If the adage “you can’t manage what you can’t measure” is true, then a lot of study is required for pain mitigation in cattle. “One of the biggest issues in our ability to study pain is the lack of an objective measure to quantify or define pain,” says Brad White, DVM, KansasStateUniversity. “Assessing pharmaceuticals or procedures that affect health can be measured by looking at morbidity or mortality; however, evaluation of procedures to mitigate pain is more difficult as we don’t have a way to discretely measure it in cattle.”

Also standing in the way is that funding for research in pain or distress in livestock has been limited and slow to become a priority. “This has resulted in a lag in knowledge for pain management of livestock at a time when society is increasingly intolerant of conditions considered to be suboptimal for animal well being,” states David Anderson, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVS, also of KansasState.

Society demands change

White notes that the tendency is to anthropomorphize allowing us to evaluate what we think the level of pain would be and use this to make decisions related to treatment options. “We need to have a way to both define ‘pain’ in farm animal species and also measure the level or amount of pain. This should still be based on science rather than the subjective assessment of if an animal is in pain.”

Anderson agrees. “Societal changes over the past 10 years have moved toward consumer expectations for humane treatment. Unfortunately, the regulations being discussed, and in some cases enacted, have not been shown to improve animal comfort or well-being.”

One example includes legislation passed in July 2008 in New Jersey, pushed through by animal rights groups Farm Sanctuary, the Humane Society of the United States and the ASPCA. According to news reports the Court held that castration could not be considered humane without some specific requirements to prevent pain and suffering. Furthermore, the Court made it clear that the decision to permit these practices as long as they are done by a “knowledgeable person” and in a way to “minimize pain” could not “pass muster.”

“The prospect that this type of legislation may become more prevalent in the future has profound implications for our industry” says Hans Coetzee, BVSc, Cert CHP, PhD, Dipl. ACVCP, KansasStateUniversity. “Over 15 million beef calves are castrated in the U.S. each year yet current Canadian and U.S data suggests that only one in five veterinarians routinely use analgesics at the time of castration. One reason for this is that there are currently no analgesics that are specifically approved for pain relief in livestock by the FDA.”

Anderson believes the veterinary community and livestock industries must seek out objective means of assessing the well being of livestock such that veterinary and husbandry improvements can be made in a manner that truly benefits the animals and are not based on perception of an idealized setting.

“Farmers, ranchers, and veterinarians have long been the standard bearers for animal welfare, well being, and health care,” Anderson says. “The growing separation of consumers from rural agriculture has led to an information disconnection between the consumer, food products, and the tireless dedication of livestock and veterinary workers. Live-stock producers and veterinarians must be proactive leaders in the establishment of good livestock practices and have active and informed input on potential regulations. Failure to do so will likely lead to the establishment of regulations that do not lead to the desired effect but rather suffer the demise of unintended consequences.”

Next issue: March/April 2009