[Kipsang Joseph,Standard]

Happy New Year our dear reader. As we start the year, allow me to convey my sincere gratitude to all our readers for your interesting questions.  This is the gist of practicing veterinary extension online, you get so many questions. Today’s question was shared by an ardent reader – who only calls himself by a single name – Makokha. According to the email, Makokha has openly admired the Ankole cows for nothing but their long horns.

Out of this love, this particular reader has refused the routine practice of dehorning his herd which he says is close to seven dairy crosses. So he wants to know what benefits his animal husbandry behaviour attracts and the risks.

First, dehorned animals are safe to handle. Interestingly, animal welfare activists insist that horn cutting is an exercise against animal welfare taking away healthy anatomical structure and causing unnecessary pain and stress to an innocent animal. 

Horn Anatomy

Horns are pairs of hard, bonelike, permanent growths projecting from the heads of cattle. The horn itself consists of dense keratin and elongates from its base. Most cow breeds have permanent horns. The horn starts sprouting at two months as a skin derivative that later attaches onto the skull’s frontal bones. As it grows at around eight months that horn is in continuous communication with the frontal sinuses. Removal of the 'horn' from a calf is called disbudding and is a routine procedure on any livestock farm. Dehorning is the removal of a fully formed horn. If you have to remove the horn it is advised that you do it when it is still a bud. Once a horn – dehorning presents a lot of health risks as micro-organisms can easily enter into the sinuses and cause a deadly infection. You should nip the horn in the bud.

History of the horn

Evolution scientists agree that the horn had lots of benefits to its bearer. The male used it to get mating rights and to chase away predators. The early man loved bulls with horns to get a structure to anchor their carts and exploit the “bull” draught power. Whether we still need this is a matter of debate. 

Today we have a herd of cattle most of them kept under intensive systems which mean many animals in a small area. There is very low use of bulls and even those that are used need not fight for the females. This has made disbudding and dehorning a widely practiced farm procedure. Hornless or polled animals are thus favoured. There are those that have been selected genetically to be polled and those that get their horns or buds removed.

Polled animals are safe for the farmer and also fellow animals. They require less space as horned animals need space to avoid injuries to the herd. By dehorning and disbudding are we abusing animal welfare?

This is a question I would have loved to throw to my friend and colleague Dr Kelvin Momanyi. True horns certainly have a function, they are used in self-defense against predators, and animals also use them for grooming. There is also evidence that they have a thermoregulatory function. Off course with these functions and the stress that comes with disbudding and dehorning an animal welfare argument can be advanced.  The year is still young and this can form one among many things we can ruminate over throughout the year.

[The writer is a veterinary surgeon and the head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are personal]

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