Recently, I was part of a discussion where representatives of milk cooperatives told the group that veterinarians do not support the requirement of pain management for disbudding and dehorning. Quite honestly, I was dumbfounded. No names of veterinarians were mentioned, but the implications of their statements are clear. Either those statements are true, and our profession has some soul searching to do, or those statements are false and dairy veterinarians are being used as an excuse for the industry to not step up and manage pain. I refuse to believe that their statements can be true, and I indicated as much to the group. That is not my profession! My profession takes an oath to “the prevention and relief of animal suffering!”
As a colleague, I am asking for your help. If you are reading this and you support the use of pain management for disbudding and dehorning, I am asking you to speak up. Please use the link below to go to a page where you can comment to the Farmer’s Assuring Responsible Management or FARM Animal Care program in the United States, anonymously if you prefer. Note that you are a veterinarian and you believe pain management for dehorning should be the standard of care for dairy cattle.
Visit this site to learn more about the FARM standards and to submit comments. The comment period closes on Sunday, March 31st.
If you are reading this and you are not convinced, let me take the rest of this article and try to convey my perspective as a veterinarian who both supports a cooperative of dairyman, and who interacts with dairy plants and retailers. There are lots of different reasons a practitioner might not unconditionally support pain management for disbudding and dehorning. Let’s go through the ones that I have heard as I have discussed this topic with colleagues in the recent weeks.
- As the veterinarian, I am uncomfortable with pain management because it requires extra label drug use. This is certainly understandable. At the same time, most every practice I have ever been in uses extra label drugs on a not infrequent basis, partially because there are no drugs labeled for diseases we as practitioners are called on to treat. That is the case with pain management. There simply are not label drugs to treat pain associated with disbudding in dairy calves under 60 days old. I acknowledge the lack of a label drug means the veterinarian assumes the risk if they prescribe pain management. At the same time, few if any dairy calves will enter the food supply at such a young age. It is also likely that at least one of your clients perhaps uses a mastitis tube on a 24 hour dosing interval, rather than the 12 hour interval the label indicates or uses a metritis treatment that is not labeled for metritis when there are other drugs that are labeled for metritis. Ethically, it is questionable to cite ELDU as the issue, when we use ELDU to our advantage at other times in practice!
- As the veterinarian, I am supporting my client, because I disagree with industry telling them how to dairy. Also, as the veterinarian, I resent being told how to practice medicine. I have heard both of these sentiments expressed. Certainly, nobody likes being told what to do. That is understandable as well. Yet the idea that somehow drawing the line in the sand on principle here will “stem the tide” is a bit short sighted. In today’s market driven world, the consumer gets to vote with their dollars, whether their view is informed or not. As the dairy industry interacts with retailers on this and other issues, it can at times be a rocky discourse, but as a whole it is a healthy relationship. There are lots of animal care and veterinary topics that are on the table. It is impossible to take a strong stand against every single one, and still have a productive relationship. Producers and veterinarians may not be on the front line of those discussions, but like it or not we are all effected by them. We will have to decide when and where the industry wants to make a strong stand, because we can simply not fight over everything. I submit to you, that perhaps the use of antibiotics and reproductive hormones may be a better place to make our stand than on pain management! I will add that taking a stand on this issue risks weakening the industry’s ability to regulate its own animal care through the National Milk Producers Federation’s Farmers Assuring Responsible Management or F.A.R.M. program, and divides dairy producers at a time when we need to be united. There are already several areas of the country and at least eight dairy processors/cooperatives in the United States that have already made pain management mandatory. That means failing to make pain management mandatory in this version of FARM sets the precedent for processors to continue to set standards above and beyond the FARM program standards. It also paints the program as not being progressive enough, and not listening to the needs of industry (dairyman centric).
- As the veterinarian, I do not believe that disbudding is painful. There is significant weight of evidence that disbudding or dehorning, by all methods, causes pain. If you would like to read up on some of that evidence, I am including a few citations below where you can do so.
Addcock, S.J., Tucker, C.A., Advances in Cattle Welfare. 1st ed. Elsevier Academic Press; c2018. Chapter 7. 7 - Painful procedures: When and what should we be measuring in cattle?, Pages 157-198,
Stafford, K.J., Mellor, D.J., 2011. Addressing the pain associated with disbudding and dehorning in cattle. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 135, 226– 231
Stock, M.L., Baldridge, S.L., Griffin, D., Coetzee, J.F., 2013. Bovine dehorning: Assessing pain and providing analgesic management. Vet. Clin. N. Am. Food Anim. Pract. 29, 103-133
Winder, C.B., LeBlanc, S.J., Haley, D.B., Lissemore, K.D., Godkin, M.A., Duffield, T.F., 2017. Clinical trial of local anesthetic protocols for acute pain associated with caustic paste disbudding in dairy calves. J. Dairy Sci. 100, 6429–6441
- As the veterinarian, I do not believe that pain management is necessary or even beneficial. It is hard to argue that for many years the standard has been to dehorn or disbud without any pain management. I will not argue that the calves do not survive, but that’s not really the question. Bovines will live through things that would bury us as humans. They are truly a hardy and stoic animal. Since the time that we domesticated cattle, their care and well-being has become our responsibility. The real question then is, is surviving the same as thriving? The mere fact that we can do the procedure without pain mitigation is somewhat irrelevant then. If we know a process causes pain, and we have options available to mitigate pain but fail to use any of them, that cannot be construed as a defensible standard of care. The AABP, in their guidelines of dehorning and castration states: “All mechanical and chemical methods of dehorning and methods of castration are painful, and calves benefit from the mitigation of both pain associated with the procedure itself and during the recovery and healing period.”
Practicing these days may seem like a brave new world, with all the changes and external forces we individually and as a profession are subjected to. Yet the veterinarian is a respected authority on animal care to consumers and retailers alike, and we must do everything within our power to maintain that trust. To do so, though it may not be easy or always align with our emotions and feelings, we need to ensure that we are advocating for the animals we care for. I am asking each of you to self-contemplate whether your opinion on pain management advocates for the cattle in your practice, or is motivated by other factors.
Learn more and submit your comments on the National Dairy FARM website.
See the Castration and Dehorning Guidelines from the American Association of Bovine Practitioners.
Brandon Treichler, DVM, serves as Quality Control Veterinarian with Select Milk Producers, and is a member of the AABP Animal Welfare Committee.
For more on pain management, see these articles on BovineVetOnline: