The reality of farming animals: painful mutilations

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Animals feel pain. This is a scientific fact. And yet, in animal industries all over Australia, pieces of animals' bodies can legally be cut off, sliced open, and burned away... without any pain relief.

LAST UPDATED: 7 December 2020

If you cut the tail off a dog or cat, you could be prosecuted for cruelty. But for animals born into the category of 'food' rather than 'friend', painful surgical mutilations are a 'fact of life'.

Governments in Australia have denied farmed animals the same legal protections from cruelty that apply to our pets. It's legal and routine to cut off body parts like tails, teeth and testicles from cattle, sheep or pigs — with no pain relief.

Farming industries have been given exemptions to the cruelty laws that protect our pets. Among other things, these exemptions allow farmed animals to have bits and pieces cut off or burned into their bodies to make them fit into the monolith that has become modern-day industrial animal agriculture.

Many of these surgeries are not only entirely unnecessary but there is no legal requirement to provide animals with pain relief. This is despite easily applied pain relief products being affordable and readily available for use in Australia.

The drive to maximise profit and production in the meat, eggs and dairy industries has led to routine farming practices that completely disregard the welfare of animals. Practices that are anything but 'normal' have become the 'norm' in farming today.

Cows

Dehorning

Dehorning is one of the most traumatic experiences cattle are forced to endure. Yet, there are no laws requiring them to receive pain relief at the early age when it is usually done. So, both male and female calves usually undergo this surgical procedure without anything to dull the pain.

When a cow is 'dehorned', her horns and the sensitive tissue near her skull are cut, sawn or scraped out. Anything from knives, wires, saws and shears — or even a 'scooping' implement — are commonly used to remove horns.

This mutilation is intended to make cattle easier to handle and prevent injuries, if they are to be crowded into feedlots or during transport, yet little concern seems to be afforded to the severe pain and distress it causes the animals.

A cow's horns are connected to her sinuses. When her horns are cut off (especially if she is older) her frontal sinuses can be damaged and exposed, placing her at risk of infection and extreme bleeding. As a result, her wounds can take much longer to heal.



Dehorning is dangerous and cruel and can result in permanent and ongoing suffering.

In the dairy industry, young heifer calves often suffer a similarly painful practice called disbudding. This usually involves either a hot iron being pressed against their head, to permanently damage their horn 'buds' — alternatively, caustic chemical may be applied or their sensitive horn tissue may be scraped out of the recess in their skull.

Castration

A male calf's genitals are some of his most sensitive organs. When older bulls are castrated, it is considered a major surgical procedure, which only a vet can perform. Yet most young calves suffer this invasive procedure at the hands of farm hands, and without any sedative or pain relief.

Young calves bellow in pain as their scrotums are cut open, their testes pulled out and cut off. Alternatively, calves may have a rubber ring constricted tightly around their scrotum to stop blood flow, eventually leading to their testicles falling away.


For many calves, the surgery is only the beginning. Castrated calves can suffer from inflammation, infection and chronic pain. Sometimes the complications from this surgery can even be fatal.

Spaying

On large northern Australian (beef) cattle stations some cows (around half a million a year) will be subjected to spaying — an invasive procedure which requires the surgical removal of the ovaries, either via a cut through the flank or via the vagina/womb. This is currently done without any requirement for pain relief and carries a high risk of infection and even death.

Branding

On many farms, calves are forced to endure dehorning, castration, ear notching and branding all at once. One by one, they are pinned down, or squeezed in a 'crush' pen; their horns are cut off; (if they are male) their testes are cut out; their ears notched, and a red hot iron is seared into their skin, leaving a permanent mark.

The branding iron may alternatively be dipped into a coolant, such as liquid nitrogen before being pressed against the calf's skin. While freeze branding is initially less painful, both forms of branding can cause ongoing pain. Poorly maintained branding irons and the stress caused to animals during handling and restraint can all lead to further injuries.

Sheep

Tail docking

Like puppies, lambs are born with a long tail. But most lambs are put in a restraint device and have their tail cut off (called docking) to reduce soiling and the risk of flystrike. When lambs are less than 6 months old (which is the norm), this practice can be done without anything to reduce the pain. Often lambs are also mulesed at the same time.

A hot blade or sharp knife is used to cut through the muscle and bone of the lamb's tail. On some farms, lambs will instead have a rubber ring tightened around their tail so that it will wither and drop off.

If a lamb's tail is cut too short, they are at higher risk of suffering from serious health complications, such as rectal prolapse or skin cancer in older ewes.

Mulesing

Young lambs often have the skin around their buttocks and the base of their tail cut off with a pair of metal shears (to reduce soiling and the risk of flystrike). This painful practice, called mulesing, has been banned in New Zealand for cruelty, but sadly is still legal in Australia, and in most states can be performed without any pain relief. Thanks to tireless animal advocates speaking out, Victoria recently became the first and only state to require at least some pain relief for the procedure.

The large, open wound created by mulesing can take many weeks to heal. During this time, lambs are at added risk of infection and flystrike.


Lambs are routinely mulesed without anaesthetic or follow-up, ongoing treatment for pain relief.

While mulesing is inflicted on lambs to reduce flystrike, several other less invasive and much less painful solutions exist. In 2010, the leaders of the Australian wool industry backed down on a commitment to phase out mulesing in favour of more humane alternatives. In 2016, wool industry leaders would not even support mandatory use of pain relief for mulesed lambs (let alone start a phase-out of mulesing), so sadly millions of lambs in Australia are continuing to undergo this cruel surgery, many with no pain relief whatsoever.

Castration

Male lambs usually have to endure both castration and tail docking (and sometimes mulesing) at the same time, without any pain relief if done prior to 6 months of age. When these procedures are carried out by unskilled people, the risk of greater injury, and infection is even more significant.

