Greater understanding about livestock's ability to sense pain has more vets integrating pain relief into some treatments, as regulations also start to tighten on treatment standards.

On October 1 this year, it will be a legal requirement that all cattle being disbudded or dehorned will need appropriate and effective local anaesthetic that has been authorised by a veterinarian.

The New Zealand Veterinary Guidelines also recommend the use of an appropriate long-acting pain killer at the time of disbudding and dehorning.

Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health NZ technical veterinarian James Laidlaw said the upcoming requirements for de-budding reflect a shifting attitude towards the understanding and application of pain relief, as well as moves to improve welfare in farm animals.

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"Our understanding and recognition of animals' ability to sense pain has shifted considerably in the past decade. But results from various global surveys indicate there is still quite a wide range of opinions from vets and farmers about where they perceive different operations and conditions sit on the pain scale."

Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health NZ James Laidlaw, technical veterinarian. Photo / Supplied
Boehringer Ingelheim Animal Health NZ James Laidlaw, technical veterinarian. Photo / Supplied

Globally, surveys conducted amongst vets and farmers over the past 10-15 years have highlighted the difficulty of interpreting pain in cattle.

This is mostly due to the fact these animals have evolved to hide displays of pain.

"Vets and farmers have been well aligned in their assessments, but the surveys have highlighted wide ranges of individual interpretations of how painful various procedures and conditions are in cattle."

Historically, a lack of standardised guides to assessing pain in cattle and benchmarking of how painful conditions and procedures are has only made interpreting pain and approaching pain relief difficult.

Meantime farmers are facing increasing demands from consumers for higher welfare standards in farm animals and higher public expectations around farm animal welfare.

These along with the provision of pain relief are driving the industry to be more conscious about addressing pain in farm animals.

"This is something we need to be considering if we wish to market the highest quality of product and to maintain our "clean, green image" locally and globally."

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Mastitis ranks as a significant pain causing condition in dairy cows.

Work by one of the country's leading animal researchers indicates offering anti-inflammatory "pain relief" medication alongside antibiotic mastitis treatments, even for moderate cases, can improve that animal's response rate and productivity.

Dr Scott McDougall's 2009 and 2016 studies on mammary health and fertility found using a non-steroidal pain reliever like Metacam 20 when treating even mild cases of mastitis resulted in lowered somatic cell counts.

There was also a 42 per cent lower likelihood cows would be culled for mastitis, when compared with placebo treated cows.

Researchers found administering a non-steroidal pain reliever alongside antibiotic mastitis treatment improved the probability the cow would conceive to artificial insemination on her first service, and also increased the probability she would be pregnant by 120 days post-calving by 29 per cent.

A further unexpected finding was cows treated with a non-steroidal pain reliever and antibiotic mastitis treatments had a 32 per cent higher chance of bacteriological cure, when compared to cows treated with antibiotic and a placebo.

"So even putting aside the welfare issues of delivering anti-inflammatory pain relief medications, there are proven production benefits that also sit alongside that make addressing the pain element that accompanies mastitis well worthwhile," said Laidlaw.