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

Using Dehorning Paste in Group Housing

Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Mar 19, 2013

Dehorning with Duct TapeDehorning paste is caustic, but when used properly is very safe and animal well-being friendly. To prevent the paste from running into the animal’s eyes or being rubbed onto other animals, most producers apply a ring of Udder Balm, petroleum jelly or some other protective barrier around the horn bud prior to application. It’s also a good idea to keep the animal indoors, out of rain and away from other animals for at least six hours.

That’s the proper protocol for using dehorning paste. However, through on-farm ingenuity, some producers and calf managers apply duct tape to the animal’s horn buds immediately after paste application to prevent contact with eyes or other animals. Although this isn’t necessary if proper caustic paste application instructions are followed, we offer the following tips for maximum safety and effectiveness:

  • Feed a suckling calf just before paste application and immediately after tape removal. A full, sleepy calf makes your job much easier.

  • Wear protective gloves to apply both the paste and tape.

  • Cut or tear off two pieces of tape – enough to cover the paste application site and a bit beyond – and place them in a criss-cross pattern over each horn bud.

  • Keep the calf out of rain for at least six hours. This rule applies with or without duct tape.

  • Some managers wrap duct tape completely around the calf’s head. This is not optimal as it can interfere with breathing or swallowing, and is difficult and stressful to remove later.

  • Remove tape after six hours. Some producers allow the duct tape to fall off on its owner; however, experience with this is limited.

  • Once the tape is removed, the application sites may still be damp. Allow application sites to dry completely before the calf goes outside or has contact with other animals.

Do you use duct tape for caustic paste disbudding?

Topics: Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Duct tape

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

Top 4 Reasons To Convert To Dehorning Paste.

Posted by Dave Lucas on Wed, Aug 22, 2012

Dehorning PasateAn increasing number of dairy producers are converting from hot-iron to caustic paste for early age dehorning. Here’s why:

1. Paste is less painful: Research from the University of British Columbia found that calves dehorned with caustic paste experience less pain than calves dehorned with a hot iron, even when a local anesthetic is used.

2. Paste is safer for crew: You may remember this guest blog by Jeanne Wormuth, manager at CY Heifer Farm, citing an employee’s burn injury as the main reason her facility switched to paste. There’s also no need for a squeeze chute or extreme physical restraint. Check out this video of a calf being dehorned with caustic paste.

3. Paste has high acceptance in the industry: Caustic paste is consistent with recommendations from the Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) Gold Standards III, which recommends a “cautery” method at less than one month of age, and the AVMA Animal Welfare Policy, which recommends that dehorning be performed “at the earliest age practicable.”  

4. Paste is preferred by consumers: With paste, there’s no smoke, no bawling and very little, if any, resistance from the calf. And there’s nothing sensational to capture in an undercover video

Still curious about paste? Check out these Top 5 Producer Concerns about Using Caustic Dehorning Paste, then try paste for yourself. Humane animal management practices are a good enough reason to switch, and are increasingly being requested by consumers. Why wouldn’t you switch?



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.

USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.

Vickers, K.J. et al. Calf Response to Caustic Paste and Hot-Iron Dehorning Using Sedation With and Without Local Anesthetic. April 2005. J. Dairy Sci. 88:1454-1459

    Topics: AVMA Policy, Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Hot-Iron Dehorning, Dehorning Pain, DCHA

    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

    A 5-Step Dehorning Protocol

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Tue, Apr 24, 2012

    Disbudding with Caustic PasteIn its most recent issue of Ag Animal Health, Washington State University Veterinary Medicine Extension cites the four-step pain management process recommended for dehorning by Dr. Todd Duffield of Ontario Veterinary College:

    1. Develop a dehorning protocol

    2. Use a Lidocaine nerve block

    3. Dehorn calves less than four weeks of age

    4. Use an approved NSAID (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug) for calves over four months of age

     We’ve cited Dr. Duffield’s AABP Proceedings article, Current Data On Dehorning Calves, in several blogs, including Dehorning and Analgesia and Is Paste Disbudding Really More Humane? This protocol is certainly consistent with the new Dairy Calf and Heifer Association Gold Standards which call for disbudding calves under one month of age with “cautery” methods and local anesthesia. For older calves, the DCHA recommends using both local anesthesia and sedation.

