Livestock Industry Studies Pain Management in Food Animals

Aug 7, 2020  | 7 min  | Ep4551

Consumers have taken a greater interest in how their food is grown and arrives on their table. The national discussion now joins the existing debate of pain management in animals being raised for food.

Colleen Bradford Krantz has more in our Cover Story. --

This Kansas cat is about to be spayed. This Iowa piglet is about to be castrated. One will be given medicine for the pain. One will not.

While pain medications labeled for use in livestock are almost nonexistent, companion animals, like Annabelle in Atchison, go through most medical procedures with the help of short- and long-term painkillers.

Dr. Chris Hansen, Atchison Animal Clinic: “Within our small animal pharmacy, we essentially have two shelves full of different pain medications that we can use… In cattle, the only labeled product that is out there for pain or analgesia is Banamine Transdermal and the only label is for foot rot.”

In recent years, however, veterinarians, college professors, and livestock industry leaders have begun working to overcome barriers that have led to the lack of livestock pain medications.

Dr. Chris Hansen, Atchison Animal Clinic: “Growing up, farm pain management I don’t think was really anything anybody thought about. If something was suffering really bad, it just came down to maybe we need to end that animal’s suffering.”

Getting the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve painkillers for livestock, however, has been more complex than with non-food animals because of rules designed to keep drug residue out of meat.

In the past, veterinarians who wanted to ease pain in hogs, cattle and other livestock, were left little choice but to use a drug in an extra-label or off-label manner. The responsibility landed on the veterinarian to ensure the drug didn’t end up in the food supply.

Dr. Chris Hansen, Atchison Animal Clinic: “…everyone wants to use it but we need to have the research done so that we use it correctly.”

Now that research is being done. The FDA has joined industry leaders in studying new options for livestock pain management, but approval any drugs used for livestock usually requires proof of pain and subsequent easing of pain with the medication’s use. Banamine Transdermal, the medication approved for foot rot, a painful condition in cattle, gained FDA approval in 2017, becoming the first officially approved painkiller in the U.S. for a food animal.

Kansas State University participated in the research that helped gain that approval. The team is trying to pinpoint how to prove when an animal is in pain.

Hans Coetzee, Kansas State University: “Obviously, it’s difficult to assess pain in animal cause they can’t talk and tell us how much pain they’re in. So we have to rely on biomarkers of either behavior or the physiology of the animal… It’s been difficult for us to try to assess behavioral changes objectively and to try to come up with a scoring system.”

Research teams look for indicators of stress in the blood, such as cortisol, but it can disappear too rapidly to consistently measure. A second indicator of pain is skin temperature. Pain prompts a fight-or-flight response, which means blood is pulled toward the body’s core. This Kansas State University thermal imaging video of a steer as it is being castrated illustrates the instant change in skin temperature.

Some early work is also being done with facial recognition in hogs and other species. A program looks for changes in expression that might hint at an animal’s suffering.

Another test that shows promise uses a pressure mat to measure changes in an animal’s stride length and weight placement.

Hans Coetzee, Kansas State University: “So looking at the way the animals change the distribution of weight on feet has actually been something we can measure quite accurately.”

The National Pork Board is working with these university researchers and the FDA to pave the way for a pain medication for hogs, in particular. This may become particularly important considering a few other nations have banned practices such as piglet castration.

Sherrie Web, American Association of Swine Veterinarians: “Castration of pigs is a global conversation, not only here in the U.S. but there’s a lot of discussion in the E.U., Australia, and in New Zealand.”

Hogs are castrated because the meat, when cooked, emits an odor known as “boar taint,” which surveys show 80 percent of the population find offensive.

Sherrie Web, American Association of Swine Veterinarians: “We know that the procedure is a painful procedure for piglets. But what we focus on looking at is ways we can either replace the procedure, refine the procedure or reduce the pain.”

Piglet castration has been refined some over the years. The surgery now typically takes place when the piglet is 3- to 5-days old. This timing seems to allow the piglets to bounce back most rapidly, particularly if they are still with their mothers.

Hans Coetzee, Kansas State University: “What’s urgently needed from a producer’s standpoint is a practical way to be able to implement these pain management strategies in a production system because typically we are dealing with large numbers of animals.”

Ideally, experts would like a medication that can be given to a sow, reaching her piglets via her milk a day later. The low dose in her milk should ease the piglets’ pain during common procedures such as castration or tail docking.

Todd Wiley, producer: “We would be all about utilizing a product if, in fact, it showed that it worked and was beneficial and useful. The cost component, while always to some degree a factor, if it is better for our pigs then we’d be inclined to use it.”

Some veterinary clinics, the Atchison Animal Clinic in Kansas among them, have begun implementing the use of off-label pain medication with the more routine procedures on livestock.

Dr. Chris Hansen, Atchison Animal Clinic: “whenever we’re castrating cattle or dehorning, we’re going to administer pain medication. It’s something we feel very strongly about. …. Initially, we offered it as an option. Now we’ve kind of moved on to where it’s just something we do…. The consumer can see the value of that and feel good about the way these practices are done.”

By Colleen Bradford Krantz for Market to Market,



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