Ouch! – Pain relief on the farm

July 3, 2022

When we’re on the farm we often identify animals that are in pain by changes in their behaviour such as reduced food intakes, lameness, isolation from the group, tooth grinding, depression and/or increased respiratory rate or effort.  Pain will reduce an animal’s performance, whether that be mothering ability, milk production or growth rate and must therefore be prevented and/or treated promptly to benefit both farm income and the animal itself.

It is not hard to think of a situation where an animal will experience pain – whether it’s due to a routine management procedure where we can anticipate and reduce pain, or when they suffer disease or injury, where it’s important that unexpected pain is treated promptly and effectively.

For example, the use of local anaesthetic when disbudding and de-horning cattle is not only a legal requirement but a useful tool to reduce handling stress for all involved.  The local simply blocks the pain without providing any long-term anti-inflammatory pain relief.  Studies have shown that the use of an anti-inflammatory treatment at the time of the procedure reduces the acute pain seen when the local anaesthetic wears off.  In addition to their use in de-horning, the same principle is also true for castration in calves (whichever technique is employed) and for tail docking in lambs.  All Red Tractor members must use anaesthetic and pain relief for disbudding, dehorning and castration of calves by any method other than rubber rings. 

Introducing non-steroidal anti-inflammatories

We have a range of anti-inflammatory pain relief available for cattle. These are classed as non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs).  They are useful in a number of situations; as preventatives prior to a surgical procedure, as standalone treatment for an injury or in conjunction with a suitable antibiotic to reduce a high temperature or the inflammation associated with illnesses such as calf pneumonia or mastitis. NSAIDs also reduce tissue damage and make the animal feel better! This in turn means they are more likely to eat and helps reduce any check in weight gain due to ill health.  They are essentially the animal equivalent of popping a Nurofen and should be routinely included in treatment protocols.

There are no NSAIDs licensed for sheep, goats or alpacas – not because they don’t work or because these animals do not feel pain but purely because it would cost too much money for the drug companies to get a license. However, as vets we are able to prescribe these drugs under the cascade system. We have plenty of data to know they are effective in helping control pain and inflammation in these species.  It has been great to see so many people using NSAIDs over lambing this season and really seeing the benefit of a comfy ewe mothering her lambs after a tricky birth.

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