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The problem with pain in cattle

Lee Jones for Progressive Cattle Published on 24 October 2019
Cow receiving pain control

Cattle experience pain. Even though they can be very good at disguising it, they do. Pain can come from injury, age (arthritis), natural activity (calving), disease or common management practices.

Stockmen care about their cattle and work to prevent or alleviate pain in their livestock. Pain in cattle is not only an animal welfare issue; it can also lead to poor production and increase the risk of disease or even death.

Painful procedures in raising livestock are unavoidable, but they are manageable. Common management practices that cause pain in cattle are castration, dehorning, ear tagging, tattoos, implanting and branding. Even vaccination injections are painful. But these practices are also necessary and beneficial to cattle in the long run.

A motto in veterinary medicine is “do no harm.” While some practices or procedures do cause pain or discomfort, these practices have a valid purpose and ultimate benefit to the animal and herd. In fact, not doing these procedures results in actual harm to the animals or herd compared to the short-term hurt or pain of performing them properly.

Pre-emptive pain

We recommend dehorning animals so they don’t injure each other with their horns or cause bruising that leads to carcass damage. We recommend castration to control aggression in males, improve carcass quality and reduce unwanted pregnancies. We recommend vaccination to prevent and control infectious diseases. So there are legitimate reasons for these procedures. However, pain is still a problem for producers, the animals and society’s view of our industry.

Pain isn’t simply an unpleasant physical experience. Pain causes the body to respond in predictable physical, physiological and psychological ways. An animal may show very little discomfort from short-term pain like an eartag or injection. Other procedures, though, like dehorning can cause long-term, severe and obvious pain. Chronic and severe pain can have serious consequences. Pain causes release of stress hormones which can be immunosuppressive.

In the short term, these hormones, including adrenaline, improve survival of animals. But long-term exposure to stress hormones such as adrenaline and cortisol are actually harmful to the animal. The stress of pain combined with relocation, transport or commingling can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

Pain may cause some animals to become aggressive or uncooperative. Dehorning mature cows can cause extreme pain, and the animal may become quite chute-shy and aggressive next time it is handled in a pen. The severe pain and stress of dehorning large horns can even occasionally cause abortion in heavy bred cows. Feedlot steers that are dehorned on arrival may go off feed due to the pain of being bumped in the head at the feedbunk.

Locale for administration

Immunosuppression caused by pain from procedures such as dehorning and castration puts an animal at risk for respiratory diseases (BRD). In fact, painful procedures on arrival in a feedlot are one of the justifications for using antimicrobials on high-risk cattle, known as metaphylaxis.

Cattle that don’t require castration or surgical dehorning have a significantly lower risk of developing BRD in the feedlot and often don’t require the expense of metaphylaxis. Bulls castrated after arrival had higher incidence of diseases, required more treatments, had higher death loss and lower average daily gain (ADG), and lower end carcass weight than did steers bought about the same time. In short, painful procedures set animals back in the feedlot.

Pain is really hard to assess in animals because every animal is different. We have to rely on behavior and clinical signs to tell if an animal is in pain. Since most animals are generally stoic by nature, if we see obvious signs of pain, it is generally quite severe and chronic. Signs of pain aren’t specific to pain, either. Pain signs like decreased feed intake, depression, isolation, won’t get up, changes in posture, weight loss, etc., can mean almost anything is wrong with the animal.

In some cases, farmers might think the animal has an infection when the actual problem is pain. Excited animals might hide signs of pain in a chute or pen but later might show signs when no one is watching (or when they think they are safe and away from threats). Livestock are essentially still prey animals and, naturally, animals that show pain become targets for predators. (Humans are still considered predators to some livestock.) Animals have to be in a safe, trusted environment to show pain.

Management of pain

The good news, though, is: This pain can be managed. A lot of research over the past 20 years has led to some reliable methods to control pain in livestock. Pain control not only provides physical relief for the animal, some research has shown pain management actually improves animal health and performance.

