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Raising the bar on cattle care

Pain management is becoming easier and cheaper, and pays dividends in animal performance and welfare

Pain management is among the latest revisions to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle.

Raising the bar on cattle care

Pain management is becoming easier and cheaper, and pays dividends in animal performance and welfare

Dr. Robert Tremblay, DVM, Bovine Specialist, Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health says that the industry has an arsenal of pain medication available, giving producers the ability to choose what works best for the situation.


You wouldn’t want to have surgery without something to manage the pain, and the livestock industry has realized that animals should have the same consideration.

“The industry identified pain management in livestock as an issue that it wanted to address,” says Dr. Robert Tremblay, DVM, a bovine specialist with Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health. “As tools were developed to measure pain, research began to look for ways to manage that pain. Animal health companies followed and began making treatments available for use in livestock management. And producers and veterinarians began to see the positive impacts of managing pain in their herds.”

Researchers started looking at pain in cattle almost 20 years ago. “It was difficult then because we didn’t have the measurement techniques established,” says Tremblay. “If you are wanting to show a benefit you need to be able to quantify that — how much pain? What is the benefit?”

Research has since identified signs to measure pain, such as metabolic levels and behaviours such as tail twitching or mothering up.

Pain management is among the latest revisions to the Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle. Dr. Roy Lewis, DVM, an Alberta large-animal vet and part-time tech services vet with Merck Animal Health, feels most producers have come to see the code as practical and developed for them with industry input.

“There are a lot of appendices that are fantastic resources — I keep it as a bit of a mini-Bible for animal care and suggest producers do the same.”

The code stipulates the need for pain mitigation in situations such as castration and branding.

Both Lewis and Tremblay say the producers are ahead of the code. For example, it sets a standard for castration of six months but many producers Lewis sees are completing this at two to three months. He believes 40 to 50 per cent of producers are using the code of practice in some way, and many are ahead of the guidelines.


Animal health companies are making it easier and cheaper to administer cattle pain medication such as non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).

The price is coming down with increasing competition, and less product is needed when applied to younger animals, as recommended in the code of practice.

“The beautiful thing right now is that you have an arsenal of pain medication available and you can select what works best for the situation,” says Lewis.

NSAIDs can also be used in feedlots, as most have short withdrawal times and can be used before slaughter.

Most NSAIDs are approved for use in specific conditions so it is important to work with a vet and follow the label.

Both Lewis and Tremblay say they have seen the benefits of NSAIDs first hand.

“We have really upped the bar on what we are giving pain medication for today. We always felt when we were doing procedures like a caesarean or treating cancer eye, that we were managing pain because we froze the area in advance of the procedure,” says Lewis.

But he says he realized the benefits of NSAIDs when he was at a vet college class and one of the students wanted to use one for a caesarean.

“It made a phenomenal difference in recovery time; she was back on feed almost right away. That case proved the value of pain management to me.”

Tremblay says he has seen similar examples when working with researchers and producers to identify benchmarks for pain.

“One example was during spring processing of a large herd and the vocalization of calves. With the use of NSAIDs, the producer saw it reduced significantly, and the calves got back on their moms quicker. That was an amazing example to me.”

Reduced pain means quicker recovery, maintained appetite and continued weight gain. Calves are also less susceptible to disease, and mother up more quickly after treatment.

But Tremblay cautions that NSAIDs treat symptoms, not the disease.

“So if you are treating for scours you still need to address the underlying condition. When treating a sick animal, pain medication will be part of the treatment and should be part of the plan and discussion with your veterinarian.”


While most producers acknowledge that keeping animals healthy is a good investment and the right thing to do, it’s also important to demonstrate proper animal welfare practices to consumers.

“The public realizes certain things cause pain, and that there are certain things we have to do,” says Lewis. And while methods are improved for castration and branding, and the need for procedures like dehorning is reduced, there is also a need to manage related pain.

Another benefit is managing the possible resistance to antibiotics as a result of overuse.

“There are some cases where you might try an NSAID to bring a fever down and might not need antibiotics,” Lewis says. “Producers see lameness in the field and often assume foot rot which requires antibiotics. But it may be any number of other things, which can be left or treated with a non-steroidal.”

Tremblay identifies spring processing and feedlot arrival processing as areas where the effects on animal health aren’t fully understood.

“Today producers will likely not treat an animal if they didn’t brand, castrate or dehorn but is there still an impact to the animal in the process that might warrant treatment to avoid negative consequences? Is there a way to reduce the impact?”

The beef industry is currently looking at what the future holds and the discussion includes sustainability.

“The OIE (an international animal health organization) has defined sustainability to include animal welfare which addresses the social responsibility piece coming from outside the industry,” says Tremblay.




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