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Disbudding and dehorning

374. Horns are removed from cattle in order to minimise the risk of animals causing injury to each other. Young animals can be disbudded to prevent the growth of horns but once the horns are well established, dehorning is the only option.

375. Disbudding and dehorning are painful and stressful procedures and effective anaesthesia is essential. A heated disbudding iron applied over the horn buds in young calves aged up to about two months (the age being determined by the size of the horn bud) is much less painful than dehorning, where the horns are cut off with a saw, horn shears or cutting wire and the exposed blood vessels cauterised to prevent haemorrhage. Recent scientific work at Massey University, New Zealand concludes that disbudding with a hot iron is preferable to dehorning.

376. Parts of the law are currently unsatisfactory and are also at variance with best welfare practice. The law states that:-:

1) Disbudding of calves may be carried out in the first seven days of life by chemical cauterisation without an anaesthetic by an unqualified person.

2) Disbudding and dehorning may be carried out on an animal at any age by an unqualified person after the administration of an anaesthetic.

Legislation rightly prohibits unqualified persons from castrating calves over two months, but this same legislation allows unqualified persons to dehorn cattle at any age and requires review as soon as possible.

377. Polled cattle exist in several breeds, e.g. Hereford, although rarely in Holstein/Friesians. In order to eliminate the stressful and painful experience that disbudding/dehorning entails, genetic selection for polled animals should be further investigated and breeding programmes initiated. The selective use of genetic engineering may be a beneficial technique in transferring the gene responsible, without adversely affecting other breeding attributes.


378. Non-veterinarians should be suitably trained and competent before carrying out disbudding.

379. If disbudding is deemed necessary, the procedure should take place before calves are two months of age. The upper age limit is determined by the size of the horn bud. The procedure is easier to perform when the horn buds are small.

380. The pain and stress which can be caused by chemical cauterisation mean that the method should not be used.

381. Dehorning must be carried out only by a veterinary surgeon and then only when deemed necessary. It should not be a routine procedure. The Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 should be amended accordingly.

382. If dehorning has to be carried out, pain control methods such as analgesics should be used in addition to local anaesthesia.

383. Sufficient time should always be allowed for the anaesthetic to take effect before disbudding/dehorning.

384. The relevant legislation must be reviewed and the maximum age at which disbudding can be performed by non-veterinarians should be stated. The calf must be no more than two months of age.