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Pain Mitigation in Beef Cattle

An Opportunity to Improve Animal Welfare and Performance

By Autumn Lawson, Summer Student, Moose Jaw

May 2019

Cattle producers are busy this time of year processing calves: branding, castrating, and possibly dehorning. These routine management practices can be necessary for the animal’s long term health and wellbeing. For example, castration decreases aggression to enhance safety, prevents random mating, and produces quality meat for consumers. And, while necessary, without proper management these procedures can be painful.

Pain can be divided into two categories: acute and chronic. Acute pain is short-lived with high intensity and chronic pain is less intense but lasts longer. The extent of pain that an animal endures is highly variable. The invasiveness of the procedure, method used, and age of the animal can all have an impact. For example, castration can be performed surgically, with an elastrator band or a burdizzo. Surgical castration causes greater acute pain that lasts a few days. On the other hand, banding causes less intense, but more chronic pain that lasts for over a month.

Whatever method is used, it is best practice for producers to use appropriate pain control. Pain mitigation required and recommended practices are outlined in the Codes of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle published by the National Farm Animal Care Council.

The Codes of Practice states:

  • Seek guidance from your veterinarian on the availability and advisability of pain control for disbudding, dehorning, castrating, and branding beef cattle.
  • To use pain control, in consultation with your veterinarian, when castrating bulls older than six months.
  • To use pain control, in consultation with your veterinarian, when dehorning after the horn bud has attached (over two to three months of age).
  • The first step to implementing pain control measures is to consult your veterinarian, and make a plan for appropriate type and dose of product, and time of application.

In general, pain control falls into two categories: anesthetics and analgesics. Anesthetics temporarily block all sensation, including pain (ex. Lidocaine). Anesthetics are applied locally in most cases, to cause numbness to a particular area. Analgesics temporarily eliminate pain and usually have an anti-inflammatory effect. Analgesics are similar to Tylenol (ex. Metacam, Banamine). Analgesics are most common for on-farm use, and are available with a prescription from your veterinarian.

In addition to using pain mitigation drugs, there are a few simple things you can do to minimize the pain of these procedures:

  1.  Have trained and competent personnel perform the task. This minimizes the chance of error and decreases the time it will take. The Producer Assurance Rebate Program has funding available for pain control administration training by a veterinarian. The cost of the training and mileage are eligible for a rebate.
  2. Ensure that all equipment is in good repair and is working properly.
  3. Perform procedures when the animals are as young as practically possible to minimize the impact, as the wound should be smaller with less blood loss.

Besides improving animal welfare and meeting consumer demands, using pain control can also have performance benefits. Research has shown that bulls, especially after weaning, that were given pain control returned to feed faster after the procedure, and had increased gains in the long run.

Pain mitigation is an area of ongoing research that continues to evaluate the effectiveness and practically of different pain mitigation measures. For more information, contact your veterinarian or the Agriculture Knowledge Centre at 1-866-457-2377.

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