    The editor of Ag Animal Health recommends a fifth step to Dr. Duffield’s protocol: Training and retraining individuals conducting dehorning procedures. This is so common-sense, it almost seems ludicrous to include it in a formal protocol. However, many of us in the business have witnessed or heard about dehorning mishaps that result in injuries to crew members. You may recall Jeanne Wormuth’s guest blog last year about the employee who accidentally burned herself with a butane dehorner, prompting the calf-growing operation to switch to caustic paste.

    However, even caustic paste needs to be handled with care. Dehorning.com offers two important resources to help train crew members in dehorning paste application. Feel free to use one or both in your own operation:

    Do you think five steps in a dehorning protocol is too few? Too many? Or just right?


    Topics: Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Disbudding, Todd Duffield, Dehorning Protocol, Dehorning Pain

    Dr. Kurt Vogel: Assessing Pain and Stress in Livestock

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Nov 3, 2011

    Dr. Kurt Vogel


    This week's blog post is written by Dr. Kurt Vogel, Ph.D, an Assistant Professor of Animal Science, Livestock Welfare and Behavior at the University of Wisconsin–River Falls. Dr. Vogel studied at Colorado State University under noted animal welfare activist Temple Grandin. He teaches courses in animal welfare and physiology, conducts research on the impact of management on livestock welfare, recently hosted a series of seminars on societal ethics and animal agriculture, and was profiled in the August issue of Drovers Cattle Network.


    By Guest Blogger: Kurt D. Vogel, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Livestock Welfare and Behavior, University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

    In any science-based discussion of painful procedures that are performed in livestock management systems, common terms and phrases like cortisol, epinephrine, heart rate, and vocalization are likely to come up. From the sidelines, it may appear that assessing animal pain is reasonably straightforward: just pull a blood sample, analyze the concentration of a pain-indicating substance in the blood, and – voila! – the amount of pain the animal experienced is revealed. Unfortunately, assessing animal pain is not that simple. There are many factors that influence the quality and suitability of the pain assessment measures that we use. Let’s take a look at a couple of the factors that must be considered when an assessment of animal pain is performed.

    The first consideration to make when performing an assessment of animal pain is the suitability of the measurement. Let’s use the stress hormone cortisol as an example. Cortisol is released by the adrenal glands in response to some sort of immediate stressor – fear and pain are a couple of examples. The major physiological role of cortisol is to increase the amount of glucose that is circulating in the blood. The resulting increase in blood glucose gives the body the extra energy it needs to overcome the stressor. This is a small part of the body’s response to an immediate or acute stressor. So, in cases where we need to determine how much stress an animal experiences in response to a short-term painful event, cortisol is quite useful. However, when the animal is under chronic stress, blood cortisol levels will increase immediately after the stress has begun, but will return to normal or near normal even though the animal may still be experiencing some level of pain. This is one of the reasons why cortisol is not, and should not be, the sole indicator of animal pain and stress in scientific literature. From the standpoint of an animal welfare scientist, acute pain and stress is much simpler to assess than chronic stress.

    Another challenge to assessing animal pain and stress is accounting for the presence of humans in close proximity to the animals. For most domestic livestock, close contact with a human can be highly stressful. If we plan to assess the amount of pain that calves experience during the application of caustic paste to the horn buds, we have to compare the response of the calves to calves that did not receive the paste application. We call this a ‘sham’ procedure. During a sham procedure, all of the handling associated with the procedure is performed and the same indicators of pain and stress are measured. The data that is collected from the ‘sham’ procedure is then used to factor out the amount of stress that the calf experienced from close contact and handling by humans.

    Ultimately, the scientific assessment of the amount of pain and stress that an animal experiences during a painful procedure can be challenging to quantify. Much of the research that has been conducted on the amount of pain experienced by domestic livestock has focused on the amount of acute pain that the animals experienced. Newer studies have identified methods to perform longer-term assessments of pain and stress, but there is still much work to be done to fully understand the chronic pain response in animals.

