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Research   »   Pain Mitigation

Pain Mitigation

Consumer pressure to avoid painful practices on cattle when possible, and to reduce pain when castration, dehorning, or branding are necessary, is building. The new Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle also makes strong statements about pain control.

The knowledge of pain in livestock has advanced steadily over the past 22 years. Behavioural and physiological indicators of pain have been identified, and researchers’ ability to measure animal responses associated to painful procedures have improved. Research has developed new pain control drugs that are registered for use in cattle in Canada, and knowledge is building on the appropriate dosage, routes of administration and synergy between anesthetics and analgesics.

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Despite a considerable amount of research, cattle’s experience with pain is not fully understood. Research that has used electro-encephalographs to monitor brainwaves in cattle during painful practices detects clear differences, so it is clear that cattle experience pain, however as prey animals, cattle have evolved to not show behavioural signs of pain, which is a sign of weakness to predators.

Click to download pain control fact sheetMost previous research into pain control for castration and dehorning has been done in dairy calves that were weaned at birth, or in feedlot calves. Little or no research has been done in young beef calves in a herd environment. Therefore, it’s unknown whether the relief that beef calves get when they return to their mothers and nurse may also help to eliminate pain-associated behaviours.

More research is also needed to practically and effectively control pain in cattle. Many past studies have used drugs in ways that are difficult to implement in commercial practice. Some have used elaborate combinations of drugs, some of which are not licensed for use in cattle, or used experimental formulations that are not commercially available for cattle (e.g. oral meloxicam). Other experiments have repeatedly given the pain drugs over several days, requiring additional handling, stress and risk of injury for the cattle.

Measuring Pain

Practical and Effective Methods of Pain Control webinar recordingTo accurately mitigate pain, one must first know if the animal is experiencing pain and to what degree. Currently pain in animals can only be routinely measured using behavioural and physiological responses. Depending upon the management procedure being evaluated, researchers have used standing, lying, feeding, ruminating, kicking, tail-flicking, ear -flicking, pacing posture, and weight shifting behaviours to gauge animal responses to painful practices and pain control. These behaviours can be recorded, counted, and statistically compared. Acute, immediate pain is easier to measure than chronic, long-term pain (lasting more than 3 days).

Acute pain: short-lasting, intense pain 
Chronic pain: less intense, longer lasting pain   

Researchers have found that dehorned calves do more head rubbing, head shaking and ear- flicking than calves that have not been dehorned. Castrated calves stand, move and lie differently than calves that have not been castrated. Pain drugs alter these behavioural differences; feedlot bulls that are castrated using pain drugs show fewer of these abnormal, pain-related behaviuors.

Painful Procedures

In Canada the most common routine management procedures that cause pain are castration, dehorning, and branding. Ongoing research is working to develop ways to reduce animals’ experience of pain during these procedures or find effective alternative practices.


Castration, the removal or inactivation of the testicle, is used as a management tool for many reasons including to avoid unwanted breeding, reduced aggression, improved human and animal safety, improved carcass quality, and to reduce price discounts.

All methods of castration are painful. Surgical castration causes more intense pain that lasts for a few days, while banding castration causes a less intense but chronic pain that lasts for more than one month. See the Castration page for information on methods.

It is strongly recommended that cow-calf producers castrate calves as young as possible. Castration of bull calves soon after birth results in improved health and gain in the feedlot, and enhanced carcass marbling and tenderness compared to castration at or after weaning. Animal health and welfare risks, and animal performance impacts all increase with age.

If bulls are castrated after reaching the feedlot, providing pain control will likely alleviate some of the pain of castration, but will not improve feedlot growth performance. Therefore, the added drug costs will likely lead to steeper discounts on intact or belly bulls at fall calf sales.

The Beef Code of Practice requires:

  • Castration be performed by competent personnel using proper, clean, and well maintained tools
  • Producers seek guidance from their veterinarian regarding optimum methods, timing, and pain control
  • Animals be castrated as young as practically possible, before the age of three months and especially before weaning
  • As of Jan 1, 2016: use pain control when castrating bulls older than 9 months
  • As of Jan 1, 2018: use pain control when castrating bulls older than 6 months


Dehorning can be reduced through genetics. Selecting polled (hornless) sires results in polled calves. Research into the performance of polled vs. horned bulls of many different breeds has shown no differences in any production performance measures.

Horns are a shell made of keratin and other proteins over a core of living bone. Dehorning decreases the risk of injury for both handlers and other cattle, and minimizes the economic loss due to carcass bruising. See the Dehorning page for more information on methods.

