Sometimes cattle must be restrained for medical or management procedures (treating an injury, dehorning, minor surgical procedures, etc.) and there are ways to keep them calm without having to resort to tranquilizers or other drugs that would take too long to be effective, especially when putting many animals through the chute to work on.
One simple trick is simply blindfolding the animal. Wildlife biologists know the value of blindfolds to keep a frightened animal from fighting a procedure. Dr. Joseph Stookey, a cattleman and retired professor (Western College of Veterinary Medicine, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan) says most wildlife biologists who capture wild animals to tag, collar, measure, etc. blindfold the animal as the first thing they do.
“The animal is calmer, and it’s also more humane. We know a blindfold works for other species, yet we ignore it for cattle!” Stookey said. A blindfold works for nervous or wild horses; many old-time cowboys routinely blindfolded a bronc before they saddled and mounted for the first time, yet most of them didn’t even think about using it for cattle. They simple roped and manhandled cattle because that was the traditional way.
“For most routine procedures like vaccinating, putting in ear tags, etc. it’s not necessary, but for painful things that take a while, a blindfold can be helpful,” Stookey said. The animals are calmer and less likely to thrash around. They tend to hold still when they can’t see, not knowing what they might run into.
“And, it takes the people out of the equation. The animal can’t see movement or the people doing things around them. If you have to do a C-section or apply a tattoo, treat an abscess, etc., it’s not hard to slip a halter on the animal and stuff a towel under the halter across the eyes and face.” Those animals will stand still.
“They also have lower heart rate. We quantified movement and how much stress the animals experienced, and monitored heart rate. A blindfold is a great tool but you don’t need it for a lot of procedures because you are running them through pretty quickly. But if something will take a period of time and the cow needs to stand quietly, a blindfold is very helpful.”
Another trick that works well is called the Easy Boss E. This is an oral distraction tool that can reduce fear and stress when the animal is in the chute. “Don Findlay, a cattle veterinarian from Manitoba, took this idea and created a tool that is now being marketed. Don is a graduate of our college and went to Australia after graduating in 1978. About 10 years ago he called me, to ask about this idea. He’d found a small group of producers in Australia who were using it and wanted to know more about it,” said Stookey.
Oral distraction works well for cattle because chewing is a natural behavior; if there is something foreign in the mouth, they focus on chewing it, figuring it out, trying to get rid of it, etc. It can distract them from painful procedures.
“Distraction can take a human patient’s mind off pain. Children can be directed to look at something interesting and become focused on that and don’t seem to feel the pain (of an injection, for instance) as much.”
Studies with humans treated for burns, looked at ways to ease the pain of procedures like bandage changes. Researchers developed distractions like video games where the patient looks at a 3-D screen with goggles, and incorporated vibrations and other stimuli to help the person completely focus on the distraction instead of the pain. They scored the patients on pain, and found this helps immensely in minimizing the pain.
With cattle, the oral distraction is a drench gun. “Don Findlay saw Australian dairy producers using a simple drench gun probe for cattle to chew on while being treated (treating a foot, removing teats or whatever). They’d simply stick a sheep-drenching probe in the corner of the cow’s mouth and she’d chew on it. Cattle try to get rid of it and are working it with their mouth and stand still because they are so focused on that.”
Findlay is now marketing this tool. “We did an experiment using it while freeze branding, using it on half the animals. We measured heart rate, how much they struggled, etc. Like the blindfold, the animals that had the distraction had lower heart rate and less struggling than the ones without it,” said Stookey.
“This devise is better in some aspects than a blindfold except it takes another person to hold the drench gun in the mouth. We built one that didn’t have to be held, and just slipped over the head—with a band over the head,” he said.
Findlay now has a company that markets his Easy Boss E, selling to veterinarians who use it when doing certain procedures. “The producer holds it in the cow’s mouth when she’s in the squeeze chute while the veterinarian does the medical procedure. This keeps the animal occupied and standing still rather than fighting.”
Stookey helped a neighbor tattoo bulls prior to a sale and realized something like this might be useful. “Most bulls are fine to work on; you just clean out the ear and do the tattoo, but now and then there’s one that fights, making it difficult. A device like this would make it so easier and quicker--with less struggle and risk of injury to the person doing it,” he said.