Pain mitigation in livestock surgery

Thirty five representatives from peak livestock bodies, research providers, pharmaceutical industries and the Australian Veterinary Association attended a forum on pain relief in livestock that was held on Friday 25 May 2012 in Canberra.

The forum was part of the project being funded under the Australian Animal Welfare Strategy to investigate ways to facilitate development of pain-relieving products that are readily applied in the field for routinely performed surgical husbandry procedures on livestock. The project is being conducted by Chris Buller, Pestat, to determine the priority R&D areas. 

The forum arrived at the following conclusions:

  1. There is a need to improve communication on what is done to animals in the livestock industries and why. If the public finds an animal product ‘unwholesome’ or ‘tainted’ by assertions of cruelty, they – or major retailers - may reject it in the market.
    • Livestock production is an input to either food or fibre production for the broader public. It does not exist in and of itself.
    • Using animals for production purposes must be done in ways that are ethically defensible as part of doing business and not in expectation of a price premium.
    • This means there should be an ongoing and open dialogue between producer groups and consumers.
  2. While the general public trusts that farmers treat their animals humanely, they do not have sufficient real understanding of livestock husbandry to put some of these procedures in context. Unfortunately such procedures can be presented graphically without that context being communicated to the casual viewer or reader.
  3. Producers, consumers and others involved in the livestock industries support the broader application of pain mitigation by applying procedures and products within the cost limitations that currently exist.
    • There is a need for current husbandry practices that are accepted as being painful. It is worse for welfare to have uncastrated weaner cattle running with heifer calves.
    • There are existing techniques that reduce pain from such procedures if properly performed and there are also drugs that can reduce the acute and chronic pain associated with such procedures.
    • If used appropriately, those techniques and drugs can improve the production performance of animals undergoing these procedures, without significantly increasing residue risks and therefore putting at risk export trade.
  4. The ability to utilise such products within those cost limitations is likely to be improved significantly in the short term by developing new methods of applying existing products for those purposes – methods that do not involve conventional injection techniques and that have no or minimal impact on the time that an animal needs to remain in a race and crush for the procedure to be performed.
    • A deal of work is underway in this area.
  5. There are also some procedures whose existence reflects non-production characteristics of Australian livestock. Dehorning for example is unnecessary for a polled animal.
  6. New genetic tools are available so that producers can, over time, change the characteristics of their flocks to eliminate the need for such procedures and there are new immunological tools that can ‘switch off’ reproductive activity in animals.
  7. Producers need clear demonstration, in the real world, that the application of such techniques will not have a negative impact on farm profitability or trade.
  8. In addition, retailer understanding of these tools needs to be improved to facilitate ‘niche positioning’ for those techniques to be applied in a commercially valuable way by producers rather than being met with resistance to their application.
  9. A strategic approach to improving the ‘welfare profile’ of essential husbandry procedures that are painful is suggested, but it cannot work if producers are not directly involved in its development and application. That approach involves the following elements, some or all of which may be applicable in specific circumstances:
    • SHORT TERM – reduce impact of procedure on individual animals – eg delivery of local anaesthesia, analgesia
    • MEDIUM TERM – refine the procedure and improve its application eg through extension, training etc. eg ring castration rather than knife castration
    • LONG TERM – change the production practices OR the genetic basis of the production herd to remove the need for the procedure (within production constraints). eg move to a polled herd, plainer bodies sheep, etc         
  10. At present the application of analgesia and local anaesthesia in association with these procedures is limited to a large extent by (1) lack of registered products, and (2) lack of training schemes for producers to learn to use the available drugs appropriately and keep records of that usage.
  11. The development of new methods of delivering some existing S4 drugs – transdermal, oral etc – has great potential under field conditions to facilitate their use by producers.
  12. However, scheduling rules and the risks of unanticipated side effects and/or abuse means that the risk of liability for ‘stuff ups’ on prescribing veterinary surgeons will increase under such circumstances and therefore will need to be managed for the potential benefits of broader accessibility to be achieved.
    • There is benefit in producer groups and the AVA SIGs involved in the relevant industries to engage in a dialogue and develop a quality management framework for producers who wish to have access to these drugs so that the obligations of the prescribing veterinary surgeon can be demonstrated to have been met AND in a way that efficiently manages the risks.
  13. In addition, for some procedures there is the likelihood that contractors will increasingly be providing the service to farmers. This situation is not envisaged in traditional rules for prescribing and needs to be worked through in a sensible manner so that the potential benefits of new developments in such products are not needlessly limited.
    • A ‘snapshot’ of jurisdictional rules for prescribing veterinarians may be needed to better inform any necessary need for change in regulation in this area.


  1. Attendees have been contacted to provide a ‘snapshot’ of information on current R&D activities aimed at improving the welfare outcomes from these painful procedures that could be discussed publicly.
  2. The speakers and Chairs will be asked to ‘flesh out’ a strategic plan for addressing the need to improve welfare outcomes in the livestock industries that will focus on short, medium and longer term options
    • refine these procedures for better 
    • reduce the numbers of such interventions needed over time, and
    • move to replace the need for them by changing genetics or other options over time.
  3. That strategic plan will form the focus for discussions with state-based producer groups. These groups and their members must be in a position to drive the approach taken.  
  4. The strategic work will be undertaken as needed to inform development of a framework that maximises the capacity for safe application of new products that may be developed for these purposes.