Horn Talk Blog

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