition, 2011.
  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.
  3. Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle. American Veterinary Medical Association’s Animal Welfare Division. January 28, 2010.

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Topics: Research, How-To Dehorn Calves, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Disbudding, Dehorning Methods

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

UBC Survey: Is Pain Relief Needed When Disbudding or Dehorning Calves?

Posted by Dave Lucas on Fri, May 6, 2011
Researchers at the University of British Columbia recently posted an online survey asking dairy producers and other industry folks about their attitudes toward dehorning and pain control. Participants are asked to provide their views on this question: “Should we provide pain relief for disbudding and dehorning dairy calves?

Responses are still coming in, but so far, it looks like the majority believe pain relief should be provided for reasons ranging from, “We have the responsibility to treat production animals as co-existent beings” (45%) to “It can make the procedure easier” (1%).

Respondents arguing against pain relief cite the risk of cattle eventually having “more rights than a human”, or veterinarians raising the price of their services.

We realize this survey doesn’t purport to represent a statistically significant sample of dairy producer attitudes toward dehorning and pain control. But we are nonetheless surprised at the disconnect between this online questionnaire and a Colorado State University study of 113 dairies showing only 12% of producers used anesthesia during dehorning, and less than two percent used analgesia (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).

What do you think accounts for discrepancy? Is it possible producer attitudes have undergone a dramatic shift toward dehorning and pain control in just a few short years? Are attitudes simply not a reliable indicator of actual management practices?

One thing is certain: We wouldn’t even be having this discussion a generation ago. Attitudes toward food animal production are slowly but inexorably changing among producers and consumers alike. Some veterinarians believe analgesia will be required for dehorning, castration and other management practices within the next five to 10 years.

What do you think?

Dehorn Calves Early

Topics: Research, Pain Relief, Disbudding, Dehorning Methods