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Building a new perspective on pain

Research is underway to improve the practical options for producers to meet rising expectations for pain mitigation

Posted: March 12, 2013

What are society's expectations for pain mitigation in livestock?

One way to think about this issue is to look at it through the lens of the average Canadian pet owner, says Dr. Ed Pajor, animal welfare specialist at the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine.

When people take their pet to the veterinarian to have a procedure done, there are analgesics offered both before and after. "The question becomes 'why isn't this done for all animals?'"

Rising societal expectations are a major reason why there is a strong push in animal agriculture to improve pain mitigation approaches, particularly for routine painful procedures such as castration. Finding practical solutions is no easy task, but it's also critical to supporting a positive public perception of livestock industries.

"The increasing concern about the feelings of the animals is without question occurring in society," says Pajor. "People are more and more interested in asking questions like 'Are farm animals happy?' and thinking about how we provide animals with positive experiences. Issues such as gestation stalls and poultry cages are currently the most sensitive in the public eye related to animal agriculture and welfare issues. However, as the focus on animal feelings continues to increase, pain is a no-brainer to be the next major issue that livestock industries are going to be asked to address."

Focus on practical solutions

Change to address this issue is well underway. In Canada, several of the revised Codes of Practice for the care and handling of farm animals either have or are expected to have a much stronger emphasis on requirements and recommendations for pain control. This is the case in the revised Dairy Code and the draft revised Beef Code. It's also anticipated in the draft revised Pig Code slated to be released for a public comment period this summer. Research efforts to better understand pain and options for mitigation have ramped-up in recent years and that trend is expected to continue.

In one recent example in the U.S., the National Pork Board awarded a grant to Iowa State University for a major scientific meta-analysis on piglet castration and opportunities for pain mitigation. Pajor is participating in the review as well several other studies investigating pain mitigation options for swine and beef cattle.


Ed Pajor

Castration is a leading example of the type of routine painful procedures that are the main focus, says Pajor. It's also an example of how the main challenge typically is not simply identifying pain mitigation options per se, but finding practical options that will work well under today's production systems and management approaches.

"The focus and the challenge is practical methods," he says. "We know already that we can use analgesics to decrease the painful experiences that the animals have. But the problem is that for an analgesic to work properly or be effective, there is a time period required for it to take effect. That can make it really difficult in a practical way to do things on farm."

A main hurdle is that using analgesics requires animals to be handled twice, he says. "You need to handle the animal to give it an injection, then you need to wait for the analgesic to take effect, then you need to handle the animal again to perform the procedure. What you've done is doubled the labour and time required. You've also doubled the animal handling, which in itself is stressful for the animal."

Exploring new options

One option Pajor and colleagues are exploring for swine is whether or not they can inject certain analgesics into the scrotum very quickly in the first step of piglet processing so that a minute or two later when all other processing has been completed the piglet is ready for castration, without substantial delays or additional handling.

The researchers are investigating similar options for beef cattle, while also aiming to build a better understanding of factors such as age at the time of castration which may yield further insights toward improved approaches.

Pajor was involved in the scientific review that was part of the process for the development of the revised Beef Code. One of the findings was there is surprisingly little information available about pain mitigation for beef cattle. "Most of the work cited is on dairy cattle, so there's a hole there for us to fill on the beef side. Physiologically, the animals may be very similar. But we do feel there's a need to increase the data on how beef cattle themselves respond to some of these pain mitigation procedures."

In particular, the effect of the age at which beef cattle are castrated hasn't been looked at very closely and may present an opportunity, he says. "One question I'm very interested in is what the effect would be if you were to process these animals within the first few days of birth. That's the focus of one of the new project we're pursuing."

These are just a couple examples among a growing number underway and planned at key animal welfare research institutions in Canada and the U.S. "The base of knowledge will grow considerably over the next five years," says Pajor. "That's going to provide a much stronger foundation for improved strategies."


Reprintable with credit. This article is available for reprint, with acknowledgement of the source as Meristem Land and Science, www.meristem.com.

Meristem is a Calgary-based communications firm that specializes in writing about western agriculture, food and land use. More articles at www.meristem.com.


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