Horn Management of Cattle

March 1, 2022

Position statements developed by the CVMA reflect current knowledge regarding animal welfare. While they are not legislative, they do represent CVMA’s ongoing commitment to the advancement of animal welfare.


The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association (CVMA) recognizes that cattle without horns are often preferred for human and animal safety reasons. While the CVMA supports the breeding of hornless (polled) cattle, the CVMA recognizes that in many situations, removal of horn buds or horns is necessary. The CVMA holds that for animal welfare considerations, it is strongly advised to remove horn buds (disbudding) before eight weeks of age, rather than dehorning when older. Veterinarians should engage with responsible and appropriately trained animal owners and/or caretakers in the development of individual herd horn management protocols and procedures appropriate for their situation.


  • Cattle without horns cause fewer injuries to other animals and humans than horned animals.
  • For animal welfare reasons, disbudding is strongly preferred to dehorning. Every effort should be made to ensure disbudding occurs before the age of eight weeks.
  • Cattle that are disbudded or dehorned should receive a local anesthetic and peri- operative analgesia. Where indicated, the herd veterinarian may include sedation or, where authorized to do so, or may provide it by prescription as part of the protocol for the farm.
  • Any significant bleeding or wound created during dehorning must be appropriately attended to, as per the provisions of the CVMA position statement on surgical procedures.
  • Protocols including indication for horn removal, pain control, and procedures for disbudding or dehorning cattle should be developed with and reviewed annually or biennially as deemed necessary by the herd veterinarian.
  • Ideal protocols for horn management in semi-feral beef calves requires more research.


  1. The breeding of polled cattle (horns genetically absent) is preferred over horn management of horned animals. There is no evidence that there is a growth or productivity difference attributable to or associated with the horned gene (1,2).
  2. Cattle without horns cause fewer injuries to other animals and humans than horned animals thereby improving the welfare of animals and safety of workers (3).
  3. Horns are absent at birth and begin as buds within the skin of the poll (top of the head between and behind the ears). In a juvenile, the horn buds become attached to the bone overlying the frontal sinus at approximately eight weeks of age. As the horns grow, a diverticulum of the frontal sinus extends into the base of the horn.
  4. Disbudding involves destroying the horn bud before attachment and therefore without significant bone damage. Dehorning is amputation of the horns and is a more invasive and traumatic intervention. Tissue damage from disbudding or dehorning causes physiological and behavioral changes indicative of pain and distress (4,5,6). When horn management is indicated, disbudding is preferred to dehorning as it results less pain and distress and less risk of sinusitis, significant bleeding, and infection than dehorning (6,7).
  5. The use of a hot iron for disbudding is currently the preferred, and most reliable, and consistent disbudding technique in cattle. It is more consistently reliable and causes fewer potential negative side effects than either the chemical (paste) (6,8) or physical (scoops, various cutting) methods (6).
  6. Herd veterinarians should engage in meaningful conversation and education with responsible animal owners and caretakers to develop specific horn management protocols for their herd (9). The protocol should include the indication for the procedure and preferred techniques including pain management (10). The CVMA holds that all cattle undergoing any form of horn management receive a local anesthetic block and non-steroidal analgesics. This combination has been shown to reduce post-procedure pain-associated behaviors including head shaking, ear flicking, head rubbing (11) and associated physiological stress responses (6). Research suggests that sedation may also be beneficial in any horn management procedure (12,13,7) therefore the herd veterinarian may also elect to include sedation in the specific farm prescriptive protocol. When the disbudding is performed by a non-veterinarian (e.g., by livestock producing clients) the CVMA strongly encourages that veterinarians provide training and advance input on technique and pain management through a provincially defined and mandated VCPR.
  7. Much of the research available on horn management has been done in relation to dairy calves. While semi-feral beef calves will experience similar pain to their dairy counterparts, more research is required to evaluate the greater stress from the restraint required for horn management in these animals. New protocols may include the use of more polled genetics, creating new protocols for horn bud or horn removal, or retaining horns in certain groups or situations. Currently, all range beef calves undergoing disbudding or dehorning should receive peri-operative analgesia (7,14).
  8. Disbudding or dehorning are surgical procedures. The provisions of the CVMA position statement on surgical procedures are applicable (15).
  9. Some auction markets allow surgical procedures (e.g., castration and dehorning) (16) to be undertaken on their premises. The CVMA believes that elective surgical procedures should not be undertaken at auction markets as the facilities are not equipped for adequate aftercare, and the recovery time before transportation is insufficient to allow healing and to be compliant with the Health of Animals Regulations Part XII: Transport of Animals (17).


