Study: Always Use Pain Meds During Dehorning

Article published in the journal Animal Welfare seeks to raise awareness about the need for pain relief when debudding or dehorning dairy calves.

Male and female dairy calves can grow horns, depending on their genetic makeup.


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A study has found that 90 percent of people within and outside the international dairy industry believe that pain relief should be used when debudding or dehorning calves, a practice that is not universally carried out.

The research was done by a team at the University of British Columbia Animal Welfare Program in Canada and published in Animal Welfare, a peer-reviewed journal of the British charity Universities Federation for Animal Welfare.

The team stated that it hopes the findings serve to promoting awareness of the subject among veterinarians and dairy producers.

“Despite evidence that these procedures are painful, and the availability of effective means of pain relief, use of pain mitigation remains low in many parts of the world,” said study co-author Marina von Keyserlingk, MS, Ph.D., a professor of animal welfare at the University of British Columbia.

“Although veterinarians are able to provide pain control … approval of additional analgesics for use in food animals is also needed.”

She recommended that more effort be put into the breeding of polled, or hornless, dairy cattle.

Debudding is performed on young calves—often with hot irons or caustic paste—to eradicate horn-producing cells. Dehorning involves the use of cutting or gouging tools.

An American Veterinary Medical Association policy statement notes that debudding and dehorning cause pain and discomfort in animals and that local anesthetic and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs “should be considered.”

The procedures are done for various reasons.

“Dehorned cattle require less feeding trough space,” according to another AVMA document, “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.”

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Like AVMA, the American Association of Bovine Practitioners recommends the use of pain medication, and AABP guidelines state that dehorning is not always appropriate.

“Ideally, horns should be removed before the horn base grows larger than 1 inch in diameter,” the guidelines state. Wider horns “should be left in place and tipped only if necessary or required by processors.”

The study surveyed 354 people, including veterinarians, dairy producers, farm workers, researchers and outsiders. The findings were consistent across all groups.

The research team pointed out that three European nations—Denmark, the Netherlands and Sweden—legally mandate pain relief when calves of any age are debudded or dehorned.

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