Ask the Vet

Avoid Adult Dehorning

Adult dehorning can be a painful, risky and costly process. (DTN/Progressive Farmer file photo by Claire Vath)


We have a cow we missed dehorning as a calf. She is 4 years old now, and she has really started using those horns on other cows around the feed trough and the hay ring. I've read about using a bander to remove horns, but I've never done this, and I'm not even sure it would work. What do you suggest?


There is no good way to dehorn a mature cow. I have used the old keystone-type dehorners in the past, but I will never do that again. It is just not humane in my opinion.

I have tried bands on two occasions without success. There are reports of complications and delayed bleeding and infection as the band slowly cuts through the horn. I would be interested in hearing peoples' experiences, both good and bad, using bands. At this time, though, I would not recommend them.

One option is cosmetic dehorning, but this is not a cheap option. It is a surgical procedure done by your veterinarian using a mild tranquilizer/pain reliever combination and local anesthesia. The skin is cut away from the base of the horn and a Gigli wire saw is used to cut the horns smooth with the skull. After controlling the bleeding, skin is sutured back over the hole.

I have had excellent results with this method, and the cattle look polled after they heal. With good pain management including NSAIDs (flunixin, meloxicam, etc.) during and after surgery, and control of infection and flies, cattle do very well with little or no setback.

A less expensive and less invasive option is to "tip" horns by cutting off 1 to 2 inches. If more than this is removed, both the nerve and blood supply are affected, and it opens the hollow portion of the horn, which directly connects with the sinuses. Infections and maggots can be a problem. It is also extremely painful, so I feel very strongly that these animals need aggressive pain control. Bleeding must be controlled also. There are many techniques that have been used to control bleeding, including hot irons, round toothpicks into the bleeders in the horn, applying a pressure wrap of gauze taped to the horns and a figure-eight tourniquet around the base of the horns.

Tipping has its drawbacks. While cattle are less dangerous and unlikely to create puncture wounds or put out eyes, they can still use the horns as a weapon, leading to bruising and creating issues around the feed bunk or hay ring.

I am a huge advocate for aggressive pain management with any painful procedure in livestock. Even a hot dehorning iron on calves is painful. Local anesthetics are very economical and easy to use. NSAIDs are safe and highly effective in controlling postoperative pain. We are stewards of the animals under our control, and pain management is the right thing to do. I also believe it is in producers' best economic interests. Pain costs pounds and pounds are money.

Lastly, while this is not your question, as you move forward with your herd, consider a genetic solution to the dehorning issue. I am a breeder of Polled Herefords, so I have seen firsthand the value of polled genetics in the elimination of this stressful and costly procedure.


Editor's Note:

Please contact your veterinarian with questions pertaining to the health of your herd or other animals. Every operation is unique, and the information in this column does not pertain to all situations. This is not intended as medical advice but is purely for informational purposes.

Write Dr. Ken McMillan at Ask The Vet, 2204 Lakeshore Dr., Suite 415, Birmingham, AL 35209, or email