Health & Management / Ruminants Pain Management / Techniques and protocols OVERVIEW:
Pain Prevention for Disbudding and Dehorning of Goats and Sheep:
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Introduction and General Information

  • Disbudding of goat kids involves cautery of the horn buds with hot irons (heated to 600C) after cutting off the tip of the horn bud. This must be carried out in kids of two to seven days old since the horn buds grow very rapidly. A much larger proliferative area at the base of the horn must be destroyed in kids than in calves. (J15.8.w1)

    • It is important to ensure that the disbudding iron is hot enough, not to press the disbudding iron too hard and not to apply it for too long; there have been reports of cortical necrosis and burning through the skull resulting from use of the disbudding iron for too long. (J15.8.w1)

  • Dehorning of adult goats involves incising the skin 1 to 1.5 cm from the base of the horn, then removing the horn using an obstetric wire saw or a dehorning saw. Large frontal sinuses at the base of the horns are exposed by dehorning; these usually close within a few days but in some individuals may remain open for several months. (J15.8.w1, J234.11.w1)

    • An alternative is to cut the horns about 2 cm above the base; horns removed at this level will however continue to grow. (J15.8.w1)

    • Note: The frontal sinuses have penetrate the horn base by about eight months of age. (D157.w1)

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Reasons for the procedure

  • Disbudding and dehorning of goats is carried out to make handling of goats safer and reduce the incidence of damage to other animals. (J4.221.w4, J234.11.w1)


  • Sheep are not generally dehorned as a routine management procedure, however dehorning may be required if the horns are misaligned and growing into the face of the animal, or following traumatic damage. (B217.69.w69)
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Arguments against use of the procedure

  • While disbudding is commonly practiced, it is not considered necessary in all circumstances. In some breeds, or for animals for display, it is usual to keep goats with their horns intact. (V.w5)


  • Dehorning or disbudding is not carried out as a routine management practice. (B217.69.w69)
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Signs/Evidence of pain associated with the procedure

Disbudding and dehorning of goats is recognised to be a painful procedure.
  • In the UK, proper anaesthesia is mandatory for these procedures. (J15.8.w1)

Dehorning of sheep is recognised as a painful surgical procedure for which general anaesthesia or local analgesia is required, since removal involves penetrating sensitive horn tissue. (B217.69.w69)

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Suggested methods of pain prevention

Age considerations:
  • Disbudding of young kids may be preferable to dehorning of adult goats.
    • Kids should be disbudded at two to seven days old, because if the rapid growth of the horn bud. (J15.8.w1)
    • In adult goats, dehorning exposes the frontal sinuses, haemorrhage can be severe and the time for the sinuses to close can be prolonged (months in some animals). (J15.8.w1)

Use of local anaesthesia:

  • A cornual nerve block may be used for disbudding of goats. The nerve supply to the horn region in the goat is from the cornual branches of the lachrymal (zygomatioctemporal) and infratrochlear nerves. Both of these must be blocked prior to dehorning. (J4.125.w1)
    • Administration of a sedative (0.1-0.2 mg/kg xylazine, intravenously or intramuscularly) is recommended to facilitate restraint and the nerve blocking procedure. (J234.11.w1)
    • For details see: Cornual Block in Goats and Sheep.
    • Note: due to their small bodyweight it is easy to overdose kids with local anaesthetics. Dilution of lidocaine to 0.5% (rather than the standard 2% is recommended if local anaesthesia is to be used for dehorning young kids; this allows 1 ml (preferred) to 2 ml (maximum) of the diluted solution to be used at each of the nerve blocking sites. (J15.13.w6)

Use of general anaesthesia:

  • Suggested general anaesthetics include:
    • Saffan at 6 mg/kg intravenously. (J15.8.w1); Althesin (Saffan) (9 mg/ml alphaxolone, 3 mg/ml alphadolone) 4-6 mg/kg intravenously in kids to give two to 10 minutes anaesthesia, with the kid able to stand after 10 to 30 minutes. (J234.6.w1); 2-6 mg/kg (J15.13.w6)
    • Xylazine 0.3-0.4 mg/kg with care not to overdose (in kids). (J15.8.w1)
    • Halothane 2-3% in oxygen, inhalation anaesthesia by face mask. (J15.8.w1)
    • Thiopentone 10 mg/kg intravenously (in adult goats). (J15.8.w1)
    • Xylazine plus ketamine (in adult goats). (J15.8.w1)
    • Diazepam and ketamine. (B205.13.w13)
    • Propofol. (B205.13.w13)
  • NOTE: If using inhalation anaesthesia it is important to ensure that the oxygen has been switched off and the facemask removed from the animal before a hot iron is applied to the horn area. (B205.13.w13, J15.8.w1, J15.13.w6)

The analgesic technique chosen should be decided based on the procedure to be undertaken, the facilities available and the skills of the practitioner. (J215.7.w1)

Use of NSAIDs:

  • A NSAID may be administered by a single intravenous injection (e.g. 1 mg/kg flunixin meglumine) if additional analgesia is desired following disbudding or dehorning. (D157.w1)
    • In calves it has been shown that ketoprofen (3 mg/kg intravenously) given 15 to 20 minutes before dehorning, in conjunction with local anaesthesia, is effective in reducing or eliminating pain associated with the procedure (as indicated by cortisol and behavioural responses). (J10.47.w2, J10.51.w1, J21.73.w2, J21.64.w1)
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Reasons why adequate pain relief is not always provided

Reasons why adequate pain prevention may not be provided are described in detail in: Reasons for Failure to Provide Pain Relief. In brief, these include:
  • Attitudes towards pain in animals;
  • Tradition;
  • Failure to recognise pain;
  • Failure to recognise the importance of the adverse effects of pain;
  • Concern about removing possible protective effects of pain [this concern is generally excessive];
  • Concern that providing pain relief may itself stress the animal and have a negative impact on it;
  • Concern that treating pain may interfere with diagnosis;
  • Lack of information about analgesics;
  • Concern about toxicity and side-effects of analgesics;
  • Concerns about the safety and legislative controls associated with some analgesics such as opiates;
  • Economic and practical considerations.
Specific published reasons for failure to provide pain relief for disbudding and dehorning of goats and sheep are indicated below, if available:
  • Note: In the UK, under the 1982 amendment to the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966, only veterinary surgeons are permitted to perform disbudding and dehorning of goats and it is stipulated that the animals must be properly anaesthetised when the procedure is carried out. (J15.8.w1)
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Authors & Referees

Authors Dr Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee A.B.Forbes BVM&S.,CBiol.,MIBiol.,DipEVPC.,MRCVS (V.w66)

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