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CONTRIBUTOR(S): Temple Grandin, Louise Cox-O'Shea, John Remnant,



Good technique and appropriate anesthesia and analgesia are required for both disbudding and dehorning to optimise animal welfare.

An ingrowing horn
©Davide Simone

What is dehorning/disbudding?

Dehorning involves removing the horns and horn-producing tissue from older animals. Dehorning is an act of veterinary surgery and should only be carried out by a veterinary surgeon.

Disbudding means removing the horn buds and destroying the underlying horn-producing tissue of animals under 6 months old. Disbudding is an exemption, in Schedule 2 Part 1, of the Veterinary Surgeons Act 1966 (UK) and can be carried out by any animal owner, a member of their household, or employee and by any animal husbandry student under the training of a veterinarian or in a recognized educational establishment, as well as by a qualified veterinary surgeon.

Horn growth

Before 2 months of age, horn is produced from horn producing cells (corium) at the base of the horn. Horn tissue is similar in composition to hoof tissue.

After 2 months of age the horns become attached to the frontal bone of the skull. At this stage the horn has a hard central core.

At 6 months of age the horn becomes hollow and is in direct communication with the inside of the skull.

Why disbud/dehorn?

Dehorning reduces the risk to human handlers, as well as reducing injury to other cattle, that can be inflicted by horns. Animals are often worth more at auction if dehorned. Dehorning reduces the trough space required per animal.


Breed for polled animals, instead of animals with horns.

What are the advantages/disadvantages of the various techniques?


Chemical disbudding

A caustic paste is applied to the horn bud.

Advantages: bloodless.

Disadvantages: should not be performed on wet days as paste may be washed onto skin and eyes resulting in painful chemical burns and even blindness. Requires animals to be in individual pens with no physical contact. Chemical cautery is painful and the resultant wounds have been shown to take up to twice as long to heal as hot iron cautery wounds. Caustic paste may only be used in the first week of life. Caustic paste is not recommended in the DEFRA code of recommendations.

The use of chemical cautery poses a real risk of tissue damage to the calf and cow as well as accidental injury to the operator. 

Hot iron disbudding

Local anesthesia is injected into the area and the calf is injected with non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medication to provide pain relief after the procedure. The horn bud is placed into the depression at the end of a hot iron and moderate pressure applied to the area for approximately 10 seconds, until the horn-forming skin surrounding the horn bud has been completely destroyed. Various irons are available. Ask your vet to demonstrate the technique and to check your technique to ensure optimal efficacy and animal welfare are achieved.

Advantages: can be carried out any time in the year. This is a simple method with very few post-operative complications

Disadvantages:requires expertise; painful and requires use of injectable local anesthesia and non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).


Tube/Cup dehorning

Advantages: acceptable procedure for small horns.

Disadvantages: some blood loss; painful.

Scoop/Barnes dehorning

Advantages: very fast; can be used even when horns have attached to skull.

Disadvantages: can open the frontal sinus of the skull; some blood loss; risk of infection; requires expertise and if not performed correctly may not be reliable; painful.

Guillotine dehorning

Advantages: can be used for older cattle/larger horns.

Disadvantages: blood loss; risk of infection; potential to open up frontal sinus; expertise necessary; aftercare essential; risk to animal and handler; painful.

Embryotomy wire dehorning

Advantages: good for older cattle/larger horns. May have less blood loss than other techniques.

Disadvantages: blood loss; infection; risk of opening frontal sinus; risk to animal and handler; aftercare required; expertise required; painful to the animal and physically tiring for the operator.

Hand saw dehorning

Advantages: can be used in older animals/larger horns.

Disadvantages: risk of extreme blood loss; infection; chance of opening frontal sinus; infection; extensive monitoring required afterwards; painful.

When should disbudding/dehorning take place?

Earlier dehorning reduces the risks to both animals and handlers and is considered to be better for animal welfare. Dehorning older animals can result in more complications and a greater loss of productivity. Many farmers opt to disbud young calves. Dehorning before 8 weeks of age reduces risks because the horn has not attached to the skull.

Chemical dehorning is only permitted in the first week of life (UK).

Dehorning is an act of veterinary surgery and should only be carried out by a veterinary surgeon. Dehorning spoon/tube/cup should be carried out in the first 2 months of life. Scoop/Barnes-type dehorning should be performed at 2-4 months of age. Guillotine dehorning can be used in older cattle but the size of horn will limit this technique – very thick horn will not be feasible to cut through. Embryotomy wire and hacksaw dehorning can be used in older/adult cattle.

