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April 23, 2022

An increasing number of cattle have to live without their horns. With which arguments the farmers justify the mutilation and what it means for the animals you can read in this article.

More and more cattle have to live without their horns. There are no official numbers on how many animals this affects across Germany, but estimates from 2009 and 2013 suggest that 70 to 90 percent of all cows in milk production are without horns(1), (2). This number is likely now much higher. A 2020 article estimates that over 90 percent of "dairy cows" on organic farms are already hornless (3). Even on farms run by the Demeter farming association, which prohibits dehorning and the keeping of genetically hornless cows, there are animals living without horns, as a 2019 expose by the newspaper TAZ shows (4).

In the livestock industry, the two main arguments for dehorning are that the animals could injure other herd members and themselves with their horns and that horned cattle pose an increased risk to the farmer (5). However, it is rarely discussed openly that dehorning cattle is economically more profitable because unhorned cattle can be kept on much less space.

In this article we will go into more detail about what horns are and their importance for cattle. We will describe why and how they are removed, the reasons to keep horns intact, and ways to do so.

Anatomy, biology and function of the horn

Horns, unlike antlers, are bony extensions firmly fused to the skull. They grow throughout life. Horns consist of a bone cone, which is hollow inside, the horn sheath (6).

Initially, the horn bud is not firmly fused to the skull, but sits loosely in the skin over the skull. Only when the calf is about two months old does the bud begin to fuse with the skull. At seven to eight months of age, the cavity of the horn represents a direct extension of the frontal sinus (7).

Horns are infused with blood vessels and nerve fibers and therefore represent sensitive organs (8). They develop in both males and females and serve a number of functions.

The multiple tasks of the horns

The most important evolutionary function of horns in male cattle is intra- and intersexual selection, i.e., competition between two bulls for a mate as well as courting of the bull for a mate (9), (10), (11).

Why female cattle also bear horns is controversial. One hypothesis is that females may gain an evolutionary advantage by mimicking males (12). However, the horniness could also have evolved as protection against predators (13) or for resource defense (14).

These originally vital functions of the horn no longer play a role in modern agriculture, as both survival and reproduction are dictated by the farmer. However, the horns still fulfill other functions that still play a role in the husbandry environment of the cattle.

Horns for the push fight

In disputes, the animals interlock their horns so that they cannot use them directly as weapons. The fight thus becomes a pushing fight (15). In this way, they negotiate the hierarchy without seriously injuring each other. Cattle rarely use their horns against enemies in semi-natural conditions. More often they flee from potential dangers, if this is still possible, or otherwise defend themselves by kicking (16).

Social behavior and grooming

The horns play an important role in social behavior as an organ for the presentation of social authority. Cattle have more respect for horned than for unhorned conspecifics. This can be attributed either to the fact that the animals know how painful a push with the horn is or to the fact that they recognize threatening gestures better because of the horns. Horn size is also critical to an animal's rank in the group (17).

Cattle also use horns to groom places they cannot otherwise reach (18). Researchers observed in one study that adult cows perform 28 percent of their grooming with the horns and that "imaginary scratching" occurs during the first three hours after horn removal (19). The horns may further serve to guide lactating calves (20).

Thermal regulation

Horns may additionally play a role in thermoregulation (21). The connection of the horn to the skull through the frontal sinus allows for some nasal heat exchange. This mechanism reduces water loss by cooling the breath during exhalation (22). In addition, the highly perfused bilayer of periosteum and dermis, the middle of the three skin layers, can serve as a heat exchange surface (23). The fact that cattle in warmer regions carry larger horns speaks to the function of horns as heat regulators (24).

Horned by nature

Besides all these reasons, there is another indication of how important horns are for cattle. The gene for hornlessness is dominant over the gene for horniness, so it asserts itself more easily in reproduction. This means that hornlessness would have prevailed during evolution if horns had not been an advantage. It can be concluded that the wearing of this energy- and cost-intensive organ has brought many advantages to the animals (25).

A red-brown cow with horns stands between trees and looks into the camera.
©Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

[1] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

(2) Cozzi, G., Prevedello, P., Boukha, A., Winckler, C., Knierim, U., Pentelescu, O., Windig, J., Mirabito, L., Kling Eveillard, F., Dockes, A.C., Veissier, I., Velarde, A., Fuentes, C., Dalmau, A. (2009). Report on dehorning practices across EU member states: a quantitative survey of the current practices. Livestock Science, 179, 4-11

(3) Mück, U. (2020). Hörner im Laufstall–Herdenmanagement hat großen Einfluss. Angewandte Forschung und Entwicklung für den ökologischen Landbau in Bayern Öko-Landbautag 2020, 39-43.

