Health & Management / Ruminants Pain Management / Techniques and protocols OVERVIEW:
Pain Prevention for Branding of Cattle:

Introduction and General Information

Branding of cattle is a procedure in which a permanent and easily visible identifying mark is produced on the animal.

  • Branding is commonly used in western Canada and the western USA for permanent identification of livestock. (J294.77.w1)
Published Guidelines linked in Wildpro
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Reasons for the procedure

Branding is carried out as a method of permanent identification of animals. No other method of producing permanent depigmentation has been developed to date [1997]. (J294.77.w1)
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Arguments against use of the procedure

Welfare of the animal:
  • Branding causes pain and stress to the animal. (J294.77.w1)
  • It has been suggested that hot-iron branding "is a painful and unnecessary form of marking." (B344.55.w55)

Economic considerations:

  • Hot branding damages the hide. (J4.221.w4)
  • Freeze branding is preferable to hot-iron branding in that it eliminates scar damage which decreases the value of hides. (J284.70.w2)
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Evidence for pain associated with the procedure

Both hot-iron branding and freeze branding cause acute pain as indicated by behavioural, heart rate and cortisol responses, although the pain appears to be relatively short lived (less than one hour). (J284.70.w2, J284.70.w3, J284.75.w4, J284.76.w1, J294.77.w2)
  • A study of cattle branded either by hot-iron or by freeze branding found that cattle branded by hot-iron showed greater frequencies of behaviours indicative of pain than did control sham-branded calves or freeze-branded calves at the time of the procedure. (J284.75.w4)
  • A study of cattle branded either by hot-iron or by freeze branding found that cortisol levels at 20 and 40 minutes after the procedure were significantly higher than those of control handled individuals and that at 40 minutes the cortisol concentration of hot-iron branded cattle was significantly higher than those of freeze-branded or control sham-branded cattle. There were no significant differences in cortisol levels between the three groups at 60 to 180 minutes. The results indicated that hot-iron branding may be initially more distressing than freeze-branding. (J294.77.w2)
    • There were no differences in sensitivity to touch between hot-iron branded, freeze-branded or control sham-branded cattle at either one or seven days after the procedure. (J294.77.w2)
    • There was no evidence of stress-induced analgesia following branding. (J294.77.w2)
    • Branding by either hot-iron or freeze-branding did not affect body weight gait or antibiotic treatment rates although there was a non-significant trend towards increased handling pressure required after both types of branding, for up to four days after hot branding and six days for freeze branding. A significantly greater handling pressure (P < 0.005) was required in freeze-branded calves than in hot-iron branded or sham-branded calves at day 6; it was suggested this may relate to slower healing and more pain on the brand site in these calves at handling on days two and four. (J294.77.w2)
  • A study found that hot-iron branding was most painful and that freeze branding also caused more discomfort than did sham-branding with a room-temperature iron. (J284.76.w1) 
    • Steers branded by hot iron showed significantly (P<0.05) higher maximum and average head movement distances (measured by image analysis) than either freeze branded or sham-branded steers. They also showed the greatest incidence of behaviours indicative of pain: tail flicks, kicks, falls in the chute, and vocalization, and the highest (P<0.05) maximum exertional forces on the headgate load plate. Freeze branded animals in this study showed significantly higher behaviours related to pain than sham-branded animals only in the number of tail flicks (P<0.005) and in the maximum head movement distances. The study also showed that all the steers found being handled an aversive experience. (J284.76.w1)
  • A study indicated that calves branded by hot-iron or freeze-branding found the procedure painful, as shown by an escape-avoidance reaction during the procedure, but a higher epinephrine response in those branded by hot iron suggested that these calves were subjected to the greater momentary pain. (J284.70.w2) 
    • Calves branded by hot-iron were found to lurch away from the iron repeatedly during the five second application of the iron and this behaviour also occurred in freeze-branded calves after about the first eight seconds of the 17 second application, while sham-branded calves did not show this behaviour except sometimes moving away on initial contact with the room-temperature iron. All calves showed raised cortisol levels but there were no significant differences between the groups during the twenty minutes of testing. Calves branded with a hot iron showed a higher level of epinephrine as proportions of the pre-branding mean (P=0.28) or with the pre-branding mean subtracted (P=0.007), than levels in freeze-branded or control calves. Heart rates tended to be higher at five minutes after hot-iron or freeze branding than after sham branding but differences were not significant. It was noted that all the calves showed elevated plasma cortisol, catecholamines and heart rate due to handling and restraint and that these stress responses to handling may have masked some of the additional responses to pain. (J284.70.w2)
  • When dairy cows were branded, physiological and behavioural responses indicated that both hot-iron branding and freeze branding were painful but hot-iron branding produced responses indicating more initial pain than with freeze branding. Freeze-branded cows showed a more prolonged heart rate response which may have been related to thawing of the branded area. (J284.70.w3)
    • Cows branded by hot iron showed a greater behavioural escape-avoidance reaction than did freeze-branded or sham-branded cows. Heart rate (as a proportion of the pre-branding mean) of hot-iron branded cows showed a greater rise than freeze-branded cows initially but by 15.5 minutes rates in freeze branded cows were higher than rates in hot-iron branded or sham-branded cows. Cortisol levels were raised in both hot-iron branded and freeze-branded cows from 5.5 to 25.5 (end of monitoring) after the procedure was carried out. (J284.70.w3)
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Suggested methods of pain prevention

Use of least painful methods:

  • Results of several studies suggest that freeze-branding causes less initial pain than does hot-iron branding and may therefore be preferable. (J284.70.w3, J284.75.w4, J294.77.w2)
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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 branding of cattle are indicated below.

Economic and practical considerations:

  • Freeze branding is more expensive, requires more time per animal than hot-iron branding. (J284.70.w2, J284.75.w4)
  • There may be difficulties in obtaining the coolant required for freeze-branding in remote areas, and the brand is less visible initially than with hot-iron branding. (J284.70.w2)
  • Although studies indicate that freeze branding is less immediately painful than hot-iron branding and may therefore be preferable in welfare terms, there is no obvious benefit to the farmer in terms of subsequent response to handling, weight gain or requirement for antibiotic treatment. (J284.75.w4, J294.77.w1)
Associated techniques linked from Wildpro

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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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