As a community of people responsible for dairy animal welfare we have a moral obligation to minimise pain. Codes of welfare have been written to more precisely define requirements for welfare, and these include a commitment to minimise pain and distress.
Thinking about the sources of pain for our dairy cattle, there are only about four – Accident/injury, disease, normal physical trauma (eg calving labour) or a routine procedure (eg castration) – defined as a painful procedure in the code of welfare.
Prevention of pain requires taking steps before the painful event takes place. This means we have to anticipate pain and consider options which minimise it. Much preventive medicine reduces the risk of pain, for example Teat Sealing heifers to reduce mastitis has a downstream effect of reducing pain by reducing disease first. Using good equipment for potentially painful procedures will minimise pain and speed up the procedure.
Pain prevention can include giving pain and inflammation relief in advance of a painful procedure, for example the use of local anaesthetic and Metacam reducing the pain response for dehorning of calves.
Pain can also be prevented by having great facilities which minimise the risk of injury and therefore pain. Well constructed farm tracks, feed pads and stand-off areas can reduce lameness and associated pain. Good yards and animal handling facilities such as lameness crates can minimise the risk of accident (pain for all parties), injury and stress.
Often pain prevention makes animals much easier to handle and speeds up the job. This is a real win for stockmen and animal husbandry in general. If initial experiences are good, often animals will be more relaxed the next time they face a similar situation.
In dairying practical pain prevention strategies often just involve commonsense consideration of the animals and a little forethought. Examples could include (from the cradle to the grave):
Using plenty of lubricant when calving a cow. Better too much than not enough!
Dehorning calves as young as possible, when horn buds are very small
Using local anaesthetic and a NSAID such as Metacam for recovery from dehorning
If dehorning under general anaesthetic, cut off supernumerary teats while they are out.
Tidying up sharp objects around the calf shed to avoid calves sustaining injury or licking them.
Using sharp needles to vaccinate calves (and older animals).
Providing good head restraint when tagging to avoid accidental ripping of ears with tags.
Providing good yards for shifting stock, and maintaining them well. Injuries can happen when stock of any age attempt to escape!
Taking all reasonable steps to prevent lameness, eg Good stock handling, good track design and maintenance, good cowflow and backing gate practice.
Preventing mastitis by controlling environmental challenge and contagious challenge during milking.
Asking the vet about pain relief for any surgical or invasive procedure done on your animals.
In our vet practice we take pain prevention advice seriously. Please don’t hesitate to ask us about any ways to minimise pain. It’s surprising what little tricks we have picked up over the years.
Pain Relief and Treatment
Treatment for painful conditions is a relatively new concept in dairy medicine. Because cattle have come from a wild herd environment they have adapted to not showing pain. Showing pain could potentially be a sign of weakness which a predator could pick up on and therefore target. Adult cattle in particular therefore adopt a stoic (non feeling) approach to pain.
Ultimately we cannot monitor pain in an everyday sense because animals cannot tell us what they are feeling. However, careful observation and recent scientific measures such as response to automated pressure devices, blood cortisol, heart rate and eye temperature as reliable indicators of pain have greatly increased our understanding. Measures such as these have contributed to a growing body of scientific literature on pain relief and treatment.
Pain relief consists of either controlling/removing the source of pain or providing medical support to reduce it.
A good example of dealing with the source of pain is the application of a hoof block/cowslip to lame cows. This device lifts the painful claw off the ground, allowing the sound claw to take all the weight. A good example of managing pain medically is the use of Metacam for scouring calves. We might imagine the pain these calves go through, but it is only by recent experimental work measuring feed intake and activity that we are able to confirm significant advantages of pain relief for this situation.
Pain relief for cattle is also a relatively new concept in the veterinary world. Many veterinary procedures are or can be painful. Some pain relief options such as local anaesthetic have been around for decades and make the job easier, therefore are well used. Other “heavy hitting” pain relief medications such as morphine have been adapted from human use then to companion animal situations such as for cats and dogs following major orthopaedic surgery.
Yet others such as nonSteriodal Anti inflammatories (NSAIDs) are very new, particularly in production animals. These drugs not only control pain, but can also reduce fever and inflammation. Early versions such as Aspirin have been superseded by more potent varieties such as Metacam.
In production animal systems such as dairying, the cost benefit of pain relief is always a major question hanging over any choice. This is particularly important where it might not be obvious to a farmer or staff that the animals are suffering. This is why economic assessment of pain relief is so valuable.
Fortunately there are some stand-out scientific studies of pain relief bringing economic advantage. One is the recent study of adding Metacam to the treatment of routine mastitis. Normally mastitis cases would have to be very severe to consider NSAID use, although we now know that the pain from mastitis can last weeks. The cases of mastitis in this study were not severe – the cows were not sick and did not have fevers –and it was a big study, with over 700 cows enrolled.
While there was no difference in milk production, the economic benefits identified in this study were a more rapid recovery of somatic cell count in the affected quarters and probably more importantly a reduced culling rate. The culling rate in the Metacam treated group fell by a whopping 43%, giving a return on investment well over 5:1 for adding Metacam to all mastitis cases.
This was an example of pain relief in a non traditional area that also paid economic dividends.
We would be happy to discuss this study and others with you either on farm or in the clinic. There is always new information coming out and sometimes being advertised. We can filter all this for you, interpreting and customising the information for use (or not) on your farm and giving you an informed choice.