(4) Maurin, J. (2019, 2.Juni). Demeter bricht die eigenen Regeln. TAZ.

(5) Waiblinger, S., Baars, T., & Menke, C. (2000). Understanding the cow—The central role of human animal relationship in keeping horned dairy cows in loose housing. In Proceedings of the 3rd workshop of the NAHWOA (Clermont-Ferrand, France (pp. 62-76).

(6) Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[7] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

[8] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

(9) Bro-Jørgensen, J. (2007). The intensity of sexual selection predicts weapon size in male bovids. Evolution 61, 1316–1326.

[10] Preston, B.T., Stevenson, I.R., Pemberton, J.M., Coltman, D.W. & Wilson, K.(2003). Overt and covert competition in a promiscuous mammal: the importance of weaponry and testes size to male reproductive success. Proceedings of the Royal Society. 270, 633–640.

[11] Estes, R.D., (1991). The significance of horns and other male secondary sexual characters in female bovids. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 29, 403–451.

(12) Estes, R.D., (1991). The significance of horns and other male secondary sexual characters in female bovids. Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 29, 403–451.

(13) Stankowich, T. & Caro, T. (2009). Evolution of weaponry in female bovids. Proceedings of the Royal Society 276, 4329–4334.

(14) Roberts, S.C. (1996). The evolution of hornedness in female ruminants. Behaviour 133, 399–442.

[15] Winckler, C. (2009). Verhalten der Rinder. In S. Hoy (Hrsg.). Nutztierethologie. Stuttgart: Eugen Ulmer KG.

[16] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[17] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[18] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

[19] Taschke, A.C. (1995). Ethologische, physiologische und histologische Untersuchungen zur Schmerzbelastung der Rinder bei der Enthornung (behavioural, physiological and histological investigations of pain in cattle during dehorning). Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Zürich. 

[20] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[21] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

[22] Langman, V.A., Maloiy, G.M.O., Schmidt-Nielsen, K., Schroter, R.C. (1979). Nasal heat exchange in the giraffe and other large mammals. Respiration Physiology 37, 325-333. 

(23) Parés-Casanova, P.M. & Caballero, M., (2014). Possible tendency of polled cattle towards larger ears. Revista Colombiana Ciencias Pecuarias 27, 221–225.

[24] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

[25] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

Reasons for dehorning

Despite the multiple functions of horns, more and more cattle have to manage their lives without them (26). The main argument of the farmers is that horned cattle are a danger for themselves, their conspecifics, and the employees on the farms (27).

Especially with the introduction of loose housing, dehorning has become a supposedly necessary practice in cattle farming. Previously, cattle lived on pasture throughout the summer and in tethers during the winter.  They either had enough space to stay out of each other's way or were confined in such a way that there was no room for conflict (28).

In contrast, the economic viability of keeping unhorned cattle in loose housing is much less frequently discussed. This can be understood as the industry's strategy to market dehorning as a safety necessity.

Such a serious intervention in the integrity of cattle for purely economic interests could not be legitimized (29). A larger and better structured barn, more stable herd structures, and better human-animal relations could counteract the risk of injury in loose housing.

Social stress and injuries

Under semi-natural conditions, cows and their offspring form stable family groups. The bulls, for their part, join together in herds. In both groups, clear rules of behavior prevail: For example, the distance between animals or access to resources is regulated by status in the herd (30). This social structure allows conflict-free access to feed, resting places and other scarce resources (31).

Compared to the natural habitat of cattle, the situation in the loose housing is quite different. Space is limited and only a certain number of feeding and lying places are available. The animals cannot form a stable herd structure in the pen–individuals are repeatedly removed from the group, new ones are added, or entire groups are mixed together. Because of this instability, ranks must be repeatedly won through fighting and access to resources must be regulated in combative disputes (32).

Poor dimensioning and structuring of loose housing also put the animals in situations where they cannot maintain the individual distance to other conspecifics, which leads to aggression of the higher-ranking animal towards the other animal (33). Head butts can cause injuries to horned cattle in such situations (34).

Safety for the human beings

The safety of farmers is often used as an argument to justify dehorning. Horned cattle can severely injure humans through head movements, whether intentional or unintentional. However, studies show that such accidents occur mainly when cattle are confined, namely during tethering and untying (35), (36).

