Veterinarian’s Corner: Disbudding Pain Management – Dr. Barry Kleppe, Wauankee Veterinary Service

Posted on August 23, 2017 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Barry Kleppe, Waunakee Veterinary Service
Think of the old western movie cattle drives – the longhorns were left alone.  Removal of bovine horns has evolved over time.

We have dehorned cattle younger and younger; today, we dehorn or disbud calves as young as one day old.  With the evolution of dehorning or disbudding younger animals, we also incorporate ways to alleviate the pain of the process.  If you were unlucky enough to see the “old ways” of dehorning cattle, you will fully appreciate why the industry has embraced the use of pain alleviation for this process.  Dehorning or disbudding cattle will be an issue until polled genes are consistently found in our cattle’s best genetics.

When I remove horn buds, I pretreat the calf with oral meloxicam (extralabel drug use [ELDU]), sedate the calf with xylazine (Rompun™), and administer a local anesthesia (lidocaine; similar in concept to your dentist using novacain).  I then remove the horn buds with a hot-iron device (I use a butane-powered device manufactured by Portasol).  If you do the disbudding or dehorning yourself, you’ll need to talk to your veterinarian about the use of these drugs.  Some veterinarians may not be willing to give you some or any of these drugs and I respect their decision.

At a minimum, the local anesthesia lidocaine should be given.  The lidocaine is given to “block” or “freeze” the cornual nerve, which provides sensation to the horn or horn bud.  Thus, the animal should not feel (or feel less) the hot-iron disbudding process.

The cornual nerve runs under the skin, parallel to and just under the frontal crest.  The frontal crest is the bony edge that runs from the outer edge of the calf’s eye socket up to the horn bud or horn.  I use an 18-gauge 1-inch needle on a small syringe and administer 2 to 3 cc of lidocaine subcutaneously (under the skin) near the cornual nerve on both sides of the calf’s head.  This is at approximately the midpoint between the eye and the horn bud to the underside of the bony crest (the jaw side of the frontal crest).

It will take several minutes for the lidocaine to freeze the nerve.  Because I usually work with multiple animals at one time, it gives me at least five minutes between the lidocaine injection and the hot-iron removal of the horn bud.

I like to administer the meloxicam along with lidocaine to get a longer-acting analgesia.  Meloxicam provides up to 48 hours of pain relief.  My clients report calves receiving meloxicam, lidocaine and xylazine “don’t miss a beat,” however, I’d expect those calves to be a bit slow at the next feeding as the drugs wear off.  As a final point, remember these drugs do have a withdrawal time before these animals could be used for slaughter.  Please consult with your veterinarian as to those specific withdrawal times.

Author’s note:  Portions of this information came from Literature Review on the Welfare Implications of the Dehorning and Disbudding of Cattle, July 15, 2014.  American Veterinary Medical Association Animal Welfare Division.

Category: Animal handling
Cow comfort
Starting Strong - Calf Care