Tipping of horns is less painful than removal. Tipping the horns causes the least amount of pain-associated behavior observed and is similar to not dehorning based on the evaluation of vocalization, depression, gait and posture, lying, horn bud healing, and bleeding.

Canadian beef producers are doing a good job at reducing the number of cattle with horns. According to the latest National Beef Quality Audit, fewer than 11% of non-fed cattle and fewer than 13% of fed cattle processed in Canada in 2010-11 had any type of horns.

The Beef Code of Practice requires:

  • Dehorning be performed by competent personnel using proper, clean, and well maintained tools
  • Producers seek guidance from their veterinarian on pain control availability
  • Disbud calves as early as possible, while horn development is in the bud stage (2- 3 months of age)
  • Effective January 1, 2016: use pain control in consultation with your veterinarian when dehorning after the horn bud has attached


Branding is one of the few permanent methods of animal identification that is easy to identify from a distance and legally accepted as proof of ownership. Branding may be required by community pastures, lending institutions or for export.

In Canada, the incidence of branded beef cattle is continually decreasing. The most recent National Beef Quality Audit found that the use of brands dropped from 25% of fed cattle in 1999 to less than 10% in 2011; of these, less than 0.1% had more than one brand.

Both Hot and Freeze branding can be used as forms of permanent identification. Although both types of branding are known to cause pain, it has been shown that hot branding causes more acute pain at the time of the procedure. Freeze branding can only be done on dark-coloured cattle and is more difficult to do properly.

Currently there are no licensed pain control products in Canada with a claim for alleviating the pain associated with freeze or hot iron branding in cattle. Until practical alternatives to branding are available, the Beef Code of Practice requires that producers minimize the impact of branding by using proper tools and techniques.

Pain Mitigation Techniques

Ensuring that procedures are performed as early in the calf’s life as possible, by a competent operator using clean, properly maintained tools, is the simplest way to reduce pain during painful routine management procedures

Ensuring that procedures are performed as early in the calf’s life as possible, by a competent operator using clean, properly maintained tools, is the simplest way to reduce pain during painful routine management procedures. Use of anesthetics or analgesics can also help to control pain, especially in older animals. Work closely with your local veterinarian to develop a pain mitigation strategy that works on your farm.

Using drugs for pain control


Anesthetic: Temporarily blocks all sensation including pain (e.g. Lidocaine)

  • Local anesthetic: causes numbness in a particular area         
  • General anesthetic: cause unconsciousness

Analgesic: Temporarily eliminates pain but not all sensation (e.g. anti-inflammatories like Metacam, Anafen, Banamine).

Few pain control options are commercially available for cattle, and all require a veterinary prescription. Anesthetic and analgesic drugs can help control pain. Anesthetic drugs (like freezing at a dentist) eliminate all feeling. Anesthetics (e.g. Lidocaine) help to reduce the pain of surgery, but wear off relatively quickly and are challenging to use. They need to be injected very carefully and precisely around the horn base or in the scrotum, so they may require more restraint so that the person with the needle doesn’t accidentally inject him- or herself. Analgesics (e.g. Metacam, Anafen and Banamine) may be a better option for cattle producers. These don’t eliminate all feeling, but do reduce the pain that occurs after the surgery. They can be injected intramuscularly or through intravenous methods and last longer than anesthetics.

Anesthetics need to be injected 5 to 20 minutes before an operation, and can provide several hours of pain relief. Injectable analgesics are longer-acting than anesthetics, and may provide some pain relief for up to a four days, depending on the drug administered.

A number of analgesic drugs have been approved for use in beef cattle. None of these products have a specific claim for pain control following castration, and few are approved for pain control during dehorning, but they do control swelling and pain for a variety of different conditions.

The benefit of analgesic drugs with different methods of castration (bands versus surgical) is unknown; chronic pain associated with banding is believed to last much longer (weeks) than the drug (hours). Some experiments are studying the benefits of in-feed analgesics, which is not applicable to nursing calves on pasture.

Research shows that a combination of anesthesia and analgesia provides the best pain control.

Pain Control Products Licensed and Available for Beef Cattle in Canada*
Drug Brand Name Route of Administration for Beef Cattle Label Claim in Beef Cattle
Meloxicam Metacam® 20 Subcutaneous or intravenous injection  As an aid in improving appetite and weight gains when administered at the onset of diarrhoea, in combination with oral rehydration therapy, in calves over one week of age. For relief of pain following de-budding of horn buds in calves less than 3 months of age. For the symptomatic treatment of inflammation and pain associated with acute clinical mastitis. For the reduction of pain associated with abdominal surgery such as caesarean section.