In addition, the majority of serious injuries inflicted on humans by cattle are not caused by the horns, but by the weight of the whole body (pushing against the wall or running over it) or by kicking out with the legs (37), (38). Thus, it is clear that a good human-animal relationship and good management with a suitable housing environment are much more relevant factors for the safety of the farmer than the removal of the horns.

Economy

The costs of commercial cattle farming can be reduced by keeping hornless cattle because they require less space (39). Savings in husbandry automatically lead to more profit.

The Swiss "Foundation for the Animal in Law" concludes in a legal opinion that there is no acceptable justification for dehorning. The mutilation, which entails a lifelong burden for the cattle, contradicts the basic principles of animal welfare law (40).

A dehorned cattle looks down at the ground. Only the upper part of the head is visible, so the dehorned part is in focus.
©Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

[26] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

[27] Waiblinger, S., Baars, T., & Menke, C. (2000). Understanding the cow—The central role of human animal relationship in keeping horned dairy cows in loose housing. In Proceedings of the 3rd workshop of the NAHWOA (Clermont-Ferrand, France (pp. 62-76).

[28] Sandoe, P. (2019). Hornless cattle- is gene editing the best solution? In Gene Editing and Animal Welfare

(29) Künzli, C. (o.D.) Tier im Recht: Ist das Enthornen von Kühen erlaubt? in Zeitlupe. Für Menschen mit Lebenserfahrung

[30] LAVES (2007). Tierschutzleitlinien für die Milchkuhhaltung. Niedersächsisches Ministerium für den ländlichen Raum, Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz.

[31] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[32] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[33] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[34] Waiblinger, S., Baars, T., & Menke, C. (2000). Understanding the cow—The central role of human animal relationship in keeping horned dairy cows in loose housing. In Proceedings of the 3rd workshop of the NAHWOA (Clermont-Ferrand, France (pp. 62-76).

[35] Menke, C., Waiblinger, S., Studnitz, M., Bestman, M. (2004). Mutilations in Organic Animal Husbandry: Dilemmas Involving Animal Welfare; Humans and Enviromental Protection. In. M. Vaarst, S. Roderick, V. Lund, W. Lockeretz. (Hrsg.) Animal Health and Welfare in Organic Agriculture.  S.163-183. Oxon, UK: CAB International,

(36) Menke, C., Waiblinger, S., Fölsch, D.W., Wiepkema, P.R. (1999). Social behaviour and injuries of horned cows in loose housing systems. Animal Welfare 8, 243-258.

(37) Hackl, F. (2004). Unfälle mit Rindern, Entwicklung – Ursachen- Prävention. Diplomarbeit, Universität für Bodenkultur, Wien, Österreich.

(38) Waiblinger, S. & Menke, C. (2002). Hörner als Risiko? Der Einfluss von Management und Mensch-Tier-Beziehung. (Horns as risk factor? Influence of management and human animal relationship.) In: 9.FREILAND-Tagung. Den Tieren gerecht werden – Neue Qualitäten der Tierhaltung. Wissenschaftliche Tagung am 26.September 2002, Wien, Freiland-Verband, 36-43.

[39] Stookey, J. M., & Goonewardene, L. A. (1996). A comparison of production traits and welfare implications between horned and polled beef bulls. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 76(1), 1-5.

(40) Bolliger, G., Spring, A., Rüttimann, A. (2011). Enthornen von Rindern unter dem Aspekt des Schutzes der Tierwürde. Juristische Medien AG. Zürich. Basel. Genf

Dehorning without anesthesia

Dehorning is understood to mean both the destruction of the horn systems in calves younger than two months and dehorning at a later stage, when the horn systems have already grown onto the skull. The latter is a much more severe procedure (41) and is therefore only allowed in Germany for health reasons and with anesthesia (42). Under other circumstances, it violates the amputation prohibition of section 6 of the German Animal Welfare Act (43).

According to section 5 of the Animal Welfare Act, dehorning without anesthesia may be performed by farmers themselves up to the sixth week of life (44). There are currently three common methods for the procedure (45):

Thermal method - In this method, a ring-shaped burning rod is placed around the horn bud and rotated back and forth for 10 to 15 seconds. This causes the blood supply to be cut off, causing the horn system to die over the following three to four weeks. During the procedure, calves exhibit excessive escape behavior, indicating severe pain (46). This method represents the most common application in Northern and Central Europe and also in Germany (47). Experts consider it to be the gentlest method currently available (48).

