Pain relief medication for beef cattle

Pain relief is defined as the administration of drugs that reduce the intensity and duration of a pain response.

The benefits resulting from the administration of analgesia for painful procedures such as castration, dehorning and disbudding are widely acknowledged and supported by field trials. Aside from the obvious welfare benefits, production is enhanced as animals suffer less pain, and as a result, return to normal feeding and other activities in a faster time than without any pain relief.

The information contained on this page does not constitute advice and in no way replaces advice from a veterinary practitioner. In preparing to use pain-relief compounds on cattle, producers are urged to consult with a veterinarian.

The information on this page has been produced by Central Station through consultation with veterinarians and product manufacturers. We have also referenced information from the “Guide to correct use of pain relief for cattle in the grass-fed beef cattle sector.”

Anaesthetic vs. analgesic

Anaesthetics and analgesics target different areas of the pain pathway.

Local anaesthetics provide short term pain relief by temporarily blocking sensory function (i.e. numbing the area).

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) act on inflammatory pathways in the body to provide analgesia. For example, a common NSAID administered to humans is ibuprofen. NSAIDs do not totally block (anaesthetise) pain.

Single or combined use?

Anaesthetics and analgesics can be used individually or together to manage pain.

A local anaesthetic will reduce pain at the time of the procedure by numbing the area. Local anaesthetics have a quick onset of action but their duration of action is less than that period of pain caused by the procedure. Local anaesthetics are available as an injection or as a topical spray-on wound dressing.

As Tri-Solfen is a topical spray (as opposed to a local anaesthetic administered by injection before a procedure) it will only work when applied to exposed nerves, i.e. after the procedure.

On the other hand, Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as meloxicam, can be used to provide longer lasting pain relief after the procedure.

So, what does this mean?

If only one type of pain relief is applied, users should be aware that only one part of the pain pathway will be targeted i.e. either the immediate pain, or ongoing pain. To address both types of pain, multi-modal (combined) use is recommended.

A common example of multi-modal pain relief in humans is the use of a local anaesthetic and an analgesic (e.g. ibuprofen) for a trip to the dentist. An injectable local anaesthetic will numb the site of application to block pain during the procedure (e.g. root canal). However, as the local anaesthetic wears off, people often take an NSAID analgesic to provide relief from ongoing pain.

Use of a local anaesthetic plus a NSAID appears to be the most successful combination to minimise the short to medium term pain response in cattle. For example, Tri-solfen topical anaesthesia could be used in calves for disbudding and castration by cutting (surgical castration), along with an NSAID analgesic such as Metacam. The topical anaesthetic will provide fast-acting pain relief once applied, and as it wears off the NSAID will help manage the ongoing pain.

Which option is right for my cattle?

Producers must contact their veterinarian regarding pain relief product(s) to ensure effective treatment, before investing in pain relief measures. Some key considerations to discuss with your veterinarian include:

  • What procedures are being performed, and by what method?
  • Who will be applying the pain relief?
  • What is the price per unit applied?
  • What is the withholding period(s)?
  • How many livestock will be treated? (Metacam needs to be discarded 28 days after opening)
  • Are retreatments possible? (Buccalgesic cannot be administered again for 21 days)
  • What is the life span of the product? (Tri-Solfen expires 15 months from the date of manufacture).

Some other points to note are (as advised in the above mentioned document):

  • Use of pain relief is advised for routine, aversive cattle-husbandry procedures including disbudding/dehorning, castration, spaying, branding, tattooing and ear notching.
  • Pain-relief compounds are now relatively available for lay operators, noting many require veterinary prescription.
  • Producers are encouraged to replace surgical procedures with non-surgical replacements if available. Examples include breeding for polled cattle to replace dehorning; using electronic forms of identification to replace branding (where allowed); and using immuno- contraception if available and practical to replace castration and spaying.
  • Use of pain relief must not replace good animal welfare practice as described in the Animal Welfare Standards and Guidelines for Cattle.

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