Dehorning Calves is Never Pain-free

Caustic paste is recommended for disbudding a day or two after birth. ( Pexels )

Disbudding and dehorning calves is a necessity for both the safety of cattle and their human handlers.

But any way you do it, disbudding will cause pain—and there is some evidence that sensitivity at the horn location can remain long after the procedure is done and even after healing occurs, says Jennifer Van Os, an animal welfare specialist with the University of Wisconsin.

Some calves can be sensitive to pain up to eight weeks and dehorning, says Van Os. “There is even some evidence that debudding done near birth actually increases long-term pain sensitivity,” she says.

University of Kentucky dairy specialists Lori Grinter, Donna Amarol-Phillips and Joao Costa agree. “No matter which method of disbudding is used, local anaesthetic and nonsteroidal antiinflamatory drugs (NSAIDS) should always be used to alleviate pain during and after disbudding,” they say.

The general recommendation is to disbud using caustic paste within two days of birth. At this age, the horn bud can just begin to be felt. Note: Doing so on the day of birth, however, may make calves sensitive to systemic pain later in life, says Van Os.

In addition to a pain blocker plus an anti-inflammatory NSAID treatment, she recommends placing duct tape over the horn bud after caustic paste is applied so that it doesn’t drain onto skin surrounding the bud. After all, she says, caustic paste, with a pH of 14, is in reality a chemical method of burning. Paste budding should not be done on animals older than a week of age.

The best dehorning method for calves one to six weeks of age is electric hot-iron debudding. Doing so at this age will kill the horn bud before it attaches to the skull. “At this young age, it is the least painful time for this procedure because the horn is still free floating; however, short and long-term pain management is required,” say the Kentucky dairy specialists.

A sedative, such as zylazine, can also be used to pacify calf behavior and protect the animal and the person performing the debudding procedure. But a sedative does not serve as pain relief, and a pain management protocol is still necessary.

Note that the current version of the FARM Program requires that each participating dairy have a Herd Health Plan in place that includes pain mitigation for disbudding and dehorning. It also requires disbudding or dehorning be done prior to 8 weeks of age in accordance with the recommendation of the herd’s veterinarian.

Because the United States does not have compounds specifically licensed for pain relief in cattle, extra-label drug regulations apply. So the use of pain blockers and NSAIDs must be done under the supervision of the herd’s veterinarian.

“Research indicates that calves receiving all three medications (sedative, local anaesthetic and NSAID) have a reduced pain response to caustic pain or hot-iron disbudding procedures,” say the Kentucky dairy specialists.

They recommend developing a sedation and pain management protocol or calf-care standard operating procedure with your herd veterinarian.

Submitted by Lifelong dairy man on Wed, 11/07/2018 - 05:57

You can tell our industry is becoming feminized. Where's the study and pain mitigation for castration of calves? all this fuss over a under 5 minute procedure. I've never in my life seen a calf turn down a meal even when fed immediately after dehorning. Do humans ever go through painful, but necessary procedures? Ever been to a dentist? I don't here anyone mandating children receive sedatives before dental procedures. Seems we have our priorities all screwed up. Grow up people. When we start going to bed hungry maybe some of this crap will end.

Submitted by DeeCeeBC on Sun, 02/24/2019 - 18:37

If by feminized, you mean, compassionate-- yes, and it's far past time.

There absolutely are studies about pain during and after castration and of course pain management should be involved.

Yes, humans go through painful procedures-- ever notice that dentists use xylocaine to numb the area and frequently will prescribe pain relief after?

And children often are sedated before procedures-- depending on the circumstances and the child.

People do not need to grow up to be empathetic and compassionate towards others. Children often lead the way.

In reply to by Lifelong dairy man (not verified)

Submitted by Kevin Funk, DVM on Wed, 11/07/2018 - 10:35

The use of a sedative on a calf would be extra-label also and would require the supervision of the herd veterinarian.

Submitted by Terron Pickett on Wed, 11/21/2018 - 13:56

leave them on, then you'll see animals in pain.

Submitted by Nick on Fri, 11/30/2018 - 01:39

I suspect the rationale behind sedation has got missed. You can disbud a lot of calves very quickly (and humanely) with sedation. It is a win-win as calf does not know a thing, and a 5 minute job becomes a 1 minute job. Yes, the vet-tech/vet must do this. This approach is used for large heifer rearing operations around the world. Has anyone got good experiences with polled sires? Not much choice at the moment.