Pain management for beef cattle |

Pain management for beef cattle

Administration of a pain block only takes a few seconds and can greatly decrease stress on both the calf and the caregivers. It eliminates or greatly decreases the “fight” and bawling associated with painful procedures such as castration.
Photo courtesy Carrie Spader


Janzen was involved with several studies on pain, comparing castration methods using pain mitigation versus no pain management. He and a group of colleagues began these studies a few years ago because of the disparity between practices for food animals and other animals. “We know we will be scrutinized by society if we don’t manage pain, but also our farm animals deserve to have their pain mitigated, just like companion animals. If we solve that problem, we should be able to withstand some of the animal welfare scrutiny that we will be under in the coming years,” he said.

“We did one of our first studies some years back while castrating mature bulls in a feed yard. We used an epidural anesthesia, and it worked well. The main drawback was that it had to be given 20 minutes before the surgery. The animal must have it on board before you initiate a painful procedure.” When the dentist blocks your jaw, he does not immediately began to drill.

It doesn’t matter which pain mitigation method you plan to use; it must be given a certain length of time ahead of the painful procedure. “There are many injectable products and we looked at three — ketoprofen, flunixen, and meloxicam. Some of these are not yet labeled for pain medication in the U.S.,” Janzen said.

“The injectable drugs work well and are simple to administer. They can be given subcutaneously, but you need to inject them 20 to 30 minutes before you do anything painful to that animal. They will not eliminate pain completely. To do that, you’d need anesthesia, like you’d get with an epidural. For dehorning, you could use a nerve block for pain elimination. I’ve been at brandings and blocked the horns for pain elimination, and asked the cowboys to leave the animals lying there for 3 minutes before we burn the horns off — to give it time to be effective,” Janzen said.

“Producers can figure out a way of medicating the calves and letting them have a bit of time, and then do the painful procedure. For a couple years I’ve used meloxicam for pain on a certain ranch, and last year we medicated some of the calves 3 hours ahead of time. Even the ropers who dragged the calves to the fire could tell there was a big difference. Those calves did not vocalize and didn’t struggle as much. They were almost sedated. This demonstrated that a person could mitigate pain if you just changed the production practices a little.”

In another experiment during the summer of 2014, Janzen divided a group of 150 cow-calf pairs to try to determine what would be the best time to castrate the bull calves. “We did some at birth, some at 2 months, some at 4 months, and some at 7 to 8 months. If we didn’t medicate them, it didn’t matter which age we did the procedure; we could easily measure a significant difference between the medicated ones and non-medicated ones,” he said.

“We used a number of behavioral measurements, including stride length. We walked them through a narrow chute and focused a camera on them as they walked away from the calf table or chute. Stride length becomes measurably stilted, and a reasonably good indicator of pain. This is a complicated measurement, however because someone had to sit at a computer and look at all those videos and measure stride length,” he said.

Cortisol is another good measure of pain and stress. “We took saliva samples and measured salivary cortisol levels. You can block that cortisol response with an analgesic like meloxicam even if you are castrating them. There is good evidence that pain medication helps,” he said.

“We also looked for a product in the bloodstream, which is a biomarker for pain, and the results are encouraging. They mimic the salivary cortisol results,” he said.

The cattle industry has been moving toward improvements in low-stress handling and better ways to manage cattle, but one issue that still needs to be addressed is pain management when doing procedures such as castrating and dehorning.

We’re still evolving from centuries-long traditions of having to do routine surgical tasks without the means for pain suppression. Cattle were roped and branded, castrated and dehorned out on the range or in the corral. We’ve streamlined and adjusted some of the ways we handle cattle so it’s easier on them, but we’re still not addressing the pain issue.

Dr. Eugene Janzen, University of Calgary, said veterinarians have not sufficiently investigated pain-mitigation methods for food animals. “When ranchers ask me what to do, there’s not much I can tell them. Some of us keep looking for ways to address this.” There will be increasing pressure on the livestock industry to use more humane methods. We need to find a way to deal with pain in farm animals, because surgical procedures are a necessary part of animal husbandry.

