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Improving Goat Welfare during Disbudding

In farm animal management, many painful procedures are completed without analgesics, sometimes by the farmer/owner. In this post, Dr. Shannon Swink of Hoof and Horn Mobile Veterinary Services in Apex, NC discusses her evolution in analgesic management of goat kids for a routine husbandry procedure.


When I started out as a veterinarian almost 20 years ago, I was of course very excited and very nervous to be helping animals. I wanted to do everything right. I found myself treating goats and cows in a mixed animal practice, even though I swore I would always just do equine. I grew to love and appreciate those species, and especially gravitated toward goats, and their curious, sometimes infuriating, personalities.

These kids appreciate Dr. Swink for using sedation & local anesthesia. They also appreciate you for reading this article!

One of the most nerve wracking things we do for goats is to disbud goat kids: it's painful and the brain is right there! We can debate whether this is appropriate for horned animals, but I think there are some valid reasons for the procedure. Plenty of owners do this on their own, but increasingly, the owners don’t want this responsibility and are understandably nervous about it. I was too when I first started. Similar to tail docking in puppies and banding calves or kids for castration, it’s a painful procedure, traditionally done without anesthesia on very young animals.

No vet or owner wants to cause pain in an animal, though we frequently do so in order to help them. But we should be constantly evolving to find ways to make things more peaceful and stress free for our patients. When I started doing this procedure for my clients, I didn’t use analgesics or anesthesia and I didn’t charge much for it since it didn’t take much time, even though it was a very stressful procedure for me, the owner, and the kid. I knew that it was painful, but I believed that it was over quickly and you could get the kid back to nursing right away and they would be fine. I believed most owners would not pay more for sedation and appropriate analgesia, and besides, anesthesia is dangerous in ruminants, right? It felt too risky to administer sedation for such a short procedure. Surely it’s not worth it. But I was never comfortable burning the head of a little kid knowing how painful that must be.

Then along came an undergraduate student volunteer who was vegan. She was of course horrified by the practice and urged me to find another way. One thing that prevented me from pursuing sedation in the past was the lack of safe reversal agents. Since ruminants can be sedated for over an hour on one small dose of the alpha-2 agonist, xylazine, it didn’t seem practical or safe to sedate them without being able to reverse. I felt that the alpha-2 antagonist tolazoline was a little risky with its cardiovascular effects and yohimbine was becoming difficult to find and often isn’t very effective in ruminants.

Goat kids recovering from sedation for disbudding.

Then I heard about atipamezole and its use in small animal anesthesia. It sounded fairly safe and effective. Though expensive, it doesn’t cost much for a small ruminant dose. I checked in with Dr. Allen Cannedy, a wonderful small ruminant vet I look up to, and he had been using it in ruminants already. He said he felt very comfortable using it, and of course the kids and owners appreciated the sedation for this painful procedure. So I gave it a try with my vegan student present. She was very excited. I dosed the little <10lb guy with 50 mcg/kg xylazine IV (I have gotten much better at finding tiny kid jugulars since starting this). Then I clipped and wiped the head with alcohol. I also gave the NSAID flunixin 1 mg/kg IV and performed a ring block of 0.5mL lidocaine around each horn bud (I’ve since learned to do the cornual nerve block instead and use sodium bicarbonate 1:10 with the lidocaine to decrease acidity). Then I put the dreaded Rhinehart dehorner on the little horn buds for about 10 seconds each until I got the copper ring. No reaction!! Patient still breathing!! I burned the center of the bud turning the dehorner sideways, and that was it! I Sprayed with Aluspray (I love that stuff), and proceeded to reverse the peaceful sleeping kid. I administered 0.01mL Atipamezole 5mg/ml IV (12.5 mcg/kg) and within 1 minute, the kid was looking around and getting ready to go. It took a little while for him to get his bearings, but he soon wandered off to nurse mom. He scratched his head with his back foot for a minute, but seemed to be ok.

Two nerves supply each horn bud in goats: cornual branches of the zygomaticotemporal (lacrimal) nerve & the infratrochlear nerves. The cornual branch of the zygomaticotemporal is blocked between the lateral canthus of the eye and the horn bud, over the supraorbital process. The cornual branch of the infratrochlear nerve is blocked at the dorsomedial margin of the orbit.

After several disbuddings with sedation and regional anesthesia, I decided I would never go back to disbudding without sedation. Of course, it is more time consuming (about 15 min for one kid, 7-10 min/kid for multiples) and thus costs more for the owner. You could even argue that you are handling the kid more and stressing it longer; though after the sedation, the kid isn't aware of much handling. Those that use my services for this procedure really appreciate the sedation and pain management. Those that perform this procedure themselves (many procedures associated with the routine husbandry of livestock can legally be performed by owners/farmers), continue to disbud the traditional way, and I will dispense flunixin and lidocaine for them to use ahead of time if they would like. Alternatively, they could give some Meloxicam 2 hours ahead of the procedure. Not many owners utilize those methods, however.

This goat got to keep his horns.

I wonder if we’ll ever completely remove the pain from this procedure? Or convince owners that goats with horns are better, even if they need safer fencing and can’t be around children as much? There are degrees to animal welfare and I hope we are moving in the right direction in making farming and farm animal ownership a happier place for everyone. My vegan student was certainly happier that she had made a small change in my practice for farm animals and I was happy to oblige. It has changed my practice for the better and I will continue to look for ways to make farm animal production medicine safer and more humane for all those involved.

Shannon G. Swink, DVM graduated from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 2003. She went on to do a private equine internship in Missouri, before coming back to TN to practice mixed animal medicine and large animal relief work. She started her own large animal practice, Hoof and Horn Mobile Veterinary Services in 2011 in Apex, NC where she continues to practice today.

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