What medication is used?

The Protection of Animals (anaesthetics) Act 1954 ensures that all animals must receive anesthesia (UK).

 Disbudding and dehorning causes pain to calves/cows at any age. Plan your procedure to optimize animal welfare and reduce losses in productivity. This should include the appropriate use of anesthesia and analgesia. The British Veterinary Association (BVA) and British Cattle Veterinary Society (BCVA) have issued a joint statement, in which they state that they believe that existing legislation does not reflect a level of appropriate analgesia for disbudding procedures and and fails to reflect changes in scientific understanding, pharmaceutical developments and societal opinions which have developed over time.  The BCVA believe that both a local anaesthetic and a NSAID should be used for all disbudding of calves, whichever method is used, in accordance with data sheet recommendations.

Local anesthesia, analgesia and sedation can all be used to control pain associated with disbudding/dehorning.

Local anesthetic: injected to block the nerve supplying the horn and surrounding area. It begins working within a few minutes and can last for up to 3 hours.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): in the UK, meloxicam is the only NSAID licenced for relief of post-operative pain following disbudding of cattle.

Sedatives: a sedative such as xylazine (Alpha- 2 agonist) will reduce the level of physical restraint required, whilst providing a few hours of pain relief. Sedatives should only be administered in the presence of a veterinary surgeon.

A combination of local anesthesia and a NSAID is the most commonly used combination. Local anesthetic, NSAID and sedation may be required in some cases.

Consult your veterinarian prior, to any procedure being carried out, to discuss the best pain control protocol for your animals.

What aftercare is needed?

Short-term aftercare

Controlling bleeding is essential. Any bleeding after dehorning must be stopped. The horn is supplied by the cornual artery. To stop bleeding your veterinary surgeon may use haemostats to twist the artery or heat may be applied using a hot iron. Cautery should not be used to stop bleeding originating from the soft tissue around the horn – this will cause unnecessary pain and damage to the surrounding tissue. If you notice an animal bleeding severely after your veterinarian has left, then call your veterinarian and try to restrain the animal quietly. If it is safe to do so, then apply a compress such as a balled up clean tea towel to the area while awaiting help. Chemical disbudding and hot iron disbudding have significantly lower risks with regard to bleeding.

Animals should be closely monitored for about an hour after dehorning.

Fly strike in warmer weather is a risk, so fly repellent should be used – as per the manufacturer’s instructions.

If an antiseptic/antibiotic spray is used then ensure that all bleeding has stopped, prior to applying the spray, as these sprays are often flammable and so you will not be able to use the hot iron with these products.

Most disbudding/dehorning wounds will heal with no intervention required.

Ensure animals are in clean, well-ventilated surroundings to minimize the risk of infection to these fresh wounds. Feed from a trough, rather than a hayrack, to reduce wound contamination from grass seeds, hay, silage, etc.

Long-term aftercare

Monitor animals and provide additional analgesia if necessary. Judicious use of analgesia will not only optimize animal welfare but should ensure that animals continue to eat well and negate the reductions in productivity often associated with these procedures.

Dehorned animals are at risk of infection in the week or so following the procedure. Animals should be checked regularly for 2 weeks and treated as necessary.

Sinusitis can take days, weeks or even months to become evident, so this should be borne in mind for any animals that become ill in the period following dehorning.

Animals should be closely monitored for fly strike and treated accordingly.

Incorrect removal of the corium (horn producing cells) can lead to ‘scurs’- partial regrowth of the horn or (rarely) even complete regrowth. This may mean the dehorning procedure will need to be repeated.

What else do I need to know?

Depending on which technique is used it is important to sterilize the instruments between animals. Contact your veterinarian to discuss the necessity and best technique for sterilizing instruments. After each animal the blood should be washed off the instrument. Next the instrument should be placed in a bucket of disinfectant, such as chlorhexidine (5%) 10 ml per liter of water or povidone-iodine (10%) – dilution recommendations vary but a 1:10 ratio (1 part povidone-iodine to 10 parts water) should suffice.

The antiseptic used should be changed frequently, about every 10-15 animals, depending on the amount of organic contamination. The antiseptic used should be made up according to the manufacturer’s recommendations.

Hot iron dehorners will disinfect themselves if used at the correct temperature.

The iron should be routinely checked for correct function and should be preheated to a high temperature (600°C/1112°F) before use to prevent a prolonged disbudding procedure or the need for repeat applications.

Further reading

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