Chemical method - With the help of an etching pencil or acid pastes, the horn systems are cauterized. Incorrect use often results in chemical burns to the eyes or other surrounding body parts (49). The method has been banned in Germany since 2015 because the corresponding pastes and pens are not approved in this country.

Surgical method - The horn bud is peeled out with a special knife, often resulting in bleeding and infection (50). Nevertheless, this method is not prohibited in Germany. However, since it is more stressful for the animals compared to the thermal method, it is to be considered inadmissible according to the pain minimization requirement of section 5 para.1 p. 6 in the German Animal Welfare Act (51).

Number of dehorned cattle

A group of scientists (52) estimates from expert interviews that in Germany at least 80 percent of all calves intended for milk production are dehorned and about seven percent of adult cows undergo dehorning.

As mentioned above, dehorning in adult cows requires a veterinary indication. This means that the procedure is only legal if a disease of the animal justifies it (53).

Risks of disease or injury resulting from the intended use of the animal, as well as intended facilitation of husbandry or use, are not grounds for veterinary indication (54). Such a case would be, for example, a fracture of the horn cone or abnormal horn growth with the risk of horn tip ingrowth, i.e., causes associated with health risks for the animal.

The fact that every 15th adult cow has its horns removed can by no means be attributed to health reasons. Many interventions are carried out by the farms due to the conversion from tethered to loose housing and the purchase of horn-bearing animals into a dehorned herd. These are illegal dehorning operations.

If you click [SHOW SENSITIVE CONTENT], you will see a cow being dehorned.

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[41]  Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

(42) LAVES (2007). Tierschutzleitlinien für die Milchkuhhaltung. Niedersächsisches Ministerium für den ländlichen Raum, Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz

[43] Hirt, A., Maisack, C. & Moritz, J.(2016). Tierschutzgesetz. Kommentar. 3. Auflage. München: Verlag Franz Vahlen.

[44] Hirt, A., Maisack, C. & Moritz, J.(2016). Tierschutzgesetz. Kommentar. 3. Auflage. München: Verlag Franz Vahlen.

(45] Hoy, S. (2006). Rinderhaltung. In S. Hoy, M. Gauly & J. Krieter (Hrsg.). Nutztierhaltung und-hygiene (11-72). Stuttgart: Eugen Ulmer KG.

[46] Stafford, K. J., & Mellor, D. J. (2005). Dehorning and disbudding distress and its alleviation in calves. The veterinary journal, 169(3), 337-349.

[47] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

[48] Hirt, A., Maisack, C. & Moritz, J.(2016). Tierschutzgesetz. Kommentar. 3. Auflage. München: Verlag Franz Vahlen.

[49] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[50] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[51] Hirt, A., Maisack, C. & Moritz, J.(2016). Tierschutzgesetz. Kommentar. 3. Auflage. München: Verlag Franz Vahlen.

[52] Cozzi, G., Prevedello, P., Boukha, A., Winckler, C., Knierim, U., Pentelescu, O., Windig, J., Mirabito, L., Kling Eveillard, F., Dockes, A.C., Veissier, I., Velarde, A., Fuentes, C., Dalmau, A. (2009). Report on dehorning practices across EU member states: a quantitative survey of the current practices. Livestock Science, 179, 4-11.

[52] LAVES (2007). Tierschutzleitlinien für die Milchkuhhaltung. Niedersächsisches Ministerium für den ländlichen Raum, Ernährung, Landwirtschaft und Verbraucherschutz.

[53] Wiesner, E., & Ribbeck, R. (2000). Lexikon der Veterinärmedizin.[A-Z], 4.Auflage. Stuttgart: Enke im Hippokrates Verlag GmbH.

[54] Hirt, A., Maisack, C. & Moritz, J.(2016). Tierschutzgesetz. Kommentar. 3. Auflage. München: Verlag Franz Vahlen.

Problems due to dehorning

The removal of the horns, as well as the burning out of the horn bud (55), produce the following problems:

● It is associated with considerable pain during the procedure, which leads, among other things, to greater fearfulness of the animals towards humans and thus to a poorer human-animal relationship (56).

● It continues to cause pain for a long time after the procedure and while the wound is healing.

● It destroys nerves and can lead to nerve growths that cause lifelong phantom limb pain.

● It increases the risk of infection, as the procedure leaves a wound. When dehorning adult cattle, this risk is increased again because the procedure opens the frontal sinus.

● It implies a violation of the animal's integrity and represents an adaptation of the animal to the husbandry environment that could instead be circumvented by adapting the husbandry system to the animal.

