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Does calf, heifer pain management show long-term benefits?

Nathalie C. Newby, PhD Published on 31 October 2014
impact of calf pain

You work hard to raise heifers so they can provide the next generation of productive cows in your milking herd. All that time and money invested in raising these girls pays off if she stays past her first lactation.

Some of the reality is: Heifers can be forgotten or misunderstood during their first two years of life. They can also struggle health-wise (which can be accompanied by pain) and need your help.



What happens to calves in their early life can have a profound impact on their development as well as their first lactation and lifetime productivity.

Research at Cornell University has concluded that pre-weaning nutrient intake had a positive impact on long-term productivity. So with that in mind, let’s have a look at some of the difficulties and challenges a young heifer calf may be faced with, and how you can help her.

From the time that she passes through the birth canal, a heifer calf starts her life with quite a bit of stress. She may also experience substantial pain, especially if the calving is a difficult one.

Sometimes, the birth process can be so difficult calves end up having fractured ribs or limbs – or other less obvious injuries.

Research has shown that calves born to cows with dystocia (difficult or abnormal calving) suffer increased stress and a decrease in vitality. This can lead to an increased risk of neonatal illness and mortality.


A recent large-scale study conducted by the University of Guelph investigated the potential benefits of treating newborn calves with a long-acting nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID; in this case, meloxicam) immediately after birth.

The study showed the NSAID improved newborn vigor as well as suckling strength. It also improved pre-weaning milk intake, weight gain and health. The benefits were only seen in calves born to a difficult or assisted birth.

Calves born to an unassisted birth did not see the same improvements in the trial. This caused the researchers to propose that the improvements seen following the treatment with an NSAID were due to the drug’s ability to relieve pain.

This is one of the very first studies to investigate the impact of pain on newborn calves. It is also unique because it investigated some of the longer-term impacts of managing pain at birth because it followed the calves to weaning.

Right now, it does not appear to be common practice to identify the impact of a difficult birth on the calf, even though many veterinarians and farmers are quite aware that a difficult birth can have a big impact on the cow. In a survey conducted in the U.K. in 2006, only 39 percent of dairy cattle veterinarians treated calves with an NSAID following dystocia.

The research in Guelph suggests that all calves born following a difficult birth may be in pain and could benefit from pain therapy, even if they do not appear to be injured. The benefits of the treatment may well improve pre-weaning milk intake, which could then have a positive ripple effect later in life.


Even outside the period immediately after birth, heifer calves can go through quite a number of experiences that are painful, especially in their first year of life. Some of these events are obvious (injuries, dehorning/disbudding or teat removal, for example).

Some are not so obvious. For example, there is now good evidence that diseases like diarrhea and pneumonia can also be painful, and that calves with those diseases fare better if they are treated for pain.

But how can you tell if a heifer is in pain? As a result of evolution, calves tend to not show pain. They also tend to “freeze” in order to go unnoticed by predators. Remember that cattle in general are very stoic, meaning they tend not to show they are in pain because of their prey-species ancestry.

Even so, when painful procedures are performed on cows and calves without anesthesia or analgesia, they will show escape behaviour – “Let’s get out of here” – and behaviours that indicate pain (such as foot stomping, rapidly swishing their tail, flicking their ears, head shaking, snorting and sometimes even vocalizing).

In a survey of U.K. veterinarians using a 1 to 10 scale with 1 being least and 10 greatest, they reported that they felt umbilical surgery and disbudding caused pain that scored 10 and 8, respectively.

They also scored pain following dystocia as 3, pain from an umbilical abscess at 4, and pain from pneumonia as 4. They felt that joint-ill and limb fracture were more painful (8). Another survey of Canadian veterinarians found they felt umbilical hernia surgery (7.7) and disbudding (6.8) were also quite painful.

Now that there is an increased awareness of the impact of pain on heifers, more research is being conducted regarding how best to manage that pain. Several recent studies have investigated the assessment of pain following disbudding and in calves with diarrhea, for example.

More importantly, they investigated approaches to manage that pain, usually by administering an NSAID. Several studies have shown that using a combination of freezing with a local anesthetic and an NSAID (such as ketoprofen or meloxicam) for longer-lasting pain management has beneficial effects.

In addition, some studies have reported an increase in starter intake as well as a decrease in pain sensitivity to a pressure test for those calves that received freezing and an NSAID compared to calves that only had freezing.

In Canada, the “Code of Practice for the Care and Handling of Farm Animals – Dairy Cattle” requires dairy farmers to have a plan to minimize pain and stress following dehorning. Dairy farmers can only get the tools they need to do that from a veterinarian, so they will need to work with their vet to form a treatment plan.

In people, diarrhea is often accompanied by painful cramps. It looks like calves suffer the same pain, at least with some cases of diarrhea. Research suggests they can benefit from treatment with an NSAID in combination with other more routine treatments like fluids and maybe an antibiotic.

In one study, calves that received meloxicam at the onset of diarrhea had improved appetite and performance (in terms of bodyweight gain) compared to control calves. In another study, not only did meloxicam improve appetite, but it also improved general condition and fecal consistency as well as decreased signs of abdominal pain, dehydration and the need for repeated antibiotic treatment.

In another study, scouring calves treated with flunixin meglumine had fewer sick days and needed fewer antibiotic treatments compared to control calves.

Many animal scientists and veterinarians believe we are only beginning to recognize the impact pain has on calf health and performance. Because farmers are such excellent observers of their cattle, they are often way ahead of researchers on this issue.

In the next decade, we are all likely to recognize situations in which we can improve calf well-being and performance by better managing painful situations and then conduct research to ensure calves do indeed benefit.  PD

References omitted due to space, but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

PHOTOMany animal scientists and veterinarians believe we are only beginning to recognize the impact pain has on calf health and performance. Photo by PD staff.

Nathalie C. Newby PhD
  • Nathalie C. Newby PhD
  • Research Scientist, Epidemiology, Animal Behaviour Population Medicine Ontario Veterinary College
  • University of Guelph