  1. Prayaga KC. Genetic options to replace dehorning in beef cattle – A review. Aust J Agric Res 2007; 58:1-8.

  2. Stookey JM, Goonewardene LA. A comparison of production traits and welfare implications between horned and polled bulls. Can J Anim Sci 1996;76:1-5.

  3. Knierim U, Irrgang N, Roth BA. To be or not to be horned-consequences in cattle. Livestock Science 2015;179:29-37.

  4. Vickers KJ, Niel L, Kielbauch LM, et al. Calf response to caustic paste and hot-iron dehorning using sedation with and without local anesthetic. J Dairy Sci 2005;88:1545-1559.

  5. Taschke AC, Folsch DW. [Ethological, physiological and histological aspects of pain and stress in cattle when being dehorned] Tierarztl Prax 1997;25:19-27.

  6. Stafford KJ, Mellor DJ. Addressing the pain associated with disbudding and dehorning in cattle. Appl Anim Behav Sci 2011;135:226-231.

  7. Adam M, Salla K, Aho R, Hänninen L, Taponen S, Norring M, Raekallio M, Hokkanen A-H. A comparison of sedative effects of xylazine alone or combined with levomethadone or ketamine in calves prior to disbudding. Veterinary Anaesthesia and Analgesia 2021;48(6):906-913 (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.vaa.2021.08.004).

  8. Ede, T., von Keyserlingk, M. A., & Weary, D. M. (2020). Conditioned place aversion of caustic paste and hot-iron disbudding in dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science, 103(12), 11653-11658.

  9. Stookey JM. The veterinarian's role in controlling pain in farm animals. Can Vet J 2005;46:453- 458.

  10. Bates, A. J., Eder, P., & Laven, R. A. (2015). Effect of analgesia and anti-inflammatory treatment on weight gain and milk intake of dairy calves after disbudding. New Zealand veterinary journal, 63(3), 153-157.

  11. Faulkner PM, Weary DM. Reducing pain after dehorning in dairy calves. J Dairy Sci 2000;83:2037-2041.

  12. Reedman, C. N., Duffield, T. F., DeVries, T. J., Lissemore, K. D., Duncan, I. J., & Winder, C. B. (2021). Randomized controlled trial assessing the effects of xylazine sedation in 2-to 6-week- old dairy calves disbudded with a cautery iron. Journal of Dairy Science, 104(5), 5881-5897.

  13. Caray, D., Des Roches, A. D. B., Frouja, S., Andanson, S., & Veissier, I. (2015). Hot-iron disbudding: stress responses and behavior of 1-and 4-week-old calves receiving anti- inflammatory analgesia without or with sedation using xylazine. Livestock Science, 179, 22-28.

  14. Stafford KJ, Mellor DJ. Dehorning and disbudding distress and its alleviation in calves. Vet J 2005;169:337-349.

  15. CVMA Position Statement – Surgical Procedures Performed on Animals (2021) https://www.canadianveterinarians.net/policy-and-outreach/position- statements/statements/surgical-procedures-performed-on-animals/.

  16. Stafford, K.J., Mellor, D.J., and Vogel, K. 2021 Painful husbandry procedures in livestock and poultry. pp.113-144. In Improving Animal Welfare: A Practical Approach, 3rd ed. Ed. Grandin, T. CABI, Wallingford, UK.

  17. Health of Animals Regulations Part XII; Transport of Animals