Pain Relief For Calf Castration

We explain the pain relief options available when castrating calves and why they should be given.

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Calf Castration Options

Three main methods of calf castration are used in the UK. Depending on the age of the calves, there are different legal limitations regarding who can perform castration and the use of anaesthetic as outlined below:

Less than 7 daysElastrator bandTrained stockperson or vet
Less than 2 monthsSurgical castration


Vet only

Trained stockperson or vet

Over 2 monthsBurdizzo (only suitable up to 4 months)

Surgical Castration

Vet only

Why Should I Give NSAID Analgesia At Castration?

All methods of castration cause both short and long-term pain. This can be displayed in a number of ways including: separation from the group, flicking of the tail, decreased movement and inappetence. Behavioural and physiological pain responses can also reduce the daily liveweight gain of calves.

Local anaesthetic helps with the acute pain, however it will last a maximum of 4 hours – not enough to help with the long-term pain of castration. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) drugs act to reduce inflammation and pain, whereas local anaesthetic will only reduce sensation to an area. This is particularly important as the inflammatory response usually begins in the hours post-castration and can last for 2-3 days.

Studies comparing calves treated with: nothing, local anaesthetic only, and local anaesthetic with an NSAID, showed the smallest cortisol response in the group which received NSAID analgesia alongside local anaesthetic. In some cases it showed complete elimination of the cortisol response.

Because elevated cortisol is a physiological response to pain and stress, we can infer that giving NSAIDs before castration causes a significant decrease in the pain and stress of castration and is beneficial to calf welfare. Likewise, The British Cattle Veterinary Association state that calves should receive NSAIDs prior to castration by any method.

Pain Relief For Calf Castration: Legally (the bare minimum)

By law local anaesthesia must be applied before castration in all animals over 2 months and the castration must be performed by a veterinary surgeon. (Protection of Animals (Anaesthetics) Act 1954 and Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966).

Red Tractor

Under the latest Red Tractor Standards, your herd health plan must include a section on relevant husbandry procedures detailing the methods used and age of animals for each method, persons responsible and anaesthetic/analgesics to be used.

Dairy farms are required to have a written pain relief policy detailing when pain relief should be provided, the products used and the persons responsible.

The standards also stipulate that ‘consideration should be given to whether the procedure is necessary, and procedures must only be carried out by competent persons.’

The standards also clarify further that a competent person is a ‘trained and/or experienced stockman who understands the welfare implications of the procedure they are undertaking, the methods they are using and the conditions for use’

What NSAID Options Are Out There & How Do I Give Them?

A number of different NSAIDs are available with different routes of administration, length of action and doses. The main NSAIDs used at castration on farm are:

  1. Meloxicam (e.g. Meloxidyl or Metacam) – Given as a single injection under the skin (usually over the ribs). These products have a 26 hour half life and have been shown to give greater than 44 hours of analgesia after similar management procedures
  2. Meloxicam is the only NSAID specifically recommended for use in youngstock under 6 weeks of age
  3. Ketoprofen (e.g. Ketofen) – Given as a once daily injection in the muscle, for up to three days
  4. Flunixin (e.g. Finadyne or Allevenix) – Given IV or IM as a once daily injection, for up to three days. Flunixin products are fast acting, reaching peak concentration 30 minutes after IM injection.

Local Anaesthetic (e.g. Adrenacaine or Pronestesic)

If we come out to do some castrations you will see our team give local anaesthetic blocks before castration – legally all calves over 2 months must have local anaesthetic and it is recommended for calves over 7 days. If you are keeping Pronestesic on farm, it’s worth remembering that unlike Adrenacaine, it must be kept in your medicines fridge!

In summary, with castration being a commonly performed management procedure, it’s highly recommended that calves of any age receive NSAIDs at the time of castration to give long term analgesia. We also recommend that all calves over 7 days old receive local anaesthetic blocks prior to being castrated.

Contact us if you’d like to discuss pain relief for calf castration.

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