Food animal pain control and prevention: Changing attitudes

Russ Daly Special to the Farm Forum
Farm Forum

You don’t have to have been around very long to observe how attitudes change over time. Social issues lend us many examples of these changes, but changes also are occurring in our attitudes about our farm animals and how to provide them the best care possible.

Pain control in farm animals, for example, was not something discussed much during my vet education. I don’t think it’s because we didn’t think farm animals experienced pain. It likely was more because we didn’t think there was much we could do (or that people were willing to do) about it. Whatever the case, the pain experienced by a calf during dehorning or castration was just as likely to be dismissed as it was to be considered and acted upon.

But attitudes are changing. Not just the attitudes of “uninformed” non-farmers, but those of veterinarians and livestock producers as well. That prompted us to bring in an expert from Oklahoma State last month to update our veterinarians on pain control and prevention at our annual James Bailey Herd Health Conference in Brookings.

In some regards pain can be beneficial. After all, it’s the evolutionary reason that an animal favors an injured leg, for example. When pain becomes chronic, however, the animal’s immune system is impaired, making them more prone to other illnesses. It also decreases the function of the heart, lungs, guts, and nervous system. Some animals respond to pain in a physical and psychological manner that results in severe stress.

Of course, veterinarians have long employed some forms of pain relief for their patients. No vet would attempt to do a C-section or surgically fix a displaced abomasum without injecting lidocaine along the cow’s incision site. Almost every horse castration takes place using general anesthesia, and tail blocks that numb a cow’s rear parts are standard and essential when stuffing in and suturing prolapses in place. In addition, anti-inflammatory medications such as bute and flunixin (Banamine) are used to help animals suffering from injuries or illness feel better.

While a vet’s repertoire has included those aspects of pain relief for generations, addressing pain before and after processing events such as dehorning and castration has been much slower to catch on, for various reasons.

We know how to locally anesthetize a calf’s horns or scrotum, so that’s not the issue. Administering the anesthetic takes time, though. To producers and veterinarians looking to minimize the time spent processing cattle, this hasn’t always been acceptable. I’d rationalize this to myself and my producers by thinking that the less time spent in the chute, the better. Best to just “get it over with” rather than give a nerve block and waiting for it to work, right?

Attitudes toward pain in livestock have been evolving in recent years because of new research. While we’ll never know exactly how much pain a newly-dehorned calf feels, we can measure behavior and blood chemicals to indirectly measure pain. This research tells us that these are in fact painful procedures and that providing relief before and after helps that.

There are other issues besides processing efficiency when it comes to providing pain control, of course. Cost is one, as well as the fact that most of these medications are not approved for food animals and need a veterinarian’s prescription to use. Vets have to use their judgement to set slaughter withdrawal times for these products.

But these products are becoming more available and simpler to use. Recently a pour-on anti-inflammatory has been approved for use in cattle to relieve foot rot pain. New devices are being devised to efficiently give calves pills that will dampen pain for hours and even days after being worked.

One of the biggest hurdles for producers looking at pain control for their calves is answering the “what’s in it for me?” question. After all, there isn’t great evidence to suggest that pain control methods improve calves’ average daily gain or feed efficiency.

But attitudes do, in fact change. It’s now more likely than ever that the vet coming out to work your cattle will be prepared to give them local anesthetics when dehorning and castrating. And it’s going to be more common for producers to realize that, despite some increased hassle, it’s the right thing to do for their animals.

Russ Daly, DVM, is the Extension veterinarian at South Dakota State University. He can be reached via e-mail at or at 605-688-5171.