Is disbudding painful?

Disbudding is a painful procedure and can be done either by heat (cautery, with an iron), or by chemical methods (caustic paste or stick). Both of these methods cause an initial acute pain response, and a later inflammatory response, which may last for several days. There is ample research showing substantial changes in both behavioural and physiological indicators of pain and stress when these procedures are done without pain control.

What’s the gold standard for pain control?

It has been shown in a large body of research that best practices for pain control include the use of a local anesthetic (typically lidocaine, given as a cornual nerve block in a location just behind the eye) and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID). The local anesthetic is given at least 5 minutes prior to the procedure, and works to completely desensitize or ‘freeze’ the horn bud area. It is the same idea as giving a local anesthetic injection prior to filling a cavity in your dentist’s office, and just as important! Caustic paste takes awhile to start to cause the burn, unlike a disbudding iron, but it is clear that calves still benefit from local anesthetic, which can last up to 2 hours. Caustic paste also produces a different type of pain, and in humans, caustic burns are reported to be more painful than thermal ones. This means it is important that local anesthetic is used for either type of disbudding.

Learning how to administer local anesthetic in the right location does require some training, and your herd veterinarian or a registered veterinary technician may be able to provide you and your staff with hands-on training to learn this method. Once you know where to give the injection, the procedure is very quick and doesn’t add much time to the overall process.

Once the local anesthetic wears off, calves can show signs of pain persisting for several days, due to the inflammation in the horn bud area. Giving calves one dose of an NSAID at the time of the procedure has been shown to reduce indicators of pain for up to two days afterwards. Giving an NSAID is an important part of pain control for both cautery and caustic paste disbudding.

Sedation can also be given to help make calves easier to handle, although the research is unclear if the sedation is beneficial to the calf in terms of making the procedure less stressful. A conversation with your vet will help determine if a sedative is appropriate for your disbudding protocol. If sedation is included, it is important to remember that local anesthetic and an NSAID are still needed, as sedation doesn’t replace either of these medications.

What benefits are there to using pain control?

1)         For the calf

It is clear that calves that receive both a local anesthetic and an NSAID have substantially reduced pain behaviours, such as head shaking and rubbing, and have lower indicators of stress including heart rate, respiratory rate, and blood cortisol. Some studies have shown that calves may consume more starter and gain more weight after being given pain control, compared to those who have not. If calves are undergoing additional stresses, such as a summer heat wave, having less stress from the disbudding will help the calf meet these additional challenges better.

2)         For the farmer

It is much easier and faster to disbud a calf who has received local anesthetic – they are easy to handle and do not resist the procedure. Disbudding is never a fun job, but knowing calves are receiving the gold standard in pain control can make the task more pleasant for the person performing it. Ensuring we are doing our best to eliminate any pain during procedures like disbudding is important for consumers, and has been identified as a key issue in several consumer surveys.

Pain control for disbudding is in everyone’s best interest – the calf, the farmer, and the consumer!

Dr. Charlotte Winder, University of Guelph

NOTE: As of September 1, 2019, proAction requires producers to use an approved anesthetic and analgesic for procedures requiring pain control. While sedatives can also be used, they do not qualify as pain control products.