Effective analgesia is hardly common in Germany

In addition to the above-mentioned aspects, the elimination of pain during the procedure is another problematic issue. According to the Animal Welfare Act, all possibilities must be exhausted "to reduce pain or suffering of the animals" (57). However, according to the Scientific Advisory Board for Agricultural Policy, this is not implemented in practice (58).

According to a survey of 226 dairy cow farmers, in only 0.7 percent of cases does the calf receive effective analgesia with local anesthesia and painkillers during dehorning. In 49 percent of cases, sedation is used, but this only has a pain-relieving effect, and in six percent, local anesthesia with or without sedation is used (59).

The fact that calves do not have to be anesthetized during dehorning is an exceptional regulation and, according to the already above mentioned paragraph 5 of the Animal Welfare Act, incomprehensible. There are already effective and easy-to-perform options available to avoid pain during and after the procedure (60).

Implementation of analgesia in Europe

The Council of Europe regulation stipulates that calves older than four weeks must be anesthetized during dehorning. In Europe, this regulation is implemented differently. In Bulgaria, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden and Slovenia there is an obligation to anesthetize without exception. A limited stunning requirement applies in Ireland, the United Kingdom and Austria. Finland and the Czech Republic implement the Council of Europe's age recommendation exactly, while Germany has an age limit that is two weeks higher. Most countries in Southern and Eastern Europe have no regulation on this (61), (62).

Genetic dehorning

While in 2009 there were just five percent of cattle farms across the EU that kept genetically dehorned cattle (63), Grupp estimated at that time that the Bavarian Fleckvieh population would already be genetically hornless to a large extent by 2020 (64). This prediction wasn’t realized, as genetic manipulation and breeding for hornlessness turned out to be not as easy as it first appeared.

Nevertheless, genetic hornlessness is spreading rapidly in both conventional and organic agriculture (65). Krogmeier and Luntz examined 21,657 randomly selected cows in Bavaria last year. They concluded that 4.1 percent of the so-called brown cattle and 11.2 percent of the so-called spotted cattle in conventional agriculture were born genetically hornless. In organic farming, the figure is as high as 17.1 percent of cows (66).

In cattle, genetic hornlessness is inherited dominantly (67). This means that if a cow carries one or two copies (alleles) of the hornless mutation, it will not form horns. Horns, on the other hand, are only inherited in a homozygous manner (68). This means that the allele to form the horn must be passed on by both the mother and the father. If it is passed on by only one parent, dominant inherited hornlessness will prevail.

With classical selective breeding, a lot of time is needed to breed a genetically hornless herd of cattle because the generation time is several years. Genetic engineering methods circumvent this (69). In 2016, two genetically hornless bulls were "produced" by genetic engineering methods for the first time (70).

However, there are undesirable side effects of genetic hornlessnessc. For example, genetically hornless cattle occasionally develop so-called wacky horns (71). Bacterial DNA containing a gene for antibiotic resistance was found in the genome of one of the genetically hornless bulls mentioned above (72). In addition to such unpredictability, the "genetic performance potential" of the animals is also considered to be poorer. Increased inbreeding in the population is another unresolved issue (73).

Alleged solution

Genetic hornlessness seems to solve many problems related to dehorning: The method lowers production costs compared to dehorning. The labor involved in dehorning is eliminated and the health of the cattle is generally improved as they experience less acute stress (74). In addition to lower production costs, cattle are also spared a painful and traumatic procedure, which promotes their welfare and the human-animal bond.

However, breeding for hornlessness jeopardizes genetic diversity and violates the integrity and dignity of cattle (75). Also, calves that are genetically engineered increase the risk that the unborn fetus will suffer or that it will be born with deformities (76). The unborn calf could suffer during the latter part of pregnancy: There is an increased risk of embryonic and fetal loss, as well as deformities and early death after birth (77). For the first two genetically engineered bulls mentioned above, the researchers needed 26 embryos and an unknown number of dams until finally two of them survived the 60th day of life (78).

[55] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[56] Richter, T. & Karrer, M. (2006). Rinderhaltung. In T. Richter (Hrsg.), Krankheitsursache Haltung. Beurteilung von Nutztierställen–Ein tierärztlicher Leitfaden (64-111). Stuttgart: Enke Verlag.

[57] Hirt, A., Maisack, C. & Moritz, J.(2016). Tierschutzgesetz. Kommentar. 3. Auflage. München: Verlag Franz Vahlen.

[58] Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik beim BMEL (2015). Wege zu einer gesellschaftlich akzeptierten Nutztierhaltung. Gutachten. Berlin.

