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Pain management in cattle

Several products are effective, but pay attention to timing


There’s no doubt that some routine procedures such as castration are painful for cattle. Fortunately, researchers are figuring out how producers can mitigate pain with products on the market today.

Dr. Eugene Janzen of the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine has been studying pain mitigation in beef cattle for several years. He says non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as Metacam and Meloxicam Oral benefit young calves after banding or surgical castration.

“The calves would move around a whole lot better. They would mother up. They would suckle.”

Dr. Doug Myers, a technical services vet with Boehringer Ingelheim, says they’ve seen a “groundswell of support from the ranching community” for Metacam 20, a product approved for pain relief in cattle.

“It’s really sold itself,” says Myers. “I would say the producers have talked about this among themselves maybe even more than the veterinarians have.”

Dr. Merle Olson, founder of Alberta pharmaceutical manufacturer Solvet, says they designed Meloxicam Oral after producers requested an affordable pain control product for calves. The cost of treating a calf during processing is under $2 per head, he says.

“Our mission is to make sure animals in pain have pain control,” says Olson. He adds Meloxicam Oral has been “very well-received.”

Tips for use

Both Metacam and Meloxicam contain meloxicam as an active ingredient, and both are approved for treating cattle. But label claims and administration do differ.

Right now castration is Meloxicam’s only label claim. Olson says they pursued that label claim because castration is the most common painful procedure done on calves. “We could never provide label studies for every known painful condition.”

Olson says producers can use Meloxicam off-label under veterinarian direction. They need to purchase it through a veterinarian, as it’s a prescription product.

Meloxicam comes with an oral dosing gun. Producers who process calves on the ground can get another dosing gun with a hook-shaped tube that goes in the mouth to make it easier to administer. Olson says either dosing gun administers Meloxicam in seconds.

Metacam has several label claims, including pain relief from scours, dehorning, mastitis, and abdominal surgery (C-sections). It’s also an anti-endotoxin, meaning it works against the poisons released by bacteria during infections. Metacam drops the fever and controls pain from scours.

“It allows the animal to feel better,” says Myers. “And some of those animals may not need an antibiotic.” Animals with bovine respiratory disease are also in pain, he adds, so sometimes those animals are treated with Metacam as well.

Metacam can be injected subcutaneously by tenting the skin on the neck. Vets can also administer it with an IV during surgeries.

Producers should look to veterinarians for off-label use of Metacam, says Garner Deobald, territory sales manager for Boehringer Ingelheim. Boehringer has tech services vets who can be consulted about potential issues, he says.

Contraindications, or negative effects, are one good reason to check with a vet before using either product off-label. For example, Myers says producers shouldn’t use Metacam on scouring calves that are flat out and can’t get up, as they’re likely hypovolemic (low on blood due to loss of body fluids).

Dosage for both products is based on body weight. Both Myers and Olson say they haven’t had any reports of ill effects from overdosing their products. Metacam has been tested at five times the label dose for three times the licensed treatment rate, Myers says. Producers would have to exceed that very high dosage to harm an animal.

Both products control pain for days after administration: Metacam for 72 hours in ruminants, Deobald says. Meloxicam’s label indicates therapeutic pain relief for 56 hours.

Research shows limitations

The research has proven that NSAIDs such as Meloxicam Oral and Metacam Oral reduce pain after a procedure. But there’s a big stumbling block for cow-calf producers hoping to reduce pain during a painful procedure such as castration.

“If you’re going to give the medicine at the time of the procedure, that’s like going to the dentist and getting him to block your teeth and then he immediately starts drilling,” Janzen says.

When researchers dosed the calves with an NSAID well ahead of time, the calves showed less pain during the procedure. That’s good news, as Janzen could see dairy producers administering an NSAID before disbudding calves. But right now it’s likely not a practical option for cow-calf producers during processing.

Using castration bands on older calves also poses challenges. If a producer or feedlot operator is stuck banding a 500- or 600-lb. calf, the pain is “pretty difficult to medicate away,” Janzen says. The problem is that the real pain sets in once the band breaks the skin, about 15 to 25 days after banding.

Surgical castration requires more skill and comes with complications and risks. However, for older calves in the feedyard, it’s the best way to go, Janzen says. “You can find combinations of pharmaceutics that just eliminate the pain completely.”

Researchers are also studying how effective NSAIDs are in situations other than castration. Dr. Claire Windeyer of the University of Calgary is using NSAIDs on cows and calves as part of a study on dystocia (hard calvings), Janzen says.

And Janzen has plans of his own.

“The elephant in the room has to be branding,” he says. “I mean, disbudding is painful, the castration is painful. But it’s not anything like branding. And how are you going to medicate away the pain of branding?” Janzen plans to look at medicating two-month-old calves during branding this year.

Researchers seem to have quite a bit of support within the beef industry. Janzen sometimes speaks to 4-H clubs, and the kids are very aware of pain in animals, he says. And during producer meetings, Janzen fields questions from producers on how to reduce pain.

“And it turns out lots of times we don’t have an answer for them,” he says. “So I think that’s why it’s appropriate to keep looking.”

About the author

Field Editor

Lisa Guenther is field editor for Grainews based at Livelong, Sask. You can follow her on Twitter @LtoG.

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