Disbudding goat kids

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disbudding goat kids
Photography: venakr – 123RF

There may be sound reasons for the removal of horn buds in baby goats but until recently, there was no formal consensus on when to do this or how. By Tracey Porter

Goat disbudding to destroy the horn buds and prevent horn growth is frequently cited as one of the most difficult tasks anyone involved in caring for goats must do. 

In what is often described as a case of being cruel to be kind, kid goats are disbudded as a harm minimisation strategy. Horned goats can injure other goats—and their human handlers—so removing potential for their horns to develop in the first place is seen as a win for goat welfare.

Goat kids are generally disbudded at an age where the horn buds have not yet fused to the underlying frontal bone. 

Developing horn tissue will attach to the skull at approximately three weeks of age. After this age the procedure would be considered dehorning as the horn bud would need to be cut off which causes considerable bleeding and pain. If left too long, a hole in the frontal sinus results.

In the past there have been several methods used for disbudding in goat kids including thermal cautery (a process in which a direct or alternating current is passed through a resistant metal wire electrode, generating heat to cut tissue), application of caustic paste or injecting clove oil.

Liquid nitrogen cryosurgery was previously used however this has since been found to be ineffective. 

Currently there is only limited scientific literature available for developing ‘best-practice’ guidelines for the disbudding of goat kids.

RSPCA Australia scientific officer Dr Natalie Roadknight says the issue is a complex one because whichever method is chosen, the process inevitably causes pain and distress for the animals and their caregivers.

Dr Roadknight says the disbudding process involves a number of complexities and ethical considerations that need to be thought about prior to undertaking the process. 

One is the problem of polled intersex syndrome (PIS). PIS refers to XX female-to-male sex reversal associated with the absence of horn growth and leads to reproductive issues in some polled goats—’polled goats’ have been disbudded or are born without horn buds. This potentially has a big impact on that goat’s ability to breed.

Pain mitigation, one of several issues that can impact the behaviour and welfare of goat kids, is also a factor, she says. 

There is a risk of overdose and toxicity when using local anaesthetic in young goat kids while the hot dehorning iron can also “cause brain damage to the goat if not used correctly”, with these effects manifesting up to two months after the procedure, Dr Roadknight says.

“Accordingly, any operators performing this procedure must be competent and know how to minimise this risk. On the other hand, if goats are not disbudded, they can be at risk of injuring themselves or others in some situations, such as in some commercial dairy management systems,” she says.  

Given the procedure is so painful, ideally it should be performed by a veterinarian with the kid under heavy sedation or anaesthesia, plus using analgesics.

Dr Sandra Baxendell, AVA

In the United Kingdom, where disbudding must be performed under anaesthesia by a veterinarian, some dairy goat farms have ceased with the practice. This has resulted in some serious injuries when female goats or does are crowded into milking parlours.

In early 2022, a group of experienced goat veterinarians and Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) members came together to form a consensus on a goat disbudding policy.

Ratified in December the same year, the policy states that the disbudding procedure should be performed in kids under two weeks of age by an appropriately skilled veterinarian and that thermal cautery disbudding is the only method that should be used. It also calls on state and territory animal welfare legislation to mandate the use of effective analgesia.

In Australia, there are currently no registered pain relief options for use in goats.

Dr Roadknight says as the domestic goat industry is smaller than industries involving cattle and sheep, there is less regulatory focus on goats. As a result, there are also fewer drugs registered for goats and fewer veterinarians specialising in goat medicine and surgery.

“However, these challenges do not reduce the need for appropriate anaesthesia and analgesia during painful procedures such as disbudding,” she says. 

AVA spokesperson Dr Sandra Baxendell says any registered veterinarian can prescribe pain relief “off label” for goats for their clients in instances where the vet is able to demonstrate a bona fide veterinary-client-patient relationship. 

“They can also prescribe pain relief for goat kids (including transmucosal or injectable meloxicam) to clients who disbud their own kids. However, given the procedure is so painful, ideally it should be performed by a veterinarian with the kid under heavy sedation or anaesthesia, plus using analgesics.”’

The AVA policy on this issue states that products that have been used by veterinarians include Tri-Solfen® (a topical preparation containing local anaesthetics and adrenaline), and injectable and oral meloxicam. 

“Injectable meloxicam at 0.5mg/kg has been shown to reduce pain for 24-hour post disbudding. There have been no studies examining the efficacy of Tri-Solfen® for pain relief in goat disbudding,” the policy states.

It says an extension of registration of the available sheep anaesthetic and analgesic products to include goats should be encouraged, once work to determine suitable dose rates, safe residue limits and withholding periods is complete.

Dr Baxendell says to raise awareness among vets and goat farmers about the importance of best practice techniques when it comes to goat disbudding, the AVA actively refers interested parties to a YouTube video showing the figure of eight method and the use of leather squares to protect areas around the horn bud. 

The video also shows how the middle of the horn bud is removed with a scalpel and burnt to prevent regrowth. In addition, vets interested in learning more about the issue are referred to a course run by Sydney University’s Centre for Veterinary Education, held in May.

Dr Baxendell says the AVA will also be providing input into the Federal Government’s attempts to develop and implement nationally consistent standards and guidelines for farm animal welfare, which will replace the existing Model Code of Practice for the Welfare of Animals.

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