For relief of pain following de-budding of horn buds in calves less than 3 months of age, and as an aid in improving appetite and weight gains when administered at the onset of diarrhoea, in combination with oral rehydration therapy, in calves over one week of age.

Meloxicam Meloxicam Oral Suspension Oral For alleviation of pain and inflammation following surgical and band castration in cattle.
Meloxidyl   Meloxidyl® Subcutaneous or intravenous injection  As an aid in improving appetite and weight gain when administered at the onset of diarrhoea, in combination with oral rehydration therapy, in calves over one week of age. For relief of pain following de-budding of horn buds in calves less than 3 months of age. For the symptomatic treatment of inflammation and pain associated with acute clinical mastitis. For the reduction of pain associated with abdominal surgery such as caesarean section.
Dexamethasone Dexacort 2 Intravenous or intramuscular route a corticosteroid indicated as an aid in the treatment of bovine ketosis
Dexacort 5
Dexamethazone 2
Dexamethazone 5
Dexacort Powder Powder For the treatment of arthritis and inflammatory conditions involving the joints and accessory structures in cattle. For supportive therapy in pneumonia, rhinitis and other respiratory conditions, osteoarthritic lameness and various stress conditions in cattle such as ketosis and metritis, dystocia, and retained placenta.
Ketoprofen ANAFEN® Intravenous or intramuscular injection For the symptomatic treatment of fever, pain and inflammation associated with a variety of conditions including: respiratory tract infections, mastitis, udder edema, downer cow syndrome, endotoxemia, simple gastrointestinal disorders, arthritis and traumatic musculoskeletal injuries
Flunixin meglumine Banamine® Intravenous For control of fever associated with endotoxemia and acute bovine mastitis, and inflammation associated with endotoxemia
Flunixin Injection
Flunixin meglumine transdermal solution Banamine®  Pour-on For the reduction of pyrexia associated with bovine respiratory disease (BRD).
Acetylsalicylic Acid Acetylsalicylic Acid Bolus Oral For use as an aid in the symptomatic relief of pain
ASEN P Powder
ASEN 240 Bolus
Lidocaine Lido-2 Injection For epidural, nerve block or infiltration anesthesia
Lidocaine HCL 2%
Lidocaine HCL 2% and Epinephrine Injection
Lidocaine HCL 2% with Epinephrine 1:100,000
Lidocaine Neat

* Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information above. However, it remains the responsibility of the readers to familiarize themselves with the product information contained on the Canada product label or package insert. Ensure label directions and veterinarian instructions are followed when using any veterinary product.

Age of animal

Procedures are much less invasive in young animals. The wound is smaller, there is considerably less blood loss, and young calves recover more quickly with a smaller setback in animal performance.

Although research is still being conducted in this area, it is suggested that to reduce pain, procedures should be conducted when animals are as young as possible, especially when dehorning because the horn bud attaches at 2-3 months of age.

Painful procedures should not be performed during times when the animal will be experiencing other stressors (e.g. don’t castrate at the same time as weaning). Stress reduces the animal’s immune system and makes them less able to fight off infection.


The above mentioned routine procedures are performed to enhance the long-term health and welfare of cattle, their herdmates, their handlers and to protect meat quality. Accidents, injuries, sickness or disease may also put cattle in painful situations. In these cases, euthanasia can be the most humane decision for the animal.

Euthanasia is defined as the humane death of an animal without inflicting pain or distress using methods that cause an immediate loss of consciousness followed by cardiac and respiratory arrest and death without a return to consciousness.

Having a euthanasia decision-making process in place on your farm, along with proper training in both determining when euthanasia should occur and proper procedure will help to minimize unnecessary pain and distress in animals.

The Beef Code of Practice requires that animals be immediately euthanized (or culled with proper adherence to the requirements for transporting compromised cattle) if they: 

  • Have chronic, severe, or debilitating pain and distress
  • Are unlikely to recover
  • Have failed to respond to treatment or recovery protocols
  • Are unable to get to or consume food and water
  • Show continuous weight loss or emaciation

There are many acceptable ways of on-farm euthanasia; choosing the best method depends on the individual animal, location, and person who will be euthanizing the animal. It is important to take into account animal welfare, human safety, carcass disposal,  and possible need for tissue for diagnostic purposes before deciding on a form of euthanasia. Refer to page 30 of the Beef Code of Practice for approved methods and guidelines.

