Minimizing pain and stress for calves during dehorning

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer


Sarah Mills-Lloyd

More than ever, management practices pertaining to the well-being of livestock have come under the public’s scrutiny.

While many practices on dairy or beef operations are simply part of routine husbandry necessary in the of raising and caring for animals, some management practices including dehorning or castrating calves may be viewed as cruel by those outside of the industry.

Both animal activist groups The Humane Society of the United States and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals disapproves of dehorning.

"In the dairy industry, there are management practices some may view as inhumane or unnecessary. It is paramount to remember dairy farmers take great care and consideration for the well-being of their cows as they are integral to their livelihood and business," said Sarah Mills-Lloyd, agriculture agent and assistant professor UW-Extension Oconto County Agriculture Agent during the Wisconsin Dairy & Beef Well-being Conference in Green Bay.

Because fewer people are involved in animal agriculture, pain management has become increasingly important in veterinary medicine, especially in helping to address public concerns and to ensure the welfare of farm animals.

One of the first ordeals faced by calves beyond birthing and ear-tagging is dehorning. The practice of removing horns from dairy cattle is twofold: protecting the calf and its herd mates as well as the people handling the animals daily.

“Animals with horns are linked to aggressive behaviors so there’s more potential for injuries to other cows, and especially at a time of decreased margins we can’t afford to have carcass waste due to bruising because of horns,” said Mills-Lloyd, co-organizer of the conference. “There’s many slaughter plants out there that will not accept animals with horns.”

Animals with horns are linked to aggressive behaviors.

Removing horns from cattle also serves to minimize risks to farmers as well. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, it’s estimated that 22 people are killed by cows each year in the United States.

While the American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) recognizes that dehorning is a necessary management practice for human and animal safety, they also note that the practice also causes pain and recommends the use of procedures and practices including pain medications to help ease the discomfort.

“The (AVMA) recommends that dehorning be done at the earliest age practicable, and that disbudding is the preferred method of dehorning,” Mills-Lloyd said. “When done at an earlier stage there’s a less likely chance for a setback in growth and less complications from bleeding or a sinus infection.”

Mills-Lloyd says in calves less than two months of age, horn buds are free-floating. Disbudding procedures such as heat cauterization or using caustic paste works by destroying horn growth tissue. By the time a calf reaches 8 weeks, the buds begin to grow and attach themselves to the skull.

“As that horn grows, the frontal sinus grows up into the horn cavity, so when we take those horns off later in life it becomes an invasive surgical procedure leaving an open sinus which can lead to infection or other complications,” Mills-Lloyd said.

Using a cornual nerve block can help reduce pain and stress during the dehorning process.

Whether producers use heat or chemical cauterization or surgical procedures, calves display both external (head shaking, ear flicking, verbalizing and lack of feed or water intake) and internal behaviors (increased heart rate and elevated levels of stress hormone cortisol) that indicate the presence of pain.

“The hard part of the behavior aspect is that it’s subject to the interpretation of the individual,” Mills-Lloyd said. “Cattle behavior complicates this as animals tend to be stoic, disguising their pain until it becomes chronic.”

According to a USDA animal health monitoring survey in 2007, 59% of respondents reported using hot iron cauterization for dehorning calves with just 13.9% using pain medication for that particular procedure.

While the AVMA recommends the use of procedures and practices, including approved medications, to eliminate or mitigate discomfort, Lloyd-Mills says there aren’t many pain medications available, and many of those need to be prescribed by the veterinarian.

Studies show that applying a nerve block as well as a long lasting anesthetic prior to dehorning helps to minimize pain and stress to calves during and after the procedure.

"Farming practices, in this current time, are highly scrutinized and criticized by individuals and groups outside of agriculture," Mills-Lloyd said. "Therefore, it is critical for all farmers to emphasize proper management and use best practices for procedures to ensure the welfare of all animals."