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Mutilations of cattle


Mutilation of farm animals is an extreme example of the way in which mankind is prepared to treat other animals as a commodity, for commercial reasons, largely without concern as to the consequences for the welfare of the individual animals.


The position varies from country to country, with some countries being more highly regulated than others as to the way in which mutilations are carried out, and with some mutilations being legally proscribed in certain countries, whilst being free from any control in others. For example, tail docking of cattle is prohibited in some European countries and some states in the USA, whilst being established and lawfully practiced in others.  In most countries, the mutilations described below can be carried out without anaesthesia and analgesia, leading to the animals suffering severe pain and distress during, and, sometimes, as a consequence of the mutilation. The desire for increased profits leads farmers routinely to carry  out procedures which cause animal suffering, it becoming an integral part of the way in which agribusiness is undertaken, and the increased globalization of the food trade makes it difficult to monitor the way in which animals are treated in countries of origin.   



  • Purpose: to prevent animals injuring themselves, or injuring staff, due to restrictions on space caused by high stocking densities.
  • Methods used: the horn buds are burnt out (the horn buds are richly innervated, therefore disbudding is very painful).

Tail docking (with elastic bands)

  • Purpose dairy cow: to prevent the milker being disturbed by an unclean tail.
  • Purpose beef cattle: to prevent tail necrosis of the animals in fully-slatted floor systems with high stocking densities.
  • Methods used:
    • elastration: an elastic band is tightened around the base of the tail, cutting off the circulation of blood to the tail, causing it to fall off, after a few weeks. This  is extremely painful for the animal;
    • thermocautery: this involves the use of a heated wire.


  • Purpose: identification
  • Methods used: the animal is exposed to high-degree skin burns by a scorching iron, without being anaesthetized, and will show signs of pain for weeks.


Ear tagging

  • Purpose: identification.
  • Methods used: the ears are pierced to fix identification marks.

Castration without anaesthesia

  • Purpose: prevents fertility of male cattle, and makes them less aggressive.
  • Methods used:
    • emasculatome: spermatic cords are heavily squeezed by special pliers (Burdizzo);
    • elastration. 

Why are mutilations carried out without anaesthesia?

In most countries up to a certain age of the animals the mentioned mutilations are allowed to be carried out without anaesthesia. In the past it was assumed that young animals may not suffer pain in the same amount as adult animals do. This has been proven to be wrong. The main reason ist o save money. A professional anaesthesia must be done by a vet. Due to legal exceptions for farm animals, farms can save this money. Imagine male cats or dogs would be castrated without anaesthesia: this is inconceivable.  


In farm animal production unfortunately the focus predominantly is out on the economic value, and no consideration is shown, even when it comes to extremely painful mutilations. Legislators are often driven by the industry, but also society and consumers should be willing to pay more for higher animal welfare requirements.