Shearing

Shearing is not only stressful for sheep, who are aren't used to human handling, but rough treatment in the shearing shed also puts them at risk of injury. Sheep are often cut by the sharp shearing blades, and when they suffer larger wounds, it is considered acceptable industry practice to stitch them up without providing any pain relief. As with those who carry out other painful, invasive procedures, there is currently no requirement for shearers to undergo formal training and accreditation.

Invasive breeding procedures

Female sheep (ewes) are also often forced to endure invasive procedures. In one common breeding procedure, called laparoscopic artificial insemination, a long metal rod is poked through the ewe's abdomen to insert semen into her uterus. This invasive procedure can be done without pain relief.

Pigs

Teeth clipping

A mother pig with suckling piglets in the wild will stand and move away when she needs a break, and nudge piglets when they bite her nipples or their littermates. But sows confined in farrowing crates are unable to move sufficiently (or even turn around) — so they endure on-demand suckling and cannot teach their piglets to be gentle. The industry solution is to grind and clip piglets' teeth, making them blunt to lessen the injuries they can cause. Teeth clipping is very painful and can lead to gum and tongue injuries, inflammation and abscesses of the teeth, and for enduring pain for many weeks before their milk teeth are shed.

Tail docking

Pigs are known to be intelligent, highly social and inquisitive animals — and they quickly become bored and even aggressive when confined to barren pens on factory farms. Tail biting is one way that 'growing' pigs can try to vent their frustrations. Instead of giving them more space, the pig industry routinely cuts off their tails, through bone, when they are only days old. Tail docking causes acute stress in piglets, who respond by squealing and 'scooting' — sitting and dragging their bottom along the floor. The procedure can also cause neuromas to develop at the wound site, which are associated with increased sensitivity to pain long-term.

Castration

Male piglets can also be surgically castrated to reduce the risk of 'boar taint' — an undesirable smell and taste in their meat from hormones and other compounds naturally produced during puberty. Because pigs have been selectively bred to grow quickly and be slaughtered young, relatively fewer male pigs are now subjected to this painful procedure (but it is still legally permitted, without pain relief up to 21 days of age).

Mother pigs are forced to give birth in a 'farrowing crate' which severely restricts their movement and denies them the strong maternal instinct to nurture or interact with their young.Piglets have their teeth cut, exposing the sensitive pulp inside. This excruciating procedure is done without pain relief.'Crude 'surgical' implements are used to cut the teeth and tails off piglets without anaesthetic.'Day-old chicks often have parts of their beaks painfully severed off in an attempt to mitigate cannibalism brought on by the stress and unnatural confinement of battery hens.Battery hen cages are still used in Australia. Up to 5 birds are crammed into each tiny wire cage, each given a 'living' space smaller than 1 A4 page - not even enough room to spread their wings.
Farm Transparency Project

Hens

Beak cutting

'Debeaking' or beak trimming involves removing the end of a young layer hen's beak, in an attempt to limit the injuries caused by hens pecking each other when they inevitably become frustrated in their confined, densely packed living spaces. A chicken's beak (as in all birds) is a complex, sensitive structure as they need it to grasp and manipulate food, in nesting and for preening their feathers. The beak trimming procedure causes the birds to feel acute and often chronic pain and also impacts their welfare by hindering the functioning of their beak. A hot blade or infrared laser is usually used to perform the procedure on chicks, and it is done without any pain relief.

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A friendly brown dairy cow nuzzles a person's hand, outside in a paddock.

You can help protect animals from this

Underpinning all these practices is the belief, established in another era, that animals raised for food are commodities and not equally deserving of kindness and protection from cruelty. For many industries, cutting pieces off animals' bodies and other painful and invasive practices have simply become an accepted part of doing business.

Animal protection groups have tried to have these practices changed and the laws that enable them updated for decades. But today, animal industries still resist even the simplest act of mandating pain relief for animals subjected to surgical mutilations.

Unfortunately, it has only ever been the fear of losing consumer support (and market share) that has motivated industries to improve practices. That makes you — the consumer — a powerful agent for change. What we choose to buy, or not buy, is a vote for the kind of world we want to live in, for the kind of world we believe all animals deserve. And every choice, every meal, makes a difference.

If you're curious about how easy (and delicious) it is to cut back on animal products — or cut them out altogether — then you can find everything you need to know in our FREE Veg Starter Kit. You can order your very own copy right here, right now.

Order your FREE Veg Starter kit!

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Selected references

[1] Stafford K. & Mellor D. (2011) Addressing the pain associated with disbudding and dehorning in cattle. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 135: 226-231.

[2] Grant E., Wickham S., Anderson F., Barnes A., Fleming P. & Miller D. (2020) Preliminary Findings on a Novel Behaviour Approach for the Assessment of Pain and Analgesia in Lambs Subject to Routine Husbandry Procedures. Animals, 10:1148. doi:10.3390/ani10071148.

[3] Gray D. (28 July 2009), Mulesing deadline abandoned, The Sydney Morning Herald.

[4] Ison S., Clutton R., Di Gimiani P. & Rutherford K. (2016) A Review of Pain Assessment in Pigs. Frontiers in Veterinary Science, 3:108. doi:10.3389/fvets.2016.00108.

[5] Marino L. (2017) Thinking chickens: a review of cognition, emotion, and behaviour in the domestic chicken. Animal Cognition, 20: 127-147.

[6] McLennan K. (2018) Why pain is still a welfare issue for farm animals, and how facial expression could be the answer. Agriculture, 8:127. doi:10.3390/agriculture8080127.

Title image courtesy of Sentient. See more about their investigation into shocking cruelty on remote Australian cattle stations and take action.

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