[59] Irrgang, N. (2013). Horns in cattle-implications of keeping horned cattle or not. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Universität Kassel.

[60] Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik beim BMEL (2015). Wege zu einer gesellschaftlich akzeptierten Nutztierhaltung. Gutachten. Berlin.

(61) Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik beim BMEL (2015). Wege zu einer gesellschaftlich akzeptierten Nutztierhaltung. Gutachten. Berlin.

[62] Cozzi, G., Prevedello, P., Boukha, A., Winckler, C., Knierim, U., Pentelescu, O., Windig, J., Mirabito, L., Kling Eveillard, F., Dockes, A.C., Veissier, I., Velarde, A., Fuentes, C., Dalmau, A. (2009). Report on dehorning practices across EU member states: a quantitative survey of the current practices. Livestock Science, 179, 4-11;

[63] Cozzi, G., Prevedello, P., Boukha, A., Winckler, C., Knierim, U., Pentelescu, O., Windig, J., Mirabito, L., Kling Eveillard, F., Dockes, A.C., Veissier, I., Velarde, A., Fuentes, C., Dalmau, A. (2009). Report on dehorning practices across EU member states: a quantitative survey of the current practices. Livestock Science, 179, 4-11 

[64] Grupp, T. (2009). Hornloses Milchvieh 2020: eine züchterische Vision für Österreich, Deutschland und die Schweiz. 16. Freiland-Tagung: Die Zukunft der Rinder ist hornlos, 23. September 2009. 

[65] Johns, J., Mück, U., Sixt, D., Kremer, H., Poddey, E., Knierim, U. (2019). Werkzeugkasten für die Haltung horntragender Milchkühe im Laufstall. Universität Kassel

[66] Krogmeier, D., & Luntz, B. (2020). Untersuchungen zur Entwicklung der Zucht auf natürliche Hornlosigkeit bei Braunvieh und Fleckvieh in Bayern. Angewandte Forschung und Entwicklung für den ökologischen Landbau in Bayern Öko-Landbautag2020, 33-37.

[67] Scheper, C. (2017). Horntragende Rinderzucht sichern. Eine Status-Quo-Analyse der Zucht hornloser Milchrinder. Lebendige Erde, 2017(1), 30-33.

[68] Burren, A., Wiedemar, N., Drögemüller, C., & Jörg, H. (2015). Genetik der Hornlosigkeit beim Rind. Agrarforschung Schweiz, 6(2), 72-75.

[69] Sandoe, P. (2019). Hornless cattle- is gene editing the best solution? In Gene Editing and Animal Welfare, Oxford. https://blog.practicalethics.ox. ac.uk/2019/11/hornless-cattle-is-gene-editing-the-best-solution/ [10.12.2019]

[70] Carlson, D. F., Lancto, C. A., Zang, B., Kim, E. S., Walton, M., Oldeschulte, D. & Fahrenkrug, S. C. (2016). Production of hornless dairy cattle from genome-edited cell lines. Nature biotechnology, 34(5), 479.

[71] Burren, A., Wiedemar, N., Drögemüller, C., & Jörg, H. (2015). Genetik der Hornlosigkeit beim Rind. Agrarforschung Schweiz, 6(2), 72-75.

[72] Sandoe, P. (2019). Hornless cattle- is gene editing the best solution? In Gene Editing and Animal Welfare, Oxford. https://blog.practicalethics.ox. ac.uk/2019/11/hornless-cattle-is-gene-editing-the-best-solution/ [10.12.2019].

[73] Windig, J. J., Hoving-Bolink, R. A., & Veerkamp, R. F. (2015). Breeding for polledness in Holstein cattle. Livestock Sciences 179, 96–101.

[74] Stookey, J. M., & Goonewardene, L. A. (1996). A comparison of production traits and welfare implications between horned and polled beef bulls. Canadian Journal of Animal Science, 76(1), 1-5.

[75] Johns, J., Mück, U., Sixt, D., Kremer, H., Poddey, E., Knierim, U. (2019). Werkzeugkasten für die Haltung horntragender Milchkühe im Laufstall. Universität Kassel

[76] Eriksson, S., Jonas, E., Rydhmer, L., & Röcklinsberg, H. (2018). Invited review: Breeding and ethical perspectives on genetically modified and genome edited cattle. Journal of dairy science, 101(1), 1-17.

[77] Eriksson, S.(2020) Persönliche E-Mail Korrespondenz. 

