Published: 18 Sep 2017 | Last Updated: 18 Sep 2017 16:38:02

A new study examining cattle farmers’ and veterinarians’ opinions of pain-induced distress associated with disbudding, analgesia and attitudes and the use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) has revealed the need for improvements in communication between vets and farmers, both in terms of refining vets’ understanding of farmers’ priorities, and guiding clients on methods to improve calf welfare.

Disbudding is described as the destruction of the horn germinal tissue in young calves to prevent horn growth. This is a routine husbandry practice which is carried out to reduce the likelihood of injury to both other cattle and personnel.

There have been a number of studies into the pain-induced distress resulting from the disbudding procedure. All methods of disbudding (apart from chemical cauterisation) in the UK require the use of a corneal nerve local anaesthetic blockade but there are currently no legislative requirements for the use of NSAIDs for disbudding – it is at the discretion of the farmer or vet carrying out the procedure. NSAIDs are routinely used in companion animals and equine practice, but less so in farm animals.

This new study looks at the attitudes of farmers and vets on pain perception and pain management methods for disbudding. A total of 118 vets and 140 farmers contributed to the study. Of the respondents:

  • 98% of vets routinely use local anaesthetic when disbudding
  • 86% of farmers routinely use local anaesthetic when disbudding
  • 56% of vets routinely use NSAIDs for disbudding
  • 14% of farmers routinely use NSAIDs for disbudding
  • 82% of vets perceived post-procedural pain to persist beyond 24 hours without medication
  • 43% of farmers perceived post-procedural pain to persist beyond 24 hours without medication
  • 29% of farmers said they have had discussions with their vets on the use of NSAIDs for disbudding.
  • Almost all vets and most farmers favoured NSAID use, with most vets stating that some (71%), if not all their clients (23%), would prefer calves to receive NSAIDs
  • 49% of vets reported that NSAIDs should be made compulsory for disbudding

It was concluded that vets underestimate the influences of welfare and analgesic duration and effectiveness on farmers’ decisions, and overrated cost impact. This perception could have a negative effect on veterinary recommendation.

The authors of the study therefore advise that steps should be takes to address the current inadequacies in the communications between vets and clients in conveying the practicalities and potential benefits of using NSAIDs. Dr Troy Gibson, PhD, PGDipSci, BSc, Lecturer in Animal Welfare Science at the Royal Veterinary College said: “Despite the large amount of evidence of the benefits of NSAIDs for disbudding, it is disappointing that their use is still not widespread. This may partly be due to the only recent licencing of one NSAID for cattle. However, from our work it is clear that one of the key barriers to wider uptake is the breakdown in communication between veterinarians and their clients in conveying the cost, practicalities and potential benefits of NSAID use for disbudding. The wider use of NSAIDs in combination with local anaesthetics during disbudding would significantly improve calf welfare.”


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Uche Graves / Zoe Chadwick
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Notes to Editors

The Royal Veterinary College (RVC) is the UK's largest and longest established independent veterinary school and is a constituent College of the University of London. The RVC offers undergraduate, postgraduate and CPD programmes in veterinary medicine, veterinary nursing and biological sciences, being ranked in the top 10 universities nationally for biosciences degrees.  It is currently the only veterinary school in the world to hold full accreditation from AVMA, EAEVE, RCVS and AVBC.

A research-led institution, in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF2014) the RVC maintained its position as the top HEFCE funded veterinary focused research institution.

The College also provides animal owners and the veterinary profession with access to expert veterinary care and advice through its teaching hospitals; the Beaumont Sainsbury Animal Hospital in central London, the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals (Europe's largest small animal referral centre), the Equine Referral Hospital, and the Farm Animal Clinical Centre located at the Hertfordshire campus.

RVC Press Release 18 September 2017

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