Jessica Laurin, DVM, in a mixed practice at Animal Health Center of Marion County, Kansas, and Tri-County Veterinary Center in Herington, Kan., said many producers are starting to look at this issue. “In the past, we didn’t have very many options regarding pain medication. In the last several years we’ve been doing a better job of looking at the things we had, plus bringing some new choices to the table for trying to manage pain,” she said. Now there’s a pour-on for pain medication (Banamine) that is absorbed within minutes and gives more than just a one-day effect. Depending on the animal, you may be able to walk up and pour this on, for pain mitigation, which makes it much less stressful than trying to restrain the animal and give it an IV.

There are several options today. “When Dr. Dee Griffith was with the Great Plains Veterinary Education System, he did a lot of work looking at Meloxicam, and so did Dr. Hans Coetzee at Kansas State University. It’s more common now for veterinarians to use meloxicam in cattle, even though it is not an FDA-approved labeled drug for food animals in the U.S. It is approved in Canada for use in cattle, and veterinarians here can prescribe the use of pain medication, which has helped a lot.”

Dr. Renee Dewell, who attended the fourth annual symposium for beef cattle welfare, held July 16-18, 2014, at Iowa State University, said pain management can be practical and can fit into many standard beef cattle production scenarios. “The use of local anesthetic for castration may actually increase the speed that cattle can be worked, particularly for producers who use chutes or for larger calves. Producers can use automatic syringes attached to tubing with a lidocaine bottle and set dose appropriate for the largest calf in the group,” Dewell said.

Administration of a pain block only takes a few seconds and can greatly decrease stress on both the calf and the caregivers. It eliminates or greatly decreases the “fight” and bawling associated with painful procedures such as castration. “It may also make it safer for the person performing the procedures, since the calf is likely to struggle less. Techniques for blocking prior to dehorning or castration are not difficult to learn, are not expensive to administer, do not require much time, work almost immediately, and provide short-term relief for procedures like dehorning and castration.”

Longer-term relief may be achieved using non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Meloxicam, which is inexpensive and can be administered orally. “It begins to take effect within about 30 minutes. The withdrawal time is approximately 21 days. Use of meloxicam as an analgesic is considered extra-label use by AMDUCA (Animal Medicinal Drug Use Clarification Act),” said Dewell.

However, the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine has clarified that analgesics such as meloxicam and anesthetics such as lidocaine are acceptable to use for the “purpose of alleviating pain.” When producers use these drugs, it should be done in the context of a veterinarian-client-patient-relationship, following AMDUCA guidelines.


Laurin believes that the annual international symposium for beef cattle welfare, which was started about eight years ago by Dr. Daniel Thomson when he was at Kansas State University, has been very helpful in teaching veterinarians and producers how to manage pain when dehorning cattle. “Dee Griffith spoke at the fourth annual symposium discussing dehorning and castration, and ways veterinarians and producers can work together to address and mitigate pain in cattle when doing these procedures,” Laurin said.

“After that symposium, Dr. Renee Dewell at Iowa State University put together two instructional videos which were first viewed at the spring meeting of the Academy of Veterinary Consultants.” One video shows how to do lidocaine blocks while doing castrations, and the other shows how to do lidocaine blocks when dehorning.

“Dee Griffith publicized a diagram showing how to use lidocaine to locally numb the area before dehorning. This, along with meloxicam, has been very beneficial for these animals,” Laurin ssid.

“The best thing is to try to select cattle that don’t have horns, but this isn’t always possible. If calves have horns, dehorning them as young as possible is the most humane. It’s a lot easier on baby calves, even up to 1 or 2 months old. When we have to dehorn an older animal, the local use of lidocaine and use of meloxicam has made a big impact on the comfort level afterward,” Laurin said.

