A calf standing behind a gate.

Understanding the issues: painful procedures for cattle.

Most calves born in Australia quickly come face to face with some harsh realities.

Animals Australia

Animals Australia team

Last updated December 7, 2021

In an effort to cut ‘operational costs’ most farms force animals to endure painful surgical procedures without pain relief.


Dehorning is one of the most traumatic experiences cattle are forced to endure. Yet, there are no laws requiring them to receive pain relief. 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 off. 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.

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

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.

In the dairy industry, young heifer calves more 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, their sensitive horn tissue may be scraped out of their skull.


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 off.

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.


On many farms, calves are forced to endure dehorning, castration 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; and a 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.


In addition to physical restraints, cattle (over 6 months of age) can also be held still by an electrical current, whilst these painful procedures are carried out.

Electro-immobilisation does not provide any pain relief. Rather it can be extremely distressing for the animal — leaving him able to feel pain, but paralysed and unable to express his natural response to flee or to fight.

Using an electrical current on animals for short term paralysis can also cause temporary inability to breathe or suffocation (especially when higher currents are used); very high stress levels in animals who are not used to frequent handling; and potentially profound cardiac effects. Indeed, electro-immobilisation can result in death.

You can help!

Make your choices count: Sadly, these cruel practices exist because of demand for beef and dairy. But with every meal we have the power to take a strong stand against animal cruelty. By making the choice to eat more meat-free meals, or take animals off your plate completely, you can help protect cattle and save lives. Check out our guide to compassionate living to find out more about how you can change the world for animals simply through small, easy, every-day choices.