In September, I had the opportunity to attend the American Association of Bovine Practitioner’s annual convention, along with more than 1,000 cattle veterinarians from around the world. One of the more thought-provoking sessions was entitled, “Cattle Pain Management.” It was an excellent discussion of all aspects of pain control in cattle, including ethics, the economics and rationale of pain management, pharmacology and drug use. It also showed me that this is an area where we have room for improvement.

Consider the animal

Our culture has not been concerned, typically, with limiting and reducing pain in cattle. Of course, no producer or veterinarian would deliberately or consciously inflict pain on an animal. But, generally, when we plan and organize routine tasks and treatments, we focus on our own convenience and efficiency. Concerns about preventing or mitigating pain and stress in the animals rarely get discussed or made a priority.

Take, for example, the routine tasks of dehorning calves and trimming feet. In both cases, I have often been somewhat insensitive to the animals’ pain. Yet, both are examples where we can reduce the pain involved in these procedures easily and inexpensively with sedatives and local anesthetics. 

I rarely give medication for pain following a surgical procedure, although doing so would probably speed recovery, as well as improve the cow’s well-being.

In bovine practice, the choices of medications available for controlling pain are limited. Aspirin and flunixamine are permissible with a valid veterinarian–client–patient relationship and if appropriate meat and milk withdrawal times are observed.  Lidocaine can be used as a local anesthetic, and probably should be used more frequently than it is. Xylazine, a tranquilizer, provides significant pain relief, but appropriate meat and milk withdrawals must be observed as well.

In human medicine, concerns about alleviating pain have become a high priority — due to the humanitarian aspects of controlling pain and the recognition that healing and recovery are improved with effective pain management. 

We can do better

Cattle are stoic creatures. But we should still be concerned about the level of pain they endure from "routine" treatments — and especially from non-routine treatments like surgery. Pain management should become a part of the culture on our dairies. 

In the last 10 years, we have learned to pay close attention to cow comfort, with resulting improvement in performance and profitability. Perhaps, in the next 10 years, we can take another step forward to recognize the benefits of pain management.

Taking conscious steps to reduce pain and stress in the cows and calves that we work with daily, and organizing routine tasks for their benefit as well as our own, would be a big step toward achieving that goal.

Brian Gerloff is a veterinarian and operates Seneca Bovine Service in Marengo, Ill.