Further Research

Despite some advances in understanding pain in cattle, there is still much we do not understand when it comes to the effect and management of pain-associated procedures like castration and dehorning. It is important to note that beef cattle may respond differently to dehorning than dairy cattle due to their fear response to handling and restraint.

Continued research on practical methods of mitigating pain and encouraging wound healing associated with castration would be valuable. There is also work to be done in addressing the pain associated with banding. New products and delivery methods would be welcome. Finally, research to examine the effects of castration at various ages is also lacking, especially research at very young ages.

Research under the second Beef Science Cluster is currently evaluating the relative impacts of age, technique, and pain medication when pre-weaning beef calves are castrated at the same time as branding or as a separate procedure. This research will generate science-based recommendations regarding the best age to carry out painful routine management procedures and identify target ages which may require pain mitigation. This information is required to make sound industry recommendations in the national Beef Code of Practice and abate public pressure that can lead to unsound recommendations.

Producer Testimonial

For Saskatchewan beef producers Tamara and Russ Carter administering a pain control product to calves prior to branding and castration procedures was just the right thing to do. Over the past three calving seasons the Carters, who ranch near Lacadena in southwest Saskatchewan, have been treating spring calves with an injection of Metacam just prior to processing. Read about their experience on the BCRC Blog: http://www.beefresearch.ca/blog/pain-control-gaining-priority-among-beef-producers/

Learn More

Effects of Age and Method of Castration on Performance and Stress Response of Beef Cattle - Frequently Asked Questions
Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development

Is bloodless dehorning really painless?
Beef Cattle Research Council

Dehorning of Calves
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

On farm euthanasia of cattle and calves
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food

Pain Control in Beef Cattle: Getting up to Code
Saskatchewan Beef Industry Conference

Cattle castration and dehorning pain management 

Pain mitigation for dehorning calves

Pain- no gain

Timing and method is everything for dehorning and castration 


Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Beef Cattle https://www.nfacc.ca/pdfs/codes/beef_code_of_practice.pdf

Coetzee JF, Gehring R, Tarus-Sanf J, Anderson DE (2010) Effect of sub-anesthetic xylazine and ketamine ('ketamine stun') administered to calves immediately prior to castration. Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia;37:566-578.

Coetzee JF, Edwards LN, Mosher RA, Bello NM, O’Connor AM, Wang B, KuKanich B, Blasi DA (2012) Effect of oral meloxicam on health and performance of beef steers relative to bulls castrated on arrival at the feedlot. Journal of Animal Science 90:1026-1039.

Gonzalez LA, Schwartzkopf-Genswein KS, Caulkett NA, Janzen E, McAllister TA, Fierheller E, Schaefer AL, Haley DB, Stookey JM, Hendrick S (2010) Pain mitigation after band castration of beef calves and its effects on performance, behavior, Escherichia coli, and salivary cortisol. Journal of Animal Science 88(2):802-810.

Moya D, González LA, Janzen E, Caulkett NA, Fireheller E, Schwartzkopf-Genswein KS (2014) Effects of castration method and frequency of intramuscular injections of ketoprofen on behavioral and physiological indicators of pain in beef cattle. Journal of Animal Science 92:1686-1697.

Neely CD, Thomson DU, Kerr CA, Reinhardt CD (2014) Effects of three dehorning techniques on behavior and wound healing in feedlot cattle. Journal of Animal Science 92:2225-2229.

Schwartzkopf-Genswein KS, Fierheller EE, Caulkett NA, Janzen ED, Pajor EA, et al. (2012) Achieving pain control for routine management procedures in North American beef cattle. Animal Frontiers 2: 52-58. http://www.animalfrontiers.org/content/2/3/52.full

Schwartzkopf-Genswein K.S., Stookey J.M., de Passillé A.M. & Rushen J. (1997) Comparison of hot-iron and freeze branding on cortisol levels and pain sensitivity in beef cattle. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 77:369-374.

Schwartzkopf-Genswein, K.S., Stookey J.M. & Welford R. (1997) Behavior of cattle during hot-iron and freeze branding and the effects on subsequent handling ease. Journal of Animal Science 75:2064- 2072.

Stookey JM, and Goonewardene LA. (1996) A comparison of production traits and welfare implications between horned and polled beef bulls. Canadian Journal of Animal Science 76:1.


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Thanks to Dr. Karen Schwartzkopf-Genswein, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Research Scientist, for contributing her time and expertise during the development of this page.

This topic was last revised on November 14, 2019 at 2:11 AM.

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