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February 15, 2020

AABP calls for pain control during horn removal

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Dairy cows
In horned cattle breeds, calves are born with horn buds that will bond to the skull if not removed within the first few months.

Cattle should receive pain control drugs during and after horn or horn bud removal, according to the American Association of Bovine Practitioners.

Dr. K. Fred Gingrich II, AABP executive director, said the association adopted a firmer stance in favor of administering cattle local anesthesia and systemic pain relief for dehorning or disbudding. Updated AABP guidance describes such relief as necessary to meet standards of care.

Many cattle owners already followed veterinarians’ recommendations to add pain relief, Dr. Gingrich said, but he sees room for improvement.

In late 2019, the AABP board of directors split the association’s policies on dehorning and castration and edited the two new policies to reflect practices that would improve animal welfare. The new policies add details on acceptable methods, definitions for types of pain relief, and the best time frames for the procedures.

In horned cattle breeds, calves are born with horn buds that will bond to the skull if not removed within the first few months of life. Farm workers can disbud a calf by destroying the horn buds and the horn-producing corium cells between the buds and skin—ideally within two months of birth—whether through heat, caustic paste, or cutting, according to information from the AABP and AVMA.

Dehorning after the buds attach causes more pain, usually requiring physical methods to cut away the horn.
Pain relief products used during disbudding or dehorning, such as lidocaine and nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, require prescriptions, Dr. Gingrich said.

Farm workers, rather than veterinarians, tend to perform disbudding and dehorning procedures, and they may administer pain relief drugs prescribed under treatment plans developed by veterinarians, he said.

No products are labeled for analgesia related to dehorning, but Dr. Gingrich referenced a copy of a July 2014 letter from Food and Drug Administration officials who wrote that veterinarians may administer meloxicam for analgesia during dehorning and castration.

“We consider the use of analgesics and anesthetics for the purpose of alleviating pain, suffering and discomfort in animals as an acceptable justification for using approved drugs in an extralabel manner,” it states.

Dr. Gingrich noted that veterinarians administering meloxicam for analgesia need to follow requirements under the Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act of 1994.

AABP leaders also encourage farmers to transition toward hornless—also known as polled—cattle.

About 25% of dairy farms surveyed used hornless bulls in breeding as of 2013, according to a Department of Agriculture report published in 2018. Dr. Gingrich said more than 90% of beef cattle are hornless, citing other USDA data.

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