In vet school we were required to participate in the large animal field service as a requirement for graduation. Lots of it was bumping around at full-tilt over rural Pennsylvania hills and dales in a huge old Chevy crusted in compartments and hatches for our equipment’s safekeeping.

Were it not for the cell phones and artificial insemination discussions that accompanied our trips, you might call it a throwback to a James Herirot-style of medicine—at least that’s the general gist of farm calls: An abscessed hoof here, a mastitis outbreak there, a round of blood draws at the next…

I think it was required for only two weeks out of four years but I liked it so well I signed up for another round in my senior year—too bad they fit me in during what would have been my two-week break in Miami…in February.

Though I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the feeling of twenty-degree wind whipping into me and the shock and dismay that accompanies a view of a three-sided barn in winter (where I’d be spending the next four hours inexplicably wishing for more pregnancy checks)…it was worth it. 

I learned the strangest things in field service. How to adjust your truck’s visor so you don’t get decapitated in a automobile accident. How to keep warm immersed in the backside of a cow. How to get blood from sheep…the first time, every time. How to keep your socks dry when the mud splashes up to your thighs. And, finally reaching the point of this post, how to disbud and dehorn ruminants.

Disbudding: This procedure involves the removal or ablation of the corium, the horn-producing tissue adjacent to the skin of a horned ruminant. Since the horns begin as mere buds, the procedure to stop their growth is called “disbudding.” This is usually done before then weeks of age in most ruminants, though it can be done as early as ten days after birth.

Hot-iron disbudding is the most common, along with “scooping” out the corium surgically, but cautery is becoming more popular since it may be associated with less pain and stress. Injecting chemicals and applying caustic compounds topically are also employed but these methods are considered more painful due to the lingering action of the materials.

These methods have all been evaluated for their pain-causing potential by testing calves’ stress hormone levels and by assessing their visible evidence of pain: head-shaking, ear and tail twitching, reduced weight gain in the days after the procedure, etc.

Earlier disbudding is associated with less pain. Cautery or hot-iron disbudding is associated with less pain. The implementation of local anesthetics, including nerve blocks, is associated with less pain. The use of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs and other longer-lasting pain relievers have also been found to measurably reduce pain and discomfort. But these latter niceties are seldom employed due to cost and regulatory concerns (few drugs are approved by the FDA for these animals).

Dehorning is a much more drastic procedure where the existing horn is removed. Because the horn begins to grow with a sinus cavity within, infections and severe bleeding commonly result—not to mention the pain of this orthopedic procedure. In my opinion there is never a good indication for dehorning, but it’s still practiced every day in the US.

According to the AVMA’s research on this subject (from a fairly comprehensive article on animal welfare and disbudding/dehorning),

“Disbudding and dehorning of cattle in the United States is not currently regulated. The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association recommends that disbudding be performed within the first week of life.

In the United Kingdom, disbudding with a hot iron is preferred to dehorning and it is advised that this should be performed before cattle reach the age of 2 months. Application of caustic paste is acceptable in cattle up to 7 days old, but anesthesia is required if cattle are dehorned after this period.

Australian and New Zealand authorities recommend disbudding at the youngest age possible, and chemical dehorning is not deemed to be acceptable unless it is performed within the first few days after birth. In Australia, dehorning without local anesthesia or analgesia is restricted to animals less than 6 months old. The New Zealand Code of Welfare for Painful Husbandry Procedures mandates a 9-month age limit for dehorning without attention to pain relief.

The 1992 Animal Rights Law in Sweden requires that dehorning via cautery be performed under anesthesia/sedation. In Denmark, calves up to 4 weeks old can be dehorned without application of a local anesthetic.”

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I raise this topic for two reasons: 1) because I have to decide whether my goatlings, the offspring of my soon-to-be-pregnant doe, will be disbudded or not this spring, and 2) because last spring, the AVMA took what I perceive to be a weak stance against disbudding and dehorning.

At this point you might wonder why anyone would subject an animal to such an unnatural cruelty. Aren’t they meant to have horns for a reason?

Yes, they’re meant to have horns and here’s the reason: Horns are very useful for fending off predators and for displays of dominance between conspecifics. In animal agriculture, however, horns are problematic. They can injure one another, injure humans and/or injure your dogs (a big deal in my case, which is why my dogs are always kept on the safe side of a fence):

Poppy, my original doe, has horns—hefty ones my older Frenchie, Sophie’s borne the brunt of on one occasion. And Tulip, my Nubian doe to be bred imminently, has been disbudded. She, too, has suffered Poppy’s wrath a couple of times during breeding season (they get a little aggressive while in season).

Disbudding is universally accepted in the goat world as a formality all domesticated goats in the US endure. I know of no goat breeders who fail to disbud very early on in their goatling’s lives.

But is it required? If I keep a small herd of goats who get along well, should I disbud? Are my close calls (the result of Poppy’s business end) enough to teach me the lesson other goat breeders know well?

I’m not yet sold, though, I’m too big a chicken to want to subject my own creatures to the skills I picked up back in field service. One thing I do I know, however, is that I’ll be using nerve blocks and ketoprofen (a more expensive, non-approved NSAID which supposedly has better pain-relieving qualities than others) if I do elect to disbud my babes.

What would you do?