Dehorning and Pain Management

October 10, 2016

I have a favorite client who appreciates my sarcasm, acts as a sounding board, and helps me break my diet by providing a Snickers bar and a Mountain Dew after every herd check. Please don’t tell my wife. During our last herd check, we had an interesting discussion in the calf condominium. I can summarize the discussion in 3 words, ANIMALS EXPERIENCE PAIN. They feel it, react to it, and remember it.

We were beside calves at the time so our discussion specifically addressed dehorning, a necessary procedure needed to protect other animals and employees. First and foremost, dehorning must occur as early as possible, less than 4 weeks of age when horns are buds. Calves are easier to handle at this age and the procedure results in less trauma and recovery is quicker. No matter what procedure we use, whether we use paste, burn, cup, or cut, we inflict pain.

We have a responsibility to minimize the pain that animals feel. As a parent, I could not imagine watching my children experience an invasive dental procedure without the use of pain management. For that matter, I would not undergo those procedures without pain control. No part of me would “Man Up” and refuse help for I would be screaming for my mommy without it. Topical and injectable anesthetics, sedation, anesthesia, and oral pain medication or analgesics make us more comfortable so that we can return to some sort of normalcy during the recovery phase and so that we can return to play, school, work, and family sooner. The quicker my recovery and the less pain I experience, the sooner I can return to become a productive member of society.

We want our calves to recover quickly and become productive members of the farm society. When calves experience pain, intakes and average daily gain decline. When we provide pain management before a painful procedure, the decline in intakes and average daily gain is less. They return to normal intakes and weight gains more quickly. Today, we have very inexpensive and effective drugs to control pain. Lidocaine is dirt cheap and can be used in local nerve blocks which are not difficult to learn. Please ask you veterinarian to show you how to use nerve blocks in your cattle. A proper injection will quickly block the nerve, effectively making the area around the horn bud numb and will provide analgesia or pain control for 45 minutes to an hour. So, lidocaine is not a long term solution for pain control.

Usually, after a procedure, people will take non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDS) to help control pain over a longer period of time. Ibuprofen (Advil), Tylenol, Aleve, etc are examples of the oral medication that we take a few times a day for several days after a procedure. Unfortunately, in cattle the choices are more limited. Flunixin meglumine or Banamine is an approved drug, but it must be administered in the vein which is very difficult in calves. Meloxicam is an extra-label NSAID that comes in 15mg tablets at a cost of 3 cents per tablet. They quickly dissolve in warm fluids like milk or water and provide about 12 hours of pain control. Roughly, the dosage is ~45mg/100 pounds. Therefore, drop 3 pills in milk during the feeding before dehorning for a 100 pound calf and continue every 12 hours as needed. For less than 10 cents, you can provide pain control for a young calf. For larger cattle in need of pain relief, large gel capsules can be filled with meloxicam tablets, 3 pills for every 100 pounds. The commonly referenced slaughter withhold is 21 days and milk withhold is 96 hours. However, please consult with your veterinarian about withholds. Due to the extra-label classification of the drug, we recommend a longer 30 day slaughter withhold especially with longer treatment periods.

Dehorning larger cattle using techniques that create more tissue damage, such as cupping, cutting, and burning/cauterizing horns can be taxing to both you and the animal without proper pain control. In older, larger patients, meloxicam, lidocaine, and sedation may be warranted. Please consult with your veterinarian if considering sedation. When dealing with larger cattle with horns, there is nothing more enjoyable and relaxing than working with a snoring patient.

We must understand that animals feel pain. Very inexpensive medications and nerve blocking techniques exist today that provide effective pain control. We have the responsibility and obligation to provide pain management to animals under our care. Ask your veterinarian for assistance developing pain management protocols on your dairy.