As a fourth-year student in vet school I couldn’t get enough of the field service, food animal student stuff. Much to the bemusement of the large animal faculty, this inexplicably ag-inclined suburbanite undertook extra rotations in field service, large animal nutrition, small ruminant medicine, pathology, and epidemiology.

Everything about my person must have screamed small animal practice — which is probably why the first few days of any food animal rotation inevitably earned me some sideways glances and silent travel time … or the opposite: some extra-tough drilling and plenty of “so prove it” scenarios. (i.e., “If this cold-intolerant, future cat vet thinks she’s getting an easy “A” out of this one, she’s in for a real education in animal agriculture.”)

I would have liked to think my willingness to take on the eastern Pennsylvania winters and winding rural roads in the back of an ancient field service vehicle spoke eloquently for me. But it apparently wasn’t enough for the cornfloss-haired prof who insisted that I be the first to disbud a newborn kid at our first stop of the rotation: a bucolic Nubian goat farm and creamery we serviced frequently during those frigid, late February weeks.

Perhaps I remember it less fondly than it must have happened: An impossibly perfect baby between my knees, a hot iron in my hands, the insistence of the “prove it” peer pressure, and the threat of exposed brain tissue making my head spin with abject fear.

But in the end, it wasn’t the horror of pressing too hard and hurting the baby’s nearby brain that ensured a poor first showing. Rather, it was the terrible certainty that the more I rocked the hand-held iron back and forth on the baby’s head in my efforts to burn away the horn-producing tissue, the more he screamed.

And as reward for my efforts: “Here’s the next one.”

I must have helped disbud at least a half dozen babies that day, and what I remember most is the screaming … and the smell. Like using the curling iron without your mother’s permission and singeing a nice loop of your baby hair. With more or less the same degree of anxiety in its aftermath.

"Disbudding” involves the removal of the barely-there horn buds in baby goats (and other horned critters). Both doelings and bucklings have them. And both tend to have them removed before they hit their two-week birthday.

Though it’s not strictly necessary, most domesticated goats in both pet and production settings tend to have these incipient horns removed via cauterization of the horny tissue. It’s considered far better to prevent their horns’ growth than to have them hurt other animals or their handlers/owners with them. It’s also considered far more humane to disbud than to dehorn (to surgically remove horns after they’ve matured).

The downside to disbudding is obvious: It looks painful because it is. The kids scream and kick and generally stress the heck out. The other downside is even scarier: You can kill the baby if you’re too aggressive with your hot iron. The brain isn’t too far from the horns’ origins, after all. But the truth remains: Death is rare. And the conventional wisdom reigns supreme: Pain that lasts more than a few brief minutes seems rare, too.

But I wasn’t convinced. Nor am I ever when it comes to pain in animals. Given that so much of what we do in modern small animal surgery revolves around pain control, why would I be? Especially now that we understand how much better our surgical outcomes are as a result of greater patient comfort, it’s extra obvious we’d been ignoring animal pain for eons.

This we assume for agriculture species, too. But the economic pressures involved in animal agriculture render many of these exploratory observations moot. We’ve been doing a great job forever and ever. Animals don’t die. Indeed, they thrive after their painful encounters with the business end of a disbudding iron. So why make changes now?

For three reasons, I finally decided: 1. Because that’s how I roll in my own small animal practice. I’m constantly toying and tinkering with new pain control techniques on my canine and feline patients. Why would I consider anything less for my own kids? 2. Because my initial firsthand experience on the disbudding thing was so horrible, I figured it had to be better if I added some pain relief to the protocol. 3. Because my ambivalence at having the procedure performed at all was making me feel as if I’d need some form of redemption after the fact, even if it arrived in the guise of a nerve block.

So it was that when Fleabane and Buttonwood were born three weeks back, I was prepared to disbud my own babes. Pain control would definitely be included, but only with the assistance of an expert, I’d decided. It had been too long, and my first tries were too traumatic to ever consider doing it myself — not right off the bat, anyway.

So last week we finally made the two hour drive to southeastern Florida’s most famous, oft-used disbudder (name respectfully omitted). His western West Palm Beach homestead was crawling with salubrious life, and hope for more of the same. What can I say? I just got a good feeling from the goats, dogs, ducks, cats, and geese that made their home there. But when he brought out his homemade kid box to secure the babes during the disbudding, I shuddered.

Eventually we got through it. Still, both kids screamed throughout, leaving little doubt as to the stress of the nerve-blocking injections … and plenty of questions concerning the degree of pain relief I’d managed with my lidocaine ring block protocol (sourced from two different textbooks — one on anesthesia, one on goat medicine).

Within ten minutes, though, neither looked any worse for wear. And that’s how I remember my vet school victims coming through: lots of stress during, little evidence later. It’s also how I’d describe my three-day-old tail docks, both with and without nerve blocks: lots of crying during, no crying after.

So why stress about the pain relief — or about the disbudding at all — if they seem to do so well afterwards? Hmmmm …

I guess it all comes down to the obvious. I know where the nerves live, so I know I can block them with safely-applied drugs. I also know that animals signal their alarm far better than they show their pain. So why would I not address the possibility of pain?

Nevertheless, the better question remains: Why remove the dastardly horn buds at all??


Dr. Patty Khuly

Art of the day by Jojo Milano, "goat woman" extraordinaire. Enjoy.

Fleabane getting shaved prior to the procedure:

Buttonwood in box:

Fleabane in arms:

The nerve block in action:

The burns:

Mom's reaction … (nervous smile, for sure):