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Vet Advice: Pain control in cattle

Vet Advice: Pain control in cattle

It’s that time of year again. Calving for many producers is nearing completion, especially for those trying to dodge the impact of bad weather and the last of winter’s snows. April and May are busy times on the calving grounds. Thoughts shift to processing this year’s calf crop. Branding dates are normally communicated to neighbours and friends, vaccines are purchased, bull calves castrated and ID tags ordered.

For those who have witnessed the decrease in recovery time and comfort associated with the addition of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) to processing protocols, products approved for use in cattle are purchased from veterinary clinics.

With better understanding and awareness of stress and pain and the negative effects of both, cattle producers are choosing methods of eliminating some painful procedures by breeding polled cattle and performing others when they are least stressful.

Pinpointing herd health issues in cattle is difficult because as prey animals, they typically hide their pain. Dr. Murray Gillies, past president of the Canadian Association of Bovine Veterinarians, says pain in cattle is a fairly new area of research, with pharmaceutical companies investing in this field. Gillies adds they’ve made many “advances trying to understand pain and stress on calves.”

Pharmaceutical products available to mitigate pain in cattle had been slow to come to market. But the demand for these products has grown recently as producers see the benefits of pain control plus growing pressure from consumers for information about how their food is produced. Results from a survey distributed by McEndree et al., Kansas State University, indicate a majority of the U.S. population is concerned about beef cattle welfare.

The use of NSAIDs to control discomfort associated with vaccination, dehorning and castration for a substantial number of beef producers has become entrenched in spring management routines. Calving difficulties, colic associated with scours, pneumonia and injuries are examples for other uses of NSAIDS outside of normal processing procedures.

Dr. Hans Coetzee, head of the department of anatomy and physiology at the Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine, has devoted extensive study and education over the years to the subject of pain management in food animals.

He references dehorning as one of the major areas of consumer concern relative to the perceived humane treatment of cattle. And, he says, it has been well established through research that dehorning is, indeed, a painful procedure.

Coetzee recommends veterinarians consider what he refers to as the four S’s of livestock pain management for dehorning, injuries and surgeries:

  • Suppress: When possible, make changes so a procedure is no longer necessary. In the case of dehorning, he says the adoption of polled genetics will eventually make dehorning obsolete.
  • Substitute: Refine how the procedure is performed to reduce pain. For horn removal, use disbudding versus dehorning by performing the procedure at a younger age before the horn bud has attached to the underlying bone. Changing calf handling techniques and restraining animals properly also can reduce stress and pain.
  • Soothe: Use analgesics to reduce pain before a procedure starts. Administering a local cornual nerve block with lidocaine before dehorning will help reduce pain caused by the procedure.
  • Supplement: Back up the initial pain mitigation with a longer-acting analgesic.

Veterinary-prescribed meloxicam given at the time of dehorning in addition to lidocaine can minimize the chronic inflammatory pain caused by the procedure for at least 48 hours. Together, they help control different parts of the pain pathway.

Providing analgesics in dehorning is considered a standard of care in the American Association of Bovine Practitioners’ (AABP) Dehorning Guidelines.

There are many older pain-relieving drugs available to Canadian veterinarians. They are also available to producers by a prescription issued by a licensed practitioner for specific indications and always with clear withdrawal information related to meat and milk. Information can be found in Extralabel use of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs in cattle, available online at, and other research websites. Following prescription rules is extremely important. As veterinarians, it’s essential we write it, say it and make sure both things happen.

Some producers might not be attuned to an animal’s need for pain management or prepared to pay for it. When such scenarios arise, veterinarians must be sensitive to client concerns while still recommending the product or practice. Often, once a producer sees the difference in how an animal responds, they are likely to support future efforts to reduce or eliminate an animal’s pain.

Interest in the welfare of cattle in the beef industry has intensified over time because of ethical concerns and varying societal perceptions that exist about the treatment and living conditions of farm animals. It is one of the “new normals.” The definition of welfare will vary according to an individual’s philosophies (how one defines and prioritizes what is “good”), experiences (societal and cultural influences of animal roles and relationships), and involvement in the livestock industry (knowledge of how livestock operations work and why).

Speaking of new normals, routines in the processing corral have changed with COVID-19. Things such as social distancing, personal hygiene, socializing and food preparation altered branding-day customs to the point some ranches waived the social aspect of spring processing altogether last year, abandoned the practice of hot-iron branding, purchased calf cradles and managed processing routines in smaller groups. Many limited the need for help. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association has a three-page fact sheet online with information on processing and branding during the pandemic.

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen or to the WCABP.

About the author


Dr. Ron Clarke

Dr. Ron Clarke prepares this column on behalf of the Western Canadian Association of Bovine Practitioners. Suggestions for future articles can be sent to Canadian Cattlemen ([email protected]) or WCABP ([email protected]).



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