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The future of pain

I can guarantee you that many in the 98% of society with no direct ties to agriculture see prevention or treatment of pain in farm animals as a moral issue. In fact, it's possible that within the next 5-10 years, some type of analgesia will be required for castration of bull calves more than 60 days of age, and for dehorning.

This prediction may or may not be accurate, but will such an eventuality — if it comes — be at the design of the industry, or mandated by uninformed outside parties?

Granted, a lot of people pushing the issue tend to tick us all off.

Maybe they watched too many animated movies and missed the point that the talking lion in this movie ate the little deer from the last movie for breakfast. They have grown up in a culture of anthropomorphism, the practice of assigning humanlike qualities and feelings to animals.

But dismissing the idea that cows and lions communicate through spoken language is much different than dismissing that the animals in our care feel pain just as we do.

As a livestock industry, we can't expect the heightened awareness of the welfare of animals to decline any time soon. And one particularly charged topic is how we deal with pain in cattle, whether from planned procedures such as castration and dehorning, or from unintended occurrences such as a broken leg or bad foot.

Ethics or morals?

Is our decision concerning whether we will administer drugs a dilemma?

An ethical dilemma implies there are two “right” choices. These choices conflict in such as way as to prevent satisfying the conditions of both choices; we have to pick one or the other.

In the book, “How Good People Make Tough Choices” (Fireside, New York, NY), Rushworth Kidder presents four common recognizable patterns in ethical dilemmas. They are:

  • individual vs. community,
  • short term vs. long term,
  • justice vs. mercy, and
  • truth vs. loyalty.

If you think ahead on how you would side in these dilemmas, you have a head start on dealing with many of life's thorny issues.

So, are there two “right” choices when it comes to dealing with pain in cattle? If we look at it as a dilemma between your rights as a producer (the individual) vs. the opinion of the consumer (the community), we lose that argument by definition, since consumers can vote with their pocketbooks.

Maybe it isn't a dilemma at all; perhaps it's a moral issue — a difference between right and wrong. It's wrong to take your neighbors' hay bales without paying for them. It is right to pay your neighbors for what they produce.

Our society has codified moral judgments against stealing in the form of laws. But just because there isn't a law against something doesn't mean society doesn't have an opinion on the moral status of a practice.

Lack of convenient drugs

It's true that we don't have convenient drugs — both fast and long acting — for control of pain in food animals. Something that requires twice-daily administration over several days just isn't likely to get done.

We can throw up our hands as being helpless, yet somehow the UK has six products labeled for pain in food animals, while the U.S. has none. Let's let our pharmaceutical industry partners know that this is a priority for us.

Those of us in research have much work to do in defining fact and fiction when it comes to pain in food animals. That includes developing more definitive methods for evaluating pain.

The Food and Drug Administration's Center for Veterinary Medicine (FDA/CVM) states in guidance document 123 that “validated methods of pain assessment must be used in order for a drug to be indicated for pain relief in the target species.”

One researcher working toward satisfying this FDA/CVM requirement is Hans Coetzee, a Kansas State University DVM. He's evaluating the use of Substance P in cattle to quantify pain induced by stimuli such as castration. When combined with other criteria such as cortisol response and behavioral observations, we may be approaching the point where pain-relief drugs can be truly evaluated, and therefore approved for use in the U.S. for food animals.

Let's make sure that pain-control research in food animals is a priority in both academia and the pharmaceutical industry. Let's handle pain control in food animals in a practical, logical sense before a moral judgment by the community, whether well informed or not, is foisted upon us in the form of a law.

Mike Apley, DVM, Ph.D., is an associate professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.