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Pain relief at lamb marking

Spring 2019

Nigel Gillan, District Vet

Marking of spring lambs is under way for some and not too far off for others.

Tail docking, castration, and mulesing are all procedures which have demonstrable health or management benefits in the long term.

Mulesing, for example, is used to lower the incidence of blowfly strike in the breech area – an extremely painful, unpleasant, and debilitating disease for affected sheep. It has to be said, though, that these procedures are all invariably associated with pain. Good technique and equipment can certainly help make marking more welfare-friendly, but will never remove pain entirely.

Analgesic (pain relief) medications registered for use in sheep are available. The first on the scene was a topical gel, ‘Tri-Solfen’. Tri-Solfen can be applied to mulesing, surgical castration, and surgical tail-docking wounds, and contains a mix of a local anaesthetic, a disinfectant, and adrenalin (to help reduce blood loss).

More recently, two pain relief products containing the anti-inflammatory drug meloxicam have become available .  The difference between the two is in the way they are administered – one (‘Metacam 20’) is given as an injection, the other (‘Buccalgesic’) as an oral gel (administered in the space between the molar teeth and the inside of the cheek).

The newest product on the block is 'Numnuts' - a local anaesthetic specifically for ring castration or tail-docking.  This is a great addition because topical products like Tri-Solfen can only be used on open wounds - not with rings.

Best practice would be to administer both a systemic anti-inflammatory (meloxicam) prior to the procedure, and a local anaesthetic during/following the procedure. However, giving either of these on its own would still provide some pain relief.

Many sheep producers need no convincing on the question of pain relief and are glad to have options they can use. But what about the unconvinced (or half convinced)? What reasons are there for using pain relief at marking or mulesing?

It is often suggested that there might be production benefits (i.e. increased weight gains) in sheep given pain relief. However, this is pretty hard to prove, and any short-term gains are likely to be insignificant in the long-run.

Another line of argument is that pain responses can negatively impact mothering-up behaviour following marking, so that untreated lambs are more likely to be mismothered (and will therefore be more susceptible to losses due to subsequent disease or predation). This could represent a genuine opportunity for a production benefit - producers have told me they've seen much better mothering-up behaviour when using pain relief.

Whatever the current situation, it is inevitable that market pressure will continue to encourage the use of pain relief in livestock more generally. The value placed on pain relief will be judged by consumers and by market perceptions, and the messages we’re receiving are all pointing in one direction – a growing concern for animal welfare.

Regardless of production benefits or marketing advantages, improved animal welfare is always a good outcome. The animal welfare benefits speak for themselves – producers who have seen the way pain relief can reduce visible stress behaviours are often quickly convinced of its value.

Animal welfare in its own right should be the concern of all livestock producers.

Contact your local District Vet for more information.