Using pain relief during husbandry procedures

Robert Suter, Senior Veterinary officer – Sheep, Agriculture Victoria, Attwood

(Article first appeared in Agriculture Victoria- Sheep Notes, Autumn 2018)

During the past few years, a number of products have reached the Australian market that provide analgesia (or pain relief) during management procedures such as castration, tail docking and mulesing. That they are available at all is a result of an industry-wide effort involving innovation and risk taking by drug manufacturers, and the cooperation of regulators, led by the demand for such products by industry.

For the animals we manage, the use of these products leads to great relief from the pain at the time of enduring these procedures and afterwards as they recover. Using the products shows the world that you, as producers, really do care about raising and managing your animals as ethically as possible.

More advances are coming, with the earliest to appear most likely in the form of an expanded range of management procedures for which the product is registered. Figure 1 below shows a prototype of the Num-Nuts® rubber ring castrator, which injects local anaesthetic into the tail and scrotum (of ram lambs) before the ring is applied. Its use was demonstrated at the International Sheep Veterinary Congress in Yorkshire, England, last year by its designers. Research that they have conducted shows that injecting local anaesthetic halves the measurable chemical pain reaction within the lamb’s body, and practically abolishes the behavioural reactions to the application of the rubber ring.

Figure 1: Prototype Num-Nuts® applicator demonstrated at the Harrogate International Sheep Veterinary Congress in May 2017. Local anesthetic is injected before the rubber ring is applied, numbing the area

We are fortunate to have these products become available, but they shouldn’t be abused. It is important to closely read and follow the label directions, unless the product has been prescribed by a veterinarian, when their instructions must be followed. Ensure that you can use the product for the procedure that you are performing. For example, Tri-Solfen®, the gel developed to apply on mulesing wounds on merino lambs, has recently had the range of registered uses expanded to:

  • mulesing of lambs
  • tail docking of lambs
  • castration of lambs and calves.

This expanded range of use still excludes use wounds (such as shearing cuts), and any other uses.

We know that the pain associated with these procedures lasts longer than just the time when they are performed. If possible, it is preferable to use a combination of treatments that, between them, address both the immediate pain and any pain that might occur during the healing process.

Make sure that you heed the withholding periods. Also, if any of these products are used at marking time, ensure that you declare their use on the National Wool Declaration (NWD) when you offer your wool for sale. Some important export markets are sensitive to the detection of residues of the drugs that these products contain, and we must make every effort to protect our markets, both domestic and internationally. Declaring the use of analgesic products for pain relief on the NWD tells the buyers of your efforts to improve the welfare of the sheep that you care for.

Table 1 describes how you might use the commonly available analgesic products. Note that the two products containing the active ingredient meloxicam (Buccalgesic® and Metacam 20®) are only available on veterinary prescription. If you are considering using these products, contact your local veterinarian to find out what is required to have them prescribe these for use on your animals. Veterinarians may also recommend and prescribe alternative products in special circumstances, in addition to the ones listed in Table 1.

Table 1      Commonly available analgesia products for use in management procedures

  How applied When applied What it does When it works Meat WHP
Tri-Solfen® To the wound After the procedure, before release from the marking cradle Contains local anaesthetic to deaden pain, adrenaline to stop bleeding and a disinfectant Upon applying to an open wound 90 days
Buccalgesic® Gel, inside the cheek Before the procedure Relieves pain by reducing inflammation From 10 minutes 10 days
Metacam 20® Injection, under the skin, high on the neck Before the procedure Relieves pain by reducing inflammation From 30 minutes 11 days

WHP = withholding period before sale for slaughter