Painless Dehorning



Dehorning can be a necessary but painful procedure in goats.

These days, pain control for common procedures is becoming more widespread as producers work towards solving the ethical issues they face every day in the management and care of their livestock, and as the public becomes more and more interested in (and critical of) today's farming practices. There is today a growing expectation that we minimize pain and distress as much as possible in our farm animals.

There are a number of approaches to managing pain. These approaches can be used to alleviate the pain of dehorning in any age of animal, but of course it is preferable and highly recommended that you disbud/dehorn your kids before one week of age. If you would like to manage and reduce the pain caused by dehorning, the following points outline some of the options you can discuss with your veterinarian.

First, I would like to point out the differences between general anesthesia, local anesthesia, and anti-inflammatory medication.

General anesthesia is characterized by decreased consciousness. While general anesthesia prevents or reduces the animal’s conscious perception of a procedure, it does not necessarily decrease the pain the animal feels upon regaining full consciousness. The amount of pain control achieved will depend on which general anesthetic drugs are used.

General anesthetics are not generally very useful in cases where you are dealing with a large number of animals. These drugs affect respiration and circulation in addition to consciousness. They need to be dosed carefully, and are associated with systemic side effects. An animal under general anesthesia needs to be monitored closely until it is up and walking again. An example of a general anesthetic is ketamine.

Local anesthetics work in quite a different way. Local anesthetics are analgesics, and by definition they block pain. They do not affect consciousness because they decrease sensitivity to pain at the level of the nerve itself. The process of dehorning induces both a painful and an inflammatory response by the body. If you’ve ever had an infected splinter in your finger, you know that inflammation causes that area of the body to become hypersensitive to pain. This is called ‘wind-up.’ Using a local anesthetic at the time of dehorning decreases the inflammatory response and decreases hypersensitivity and wind up. This means that not only does the animal not feel the pain associated with the procedure, but it also hurts less even after the analgesic medication has worn off. An example of a local anesthetic is lidocaine.

There are two little nerves on each side of a goat’s head that innervate the horns. A veterinarian who knows his or her goat anatomy can freeze those exact nerves by injecting them with a few milliliters of lidocaine. Now that the two nerves providing sensitivity to each horn have been frozen, the goat shouldn’t be able to feel the process of dehorning at all.

Anti-inflammatory medications have yet a different mechanism of action, and actually block the physiological process of inflammation. This also results in less pain and less hypersensitivity, as the body is prevented from responding fully to the procedure. Generally speaking, anti-inflammatory medications are not as strong as local anesthetics, but their effects last longer. An example of an anti-inflammatory is meloxicam.

There is always a cost-benefit to using drugs, even drugs that prevent pain. General anesthetics, local anesthetics, and anti-inflammatories can all cause severe side-effects if they are misused or overdosed. Kids are very small animals, so a simple mistake could potentially cause a serious overdose.

The other thing to know is that most drugs approved for use in cattle, pigs, and horses have not been officially approved for less common domestic animals like goats. A veterinarian is allowed to judiciously use and prescribe these drugs for species that are not on the label. This is called “extra-label use.” However, if a vet wants to sell a prescription drug to a producer for extra-label use, they are legally required to have a valid vet-client-patient relationship with that person and their animals. This prevents vets from selling prescription drugs willy-nilly to people who might accidentally use them in an unsafe way. The specific definition of an established vet-client relationship varies by region, but generally it means that the vet has to have some understanding of the operation you are running, and to have seen you and your animals at least once in the last year.

If you can find a veterinarian in your area that is comfortable working with goats, I would recommend discussing further with them the various methods of pain management outlined above. Other questions you might ask your vet are:

Are you aware of the toxic dose of this drug in goats specifically?
Do you know that the local nerve block for dehorning in goats is different from the local nerve block for cows?
Is this drug licensed for use in goats, and if not, what is the withdrawal period I have to follow?
What are the signs of toxicity for this drug?
Is there anything else I should be watching for?

I hope this helped to answer some of your questions about pain management.

The above text was generously created by Heather A., a veterinary medicine student.