[78] Carlson, D. F., Lancto, C. A., Zang, B., Kim, E. S., Walton, M., Oldeschulte, D. & Fahrenkrug, S. C. (2016). Production of hornless dairy cattle from genome-edited cell lines. Nature biotechnology, 34(5), 479.

Arguments against hornlessness

“The basis of species-appropriate animal husbandry is to take into account the biology of the animals and to enable their natural behavior. The integrity of the animals is also part of this. Removing body parts to adapt animals to the housing conditions cannot satisfy”. (79)

Dehorning causes pain

Dehorning is a painful procedure for both calves and adult cattle that does not benefit the animals, their health, or their welfare (80). It is used to adapt the animals to the husbandry system of the farm (81). Even if the procedure is performed under anesthesia, the animals often continue to suffer chronic pain for months, some for the rest of their lives.

In most cases, no pain treatment is given at all. This is partly because of the cost and partly because cattle often try to hide their pain, making it difficult to detect. Many farmers are therefore of the opinion that pain elimination during and after the procedure would not be necessary (82).

The pain caused by dehorning is not only unpleasant for the animal on a physical-sensory level. Studies show that in the post-dehorning period, calves are more likely to assume a worse outcome than a better outcome in ambiguous situations, thus assessing them more pessimistically.

From human research, we know that emotional state is closely linked to cognitive processes. Depressed people assess information more negatively than people with a positive basic mood. Therefore, the emotional state of calves can be expected to deteriorate after dehorning (83), (84).

During this negative procedure, which is associated with pain and stress, the animal has close contact with humans. As a result, the animal-human relationship deteriorates significantly (85). A study shows that dehorned cattle keep a greater distance to humans even many months after the procedure than their conspecifics who did not have to experience the procedure. The Scientific Advisory Board at the Federal Ministry of Agriculture considers dehorning to be an animal welfare problem (86).

Cut communication

Without horns, communication among cattle is impeded. It thus also interferes with the formation and maintenance of a stable social structure, which is undoubtedly difficult enough in the unsteady living conditions of cattle in modern agriculture (87). As a result, rank fights (88), (89)and increased rank changes occur more frequently in unhorned herds. In horned herds, lower-ranking animals maintain the individual distance better and can also be driven away more quickly by higher-ranking animals, both when lying down and when eating. The result is fewer head butting altercations (90).

Dehorning makes existing problems in husbandry and management less visible because the altercations between cattle do not leave injuries as easily detectable as would be the case with horned cattle. However, the stress on the cattle due to poorer management does not disappear because of this, it is just not as easy to detect.  Avoiding this intervention allows the farmer to react more quickly to problems (91).

Horned animals are not more aggressive

Contrary to the common assumption that horned cows are more aggressive than hornless cows, exactly the opposite is true. Because of the unpleasant experience of being bumped by a horn, animals are more likely to take threats seriously and prefer to avoid physical confrontation. Thus, incidents are less frequent in horned herds than in unhorned herds when they have sufficient space available (92), (93). However, horns are not the only determining factor for agonistic behavior in a herd, but also factors such as herd size (94), human-animal relationship (95) and group rearing of calves (96). This shows how important management is for calmness in a cattle herd.

Violation of integrity and dignity

Dehorning, apart from the pain, represents an interference with the integrity and dignity of the animal (97). These are important concepts in the debate over the welfare of nonhuman animals. They go beyond pathocentrism in that they do not take physical suffering as the measure of animal welfare, but rather the physical and psychological integrity of the animal as a whole. Through this shift in perspective, genetic dehorning gains an animal ethical relevance (98).

“Integrity” refers to both the physical and psychological integrity of the animal and the ability to behave in a manner appropriate to the species (99). It also includes respect for non-human animals, not defining them by their functions for human purposes. They should be seen as living beings that experience their own lives (100) and not as so-called farm animals.

Switzerland is the only European country so far to have enshrined the concept of the dignity of non-human animals in its constitution. Dignity is described in it as follows:

"The dignity of the animal is defined by the Animal Protection Act as the intrinsic value of the animal, which must be respected when dealing with it. The dignity of the animal is disregarded if a burden on the animal cannot be justified by overriding interests. The animal is considered to be burdened if pain, suffering or damage is inflicted on it. It must not be put in fear or be humiliated. Further, it is considered a disregard for animal dignity if there is profound interference with the animal's appearance or capabilities or if it is instrumentalized excessively." (101)

Looking at dehorning now through the lens of these two concepts, one concludes that both dignity and integrity are violated. The removal of horn systems and horns clearly interferes with the described appearance and capabilities of the animals and disregards animal dignity according to the Swiss definition (102). Furthermore,dehorning is a physical assault (103). Since the intervention is not performed for medical reasons, but serves the economically profitable use of the animals, physical and psychological limits are exceeded with the intervention and thus the animal integrity is violated.