Using pain management in calves requiring dehorning or castration has been shown to reduce the incidence of diseases like BRD and improve appetite and weight gain following the procedure. A recent experience with my vet students and some beef stockers we purchased demonstrated the benefits of pain control in castrated and dehorned calves. Even though the calves were dehorned, they still went out of the chute to the feedbunk and started eating, and not one of the calves got sick and required antibiotic treatment after dehorning or castration when we used pain control.

Another positive note is: Timing of procedures also affects how much pain the calf experiences and whether or not drugs are even needed. As animals get older, blood supply and innervation increases to the poll and scrotum. Disbudding is the term used when removing the horn buds which, essentially, are only skin deep. After the skull grows into and attaches to the horn, the pain associated with dehorning increases. Removing the buds by either cautery or scooping is far less painful than cutting bone when dehorning.

Likewise, castration is less painful when performed at a younger age. Calves less than 200 pounds experience less pain than calves weighing 500 pounds or more. Nursing calves castrated and dehorned when they are young recover from the procedure quicker. Some producers who routinely use products like meloxicam when processing calves have reported a real improvement in calf behavior following the procedures.

Using the tools available

The bad news, though, is: We have few products approved for use in pain management in cattle. Fortunately, the FDA does allow some products to be used in cattle with a veterinary prescription. Pain management can be accomplished by several procedures, but the best is a combination of drugs.

Some drugs can be used for local anesthesia, some for systemic analgesia, and some are oral. Anesthetics like procaine or lidocaine are used locally (around the surgery site) to deaden the nerves so the animal doesn’t feel the pain of the surgery. Oral or injectable analgesics like NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) help reduce the pain and provide some long-term relief but don’t eliminate the sensation.

Local blocks, such as using lidocaine around the base of the horn or corneal nerve block, provide relief from the acute, severe pain of dehorning. Local anesthetics provide up to 90 minutes of relief. Using an oral product such as meloxicam also provides an extended pain relief. Injectable products like flunixine also provide relief but wear off in a few hours.

Research and experience have proven animals that receive pain control for known painful procedures do better after the procedure than animals that don’t. Calves eat better, gain more weight and get sick less than calves that don’t receive pain control. Dairy calves that receive a local block and an injectable anesthetic and analgesic like xylazine prior to being dehorned with electric cautery will actually nurse a bottle from the same person who dehorned it. Dairy calves that don’t receive any pain management will often avoid any contact with humans for several hours after dehorning.

Proper education

Even though we have tools to manage pain in livestock, and research has shown cattle that receive pain medication perform better after surgeries, acceptance of these techniques is still low. Concerns raised include cost, additional time required to administer the drugs, inadequate training how to use them and need for a prescription to get the drugs.

Compared to metaphylaxis, the cost of using pain control is much more economical. The techniques can be learned and adopted, and though it does require more time to provide pain control, the improved performance and reduced costs of antimicrobials makes pain control a more economical choice.

Ideally, these procedures need to be done when calves are less than 3 months old. The stress, pain and negative effects of dehorning and castrating young calves is much less severe than in older, bigger calves. Markets need to respond by discounting calves sold as bulls or with horns. Several economic studies have documented that the purchase price for these calves should be severely discounted due to increased veterinary costs and lower performance. Several studies have demonstrated the negative impact of castration on growth and performance, and increase of veterinary expenses in castrated cattle.

Providing pain control isn’t convenient, and we need to do everything we can to reduce the need for it for routine management practices. However, when it is appropriate, it is the right and humane thing to do.  end mark

PHOTO: A lot of research over the past 20 years has led to some reliable methods to control pain in livestock. Pain control not only provides physical relief for the animal, some research has shown that pain management actually improves animal health and performance. Photo by Cassidy Woolsey.

Lee Jones
  • Lee Jones

  • Beef Production Medicine and Field Services Veterinarian
  • Associate Professor
  • UGA College of Veterinary Medicine
  • Email Lee Jones