Management of horned cattle species


Ratification Date: 23 Jul 2015


Breeding of polled cattle is preferable to dehorning, however further research into methods to determine the carrier status for the horned phenotype is needed in some breeds.3

Where routine disbudding or dehorning is necessary as a cattle husbandry procedure to improve herd welfare:

  • the procedure must be performed by a competent person
  • cattle must be disbudded or dehorned as young as is practically possible, preferably under two months of age for disbudding, or if this is not possible, dehorned under six months of age
  • appropriate pain relief must be used
  • appropriate restraint must be used.

Use of topical caustic chemicals for disbudding is not recommended


Disbudding is the removal of the horn bud before it attaches to the skull. Dehorning is the removal of the horn once it has attached to the skull.

Dehorning and disbudding of cattle are painful procedures. They are practised to minimise bruising and injuries that cattle cause each other, and to facilitate movement through yards and holding facilities. Dehorning also reduces the risk of injury to handlers.

Dehorning or tipping is sometimes also necessary to correct aberrant growth of horns which may impinge on the face, eyes or other part of the head.

The Australian Veterinary Association (AVA) views a move towards polled breeds as ideal, but consideration must also be given to other genetic factors to avoid negative impacts on fertility and growth rates in some breeds.


If dehorning, cattle should be dehorned as young as is practically possible, preferably under two months of age, when the horn bud has not attached to the skull.

Cautery disbudding is preferable to amputation (scoop) dehorning in calves, as it causes less pain. Best practice for both includes sedation, local anesthesia and analgesia.

Tipping (rounding of the points) should be used as an alternative to dehorning in adult animals where feasible.

Cattle management systems and the differences between intensive and extensive conditions, geographical locations, weather conditions and insect activity must be factored in to the timing of dehorning procedures and any preventative measures needed to minimise infection and flystrike (Myiasis).

Analgesia and anaesthesia should be used.

Beef Cattle:

Dehorning instruments: Table reproduced from Meat Livestock Australia, MLA

Which dehorning instrument?

The dehorning instrument used will depend on the age of the calf:

  • hot iron – under two months old
  • dehorning knife – 2–3 months old
  • scoop dehorners – 2–6 months old
  • cup dehorners – 2–6 months old

Animals over six months old*:

  • guillotine dehorners – horn tipping only
  • surgical wire – horn tipping only
  • tippers – horn tipping only
  • horn saw – horn tipping only

* Horn tipping only unless under the direction of a veterinarian.

Caustic dehorning chemicals must not be used in beef cattle. Removing horns with tools such as axes and hammers is completely inhumane, and is not permitted.

In cattle over six months of age, guillotine dehorners or embryotomy wire must only be used for dehorning under the direction of a veterinarian with suitable restraint, appropriate analgesia and anaesthesia, and suitable postoperative wound management.

Dehorning of cattle over 12 months of age is not recommended, and is illegal under some state and territory legislation unless undertaken by a veterinarian.

Dairy calves:

Use of topical caustic chemicals for disbudding of dairy calves is not recommended.

However, if used, it must only be used on calves that:

  1. are under fourteen days of age
  2. are under close supervision
  3. are dry, and can be kept dry for 12 hours after treatment2
  4. are separated, or not being reared on cows, and cannot rub on other calves
  5. can be fed on teats until the horn buds fall off

Hot iron (cautery) disbudding is the preferred method using pain control6


Unless the procedure is performed under heavy sedation, cattle to be dehorned must be appropriately restrained, e.g. using a dehorning cradle.

Minimising stress and pain

Dehorning should be carried out as efficiently and quickly as possible to minimise handling and associated stress. Analgesia, sedation and local anaesthetic should be used to minimise pain and stress6,7.

Cattle should be in good body condition, well hydrated and rested before surgery and should be allowed to recover, for at least 12 hours, before rehandling.


Cattle should be handled quietly pre- and post-operatively, and monitored for any persistent bleeding after the operation. Measures should be taken to prevent postoperative sinusitis and flystrike (myiasis). Bleeding and myiasis can be minimised by dehorning during cool weather, or during the cooler parts of the day. Dehorning should not be conducted in hot weather, but rather be undertaken in the cooler months of the year where possible, to minimise the stress associated with the procedure.

Other recommendations

Persons involved with dehorning procedures and breeding of cattle should maintain their knowledge of modern techniques and advances in polled breed selection.


  1. A Guide to Best Practice husbandry in beef cattle MLA/Cattle Council 2007. http://www.mla.com.au/CustomControls/PaymentGateway/ViewFile.aspx?Fd9qd0... (Accessed April, 2014)
  2. Davis, K. 28 March, 2011. Paste Disbudding of calves – Report prepared for Dairy Australia.
  3. The Australian Poll Gene Marker Test - Factsheet. MLA http://www.mla.com.au/
  4. Loxton, I.D., Toleman, M.A & Holmes, A.E. The effect of dehorning Brahman crossbred animals of four age groups on subsequent bodyweight gain. Australian Veterinary Journal, Vol 58, May, 1982.
  5. Faulkner, P.M. and Weary, D.M. Reducing pain after dehorning of dairy calves. Journal of Dairy Science,[2000] 83: 2037 – 2041
  6. Graf, B. & Senn, M. Behavioural and physiological responses of calves to dehorning by heat cauterization with or without local anaesthetic. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 62 (1999) 153 – 171.
  7. Stafford KJ and Mellor DJ (2005). Dehorning and disbudding distress and its alleviation in calves. The Veterinary Journal. 169(3): 337-349
  8. McMeekan C, Stafford KJ,  Mellor DJ et al (1999) Effects of a local anaesthetic and a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory analgesic on the behavioural responses of calves to dehorning. New Zealand Veterinary Journal, 47(3): 92-96

Date of ratification by AVA Board 23 July 2015