“If you dehorn older calves without any pain mitigation, and they have to put their head under a neck rail to eat from a feeder or feed bunk, they don’t want to do it the first day.” Their heads hurt, and they are very cautious about putting their head through or under anything that might cause more pain if they accidentally bump into it.

A few years ago at the local sale barn she was asked to dehorn a group of 700-800 pound steers that had big horns. “I used lidocaine and meloxicam. It was May and the grass was growing right outside their pen. Within a couple hours of being dehorned they were reaching underneath that bottom rail to get bites of grass. Their heads didn’t hurt, and the recent dehorning was not deterring them. They were right back to acting normally. With pain management you don’t lose feed consumption or gain, and the cattle feel better.”

She now teaches producers how to use lidocaine for dehorning. “Some people are a little nervous giving a local lidocaine block at first but I tell them to just keep trying. I show them an easy way to do it, where they won’t cause any damage, and they can gain confidence as they do more of it,” Laurin said.

She generally cauterizes the area after dehorning a large animal, to help clot the blood and prevent excessive bleeding. “When I use a local lidocaine block, those calves don’t bellow when I use the iron as a cauterizing tool. I’ve deadened the nerves, so those calves are a lot more comfortable,” she said.

“As the lidocaine wears off, the meloxicam (pain medication) that you’ve given kicks in and keeps them more comfortable for a day or two. They move around normally and eat, and start to heal.” They are past the worst of the pain by the time it wears off.


“We recommend that cattle be castrated early. I looked through studies that compared cattle castrated before or after their arrival at a feed yard. Any time they were castrated after arrival, their average daily gains were less than in the cattle that were castrated before they came. The type of castration (surgical or banding) or when (age of calf) doesn’t make as much difference; studies repeatedly show that any time we have to castrate a calf at the feed yard we lose average daily gain,” Laurin said.

The more that the beef industry can facilitate castrating before those animals leave their place of origin, the better. It’s easier to manage pain in young cattle. “They are probably still with mom, in a home environment they are comfortable with, and stress is minimized,” she said.

“One study showed that if cattle are castrated and put back on grass, they did better than when castrated and put into a dirt pen. The grass is insulated and more comfortable, a more natural environment (they can hide in it better — hence less stress), and cleaner,” Laurin said.

Most producers try to minimize or reduce stress on their animals. The genetics have also changed; most people select for cattle that are less nervous or flighty and less readily stressed. “The calves in feed yards today are often calmer and don’t mind having people handling them. It’s been good, in the feed yards, to discuss ways to handle cattle, and castrating them before arrival helps that process.” Then they are not as upset in the new environment and more readily feel at home there, and not stressed.


If you are working with a veterinarian, he/she can prescribe medication you might need when castrating or dehorning. “If a veterinarian understands the size of the calves you are castrating, and what your facilities are, it is easier to help you calculate doses, and tell you the easiest way to administer the medication. There are many different ways to provide pain management during castration. The first step is having that discussion with your veterinarian, to decide what might work best in your own operation, because there are several options,” Laurin said.

In some situations the drugs for pain management will be best in the hands of the veterinarian because he/she will be doing castrations/dehorning a lot more frequently than the small-farm producers. “In other situations producers who do a volume of cattle can be taught by the veterinarian how to use pain mitigation tools,” she said.

One of the challenges is that it takes a few minutes for the analgesic drug to take affect and it needs to be on board before starting the procedure. “I use an epidural to reduce pain for surgical castration, and found the easiest thing to do was put the epidural in and then go get my tools. By the time I get back it’s had a chance to start taking effect,” Laurin said.

“As each calf comes into the chute for processing at the feedlot, we identify whether it’s a bull or a steer. Putting some kind of pain medication or anesthetic into the animal at that point, and doing the castration before the animal leaves the chute gives a window of time to allow the medication to start working,” she said.

Pain management will probably become a routine part of cattle raising, partly because we don’t want public perception to view our industry as cruel and inhumane, and partly because it’s the right thing to do. An animal that is less stressed will perform better, as well. ❖

— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at

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