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Using pain mitigation when disbudding calves

Charlotte Winder for Progressive Dairy Published on 24 January 2020
dehorning calf

Disbudding without pain control is painful! All methods work by removing or damaging horn-producing tissue, and all methods have been shown to cause pain when done without appropriate pain control.

New standards in the National Dairy FARM Animal Care Program include developing a protocol with your herd veterinarian for pain mitigation provided for disbudding. If you are not currently using pain control for disbudding, talk to your vet about learning an effective strategy that will work for your calves. Disbudding is never a fun task, but when done with appropriate pain control, it becomes much easier – for both the calves and the people working with them.

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What drugs are effective for pain control?

Regardless of method, a combination of both local anesthesia (“blocking” or “numbing” agents like lidocaine) and a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) is the most effective way to prevent pain during and after disbudding. This has been consistently shown in a large body of research, looking at a host of different outcomes associated with pain and stress.

The local anesthetic works to desensitize the tissue prior to disbudding – typically this should be given a minimum of five minutes prior to disbudding or up to 20 minutes before. Often it is easier to go along and administer local anesthetic to a group of calves – by the time you are done the last one, the first calf is ready to go.

An effective way to administer this drug is by a cornual nerve block, where the lidocaine is injected under the skin at a distance from the horn bud in one spot, which desensitizes the nerve before it branches out to feed the horn bud. Local anesthetics are very safe, inexpensive and effective. Although learning where to inject it requires some training and practice, extension research has shown that people can become comfortable and confident with this technique after a short training session from their veterinarian.

nerve blocker area for disbudding

Local anesthetics work in the short term, which is important for the acute pain of the procedure. Anyone who has been in a dentist’s chair when their local anesthetic didn’t work properly can attest to the benefits of a good local block. However, after the procedure, there is inflammatory pain that occurs. This pain can be more subtle in terms of how calves express it, but it is clear that all calves have substantial benefits from receiving an NSAID drug at the time of disbudding. These drugs work to control inflammation following the procedure. Although in the U.S., there are currently no approved NSAID drugs for use in cattle with an indication to provide pain control associated with disbudding, AMDUCA regulations allow extra-label drug use provided a valid veterinarian-client-patient relationship (VCPR) exists, and the drug selection process, records and withholding times outlined in the AMDUCA regulations are followed. In essence, a veterinarian who has a valid VCPR with your herd is able to prescribe an NSAID to use in calves following disbudding.

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What about sedatives?

Some farms will choose to use a sedative, such as xylazine, either given ahead of the local block, or mixed into the lidocaine. Sedation makes calves easier to handle, which can reduce the stress of the procedure. While there is little research in this area, it is clear that sedation does not replace the use of a local anesthetic and NSAID to control pain – these drugs must be given as well. A discussion with your veterinarian is best to determine if using a sedative is appropriate for your farm, as part of your disbudding strategy.

Does it matter what method I use?

Disbudding methods such as cautery and caustic paste are less painful than more invasive methods such as gouging or surgical amputation. FARM expects calves to be disbudded by 8 weeks of age – for calves of this age, either cautery or caustic paste are appropriate methods. Gouging (amputation) of the horn buds in young calves causes unnecessary trauma and tissue damage – cautery (burning) or caustic paste are more appropriate methods for pre-weaned calves. Your veterinarian can provide training and advice on using either method safely.

When using caustic paste, it is important that the paste is applied only to the horn bud, and care is taken to observe calves to prevent injuries from paste being smeared onto other calves or other areas of their body. Vinegar can be used as a neutralizing agent to wipe paste off of other body parts (or yourself) if accidental exposure occurs. Clipping hair and using Vaseline applied as a ring around the paste can also help. Cautery irons should be checked to ensure they are working well, and that people performing disbudding are comfortable identifying the horn bud and applying the iron appropriately.

Does it matter how old the calves are?

While calves should be disbudded prior to 8 weeks of age, this event should not be coupled with other stressors such as weaning or moving. Ideally, disbudding at least two weeks prior to a stressful event can help calves better cope with these changes. While many organizations recommend disbudding calves at the youngest age possible, it is important to work with your veterinarian to determine both the method and age of calf that will work best for your farm.

Take-home messages

  • Work with your herd vet to develop disbudding protocols for your farm.
  • Ensure calves are healthy at the time of the procedure.
  • Disbud calves well ahead of weaning or moving. 
  • Make sure people performing the procedure are comfortable with both administering pain control and performing disbudding.

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Charlotte Winder

PHOTO 1: Use of local anesthetic and an NSAID are best practice for all ages of calves and all methods of disbudding, including caustic paste.

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PHOTO 2: The pink dot shows the approximate location for a cornual nerve block – talk to your herd veterinarian for more information and training. Photos provided by Charlotte Winder.

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