Cattle are stoical animals. Their ancestral heritage as a ranging herbivore prone to predation means they mask the signs of pain and its implied weakness to avoid being targeted.
However, this doesn’t mean they don’t feel pain. In fact, there’s no evidence to suggest cattle feel pain any differently to other animals, yet prescribing analgesics for surgery, injury or disease has rarely been the norm in the farming industry. It’s also lagged significantly behind analgesic prescription for other species, such as dogs, where it’s now routine.
Exploring attitudes and building evidence
Over the last 15 years, our Ruminant Population Heath Research Group has been conducting a range of projects to explore the attitudes of vets and farmers towards pain and the use of analgesics in cattle. This has included randomised clinical trials to build the evidence base for the administration of anti-inflammatories.
Described in the REF2014 as outstanding, our work has been associated with a concerted programme of knowledge exchange with industry and the veterinary profession. It has had a significant impact on the prescription of analgesics and led to an improvement in animal welfare.
Identifying inconsistencies and opportunities
Our work has identified an inconsistent approach to pain and pain relief in cattle, with key findings to date including:
- A huge variability of pain scores attributed by vets and farmers to the same condition. We have been describing these variations and identifying some of the factors which influence the scores given (e.g. women and more recent graduates generally attribute higher pain scores)
- Identifying that the use of analgesics is associated with a clinicians’ subjective assessment of the degree of pain the animal is likely to be suffering
- Identifying anti-inflammatories as a key treatment modality for lesions of claw horn disruption (sole haemorrhage, sole ulcer and white line disease) causing lameness in cattle
Changing prescribing practice and improving welfare
Our ongoing programme of research, outreach and knowledge exchange with farmers, as well as our clinical leadership among vets, has led to a paradigm shift in the approach to analgesic use in cattle.
Working with cross-industry stakeholders, particularly Boehringer Ingelheim (one of the world’s top 20 pharmaceutical companies), we have influenced analgesic prescribing practices in the UK with an estimated one to two million additional animal doses prescribed in 2015 compared to 2008. This has led to annual UK sales of cattle analgesics increasing from £4.74M in 2008 to £10.56M in 2015.
Our research has also improved animal welfare to the benefit of cattle, farmers, retailers, consumers and government. The work formed part of an Impact Case Study in REF2014 described by the review panel as outstanding
Read the Impact Case Study here