    Topics: Pain Relief, Dehorning Paste, Caustic Paste, Cortisol, Dehorning Pain

    Paste Dehorning Posters a Hit at AABP

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Fri, Sep 30, 2011

    Dehorning PosterWe were happy to provide Dr. Aurora Villarroel, an Extension Veterinarian at Oregon State University, with 250 laminated copies of her paste dehorning poster for her presentation at last week’s conference of the American Association of Bovine Practitioners (AABP) in St. Louis, MO. We were even happier to learn all 250 copies were snatched up by attendees.

    “The veterinarians and students at AABP loved the posters” said Dr. Villarroel. “I just was sorry I didn’t have more copies to hand out.”

    Dehorning.com readers may remember Dr. Villarroel from her guest blog last April about her experience with dehorning paste, and from her November 2010 article in Hoard’s Dairyman, Dehorn Calves Early. She was one of several experts invited to speak on a range of topics related to cattle health at the AABP’s 44th Annual Conference. Her presentation, part of a Practice Tips series, emphasized the ease, effectiveness and economics of disbudding with caustic paste.

    “I showed several videos that demonstrated the minimal reaction of the calves,” said Dr. Villarroel, “and how easy it is to apply the paste.” She also addressed timing (“before two days of age” and “after a bottle”), the amount to use (“the size of a dime”) and follow-up care (“don’t let calves get wet for 24 hours”). Dr. Villarroel noted that producers who have switched to paste report great success with no complications, and only minor head shaking in response to application.

    Dr.Villarroel’s paste dehorning poster has been promoted in numerous industry publications and websites, including Bovine Veterinarian Magazine and Dairy Herd Network, and features step-by-step application instructions in both English and Spanish. You can download the poster here or contact Dr. Villarroel for more information at aurora.villarroel@oregonstate.edu

    Topics: Dehorning Poster, Dehorning Paste, AABP, Poster, Dr. Aurora Villarroel

    When Is The Ideal Time To Apply Dehorning Paste?

    Posted by Dave Lucas on Thu, Sep 8, 2011
    Caustic paste disbudding can be effectively performed on dairy calves up to the point where the horn buds attach to the skull, around eight weeks of age. Practically speaking, however, the procedure really should be performed much sooner, within a few days of birth, for reasons that benefit both the operation and the animal.

    At this age, horn buds are still free-floating and quite small. Only a very small amount of dehorning paste applied to this area – about the size of U.S. nickel – is needed to effectively destroy horn-producing tissue. Three- and four-day old calves are docile and easy to handle (especially after a good meal), with no need for squeeze chutes or much restraint beyond a firm grasp. One of our guest bloggers, Jeanne Wormuth, tells us when she applies dehorning paste to sleepy, just-fed dairy calves, many don’t react at all.

    Unlike older calves, which may need up to two weeks to return to their pre-dehorning weight,1 calves disbudded within a few days of birth usually recover quickly. They’re also less likely to experience infections, blood loss or other complications associated with mechanical dehorning.

    Most important, early-age disbudding makes sense from an animal welfare perspective. As Dr. Todd Duffield from the University of Guelph Ontario Veterinary College says, “It is generally accepted that the younger the animal is the less painful the dehorning procedure is.”2 A University of Guelph experiment showed that calves under four weeks of age exhibited less of a pain response to hot-iron dehorning than older calves.2

    Unfortunately, cattle producers in the United States tend to dehorn at a much later age when the procedure is more invasive and the risks of complications higher. Only about a third of dairy calves3 and less than one-fourth of beef calves4 are disbudded by eight weeks of age. Compare this to dehorning practices in Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and other countries where caustic paste is typically applied within a few days of birth.5

    Are you using caustic paste within the first week of age? Why or why not?

    1. Fred Hopkins, et al. Cattle Preconditioning: Dehorning Calves. Cattle Network. 7/09/2009. www.cattlenetwork.com
    2. Todd Duffield, DVM, DVSc. Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. Current Data on Dehorning Calves, Current Data on Dehorning Calves, AABP Proceedings, Vol. 41, September 2008.
    3. 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.
    4. USDA APHIS, Veterinary Services, National Animal Health Monitoring System, October 2008. Reference of Beef Cow-Calf Management Practices in the United States, 2007-2008.
    5. 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

    Topics: Dehorning Paste, Disbudding, Jeanne Wormuth

    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