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.