A brown cattle with horns is walking in a pasture. In the photo you can see only the front part of the animal.
©Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

[79] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[80] Benson, G. J. (2004). Pain in farm animals: nature, recognition, and management. In Benson & Rollin (Hrsg.), The Well‐Being of Farm Animals: Challenges and Solutions, (61-84).Iowa: Blackwell Publishing.

[81] Waiblinger, S., Baars, T., & Menke, C. (2000). Understanding the cow—The central role of human animal relationship in keeping horned dairy cows in loose housing. In Proceedings of the 3rd workshop of the NAHWOA (Clermont-Ferrand, France (pp. 62-76).

[82] Peinhofer, V. C. (2013). Umfrage zur Schmerzbeurteilung und Schmerzbehandlung beim Rind durch bayerische Tierärzte und Landwirte. Unveröffentlichte Dissertation. Ludwig-Maximilian-Universität, München.

(83) Neave, H. W. (2013). Cognitive bias as a method of pain assessment following hot-iron dehorning of dairy calves (Doctoral dissertation, University of British Columbia).

(84) Neave, H. W., Daros, R. R., Costa, J. H., von Keyserlingk, M. A., & Weary, D. M. (2013). Pain and pessimism: Dairy calves exhibit negative judgement bias following hot-iron disbudding. PLoS One, 8(12)

[85] Richter, T. & Karrer, M. (2006). Rinderhaltung. In T. Richter (Hrsg.), Krankheitsursache Haltung. Beurteilung von Nutztierställen–Ein tierärztlicher Leitfaden (64-111). Stuttgart: Enke Verlag.

[86] Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik beim BMEL (2015). Wege zu einer gesellschaftlich akzeptierten Nutztierhaltung. Gutachten. Berlin.

[87] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

(88) Menke, C., Waiblinger, S., Fölsch, D.W., Wiepkema, P.R. (1999). Social behaviour and injuries of horned cows in loose housing systems. Animal Welfare 8, 243-258.

[89] Graf, B. (1974). Aktivitäten von enthornten und nicht enthornten Milchkühen auf der Weide. Diplomarbeit, ETH Zurich, Schweiz;Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[90] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

[91] Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik beim BMEL (2015). Wege zu einer gesellschaftlich akzeptierten Nutztierhaltung. Gutachten. Berlin.

(92) Menke, C.A.(1996). Laufstallhaltung mit behornten Milchkühen (keeping horned cows in loose housing). Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, Schweiz.

[93] Graf, B. (1974). Aktivitäten von enthornten und nicht enthornten Milchkühen auf der Weide. Diplomarbeit, ETH Zurich, Schweiz; Menke, C.A.(1996). Laufstallhaltung mit behornten Milchkühen (keeping horned cows in loose housing). Unveröffentlichte Dissertation, Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule Zürich, Schweiz. 

[94] Bøe, K.E., Farevik, G.(2003). Grouping and social preferences in calves, heifers and cows. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 80, 175-190. 

[95] Waiblinger, S. (1996). Die Mensch-Tier-Beziehung bei der Laufstallhaltung von behornten Milchkühen (human-animal relationship in horned dairy cows in loose housing). Tierhaltung 24, Universität/Gesamthochschule Kassel, Deutschland. 

[96] Bøe, K.E., Farevik, G.(2003). Grouping and social preferences in calves, heifers and cows. Applied Animal Behaviour Science 80, 175-190. 

[97] Menke, C. & Waiblinger, S.(1999). Behornte Kühe im Laufstall - gewußt wie. Lindau, Schweiz: Landwirtschaftliche Beratungszentrale Lindau (LBL).

(98) Schmidt, K. (2015). Integrität. In A. Ferrari & K. Petrus (Hrsg). Lexikon der Mensch-Tier-Beziehungen. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

[99] Wissenschaftlicher Beirat für Agrarpolitik beim BMEL (2015). Wege zu einer gesellschaftlich akzeptierten Nutztierhaltung. Gutachten. Berlin.

[100] Röcklinsberg, H., Gamborg, C., & Gjerris, M. (2014). A case for integrity: gains from including more than animal welfare in animal ethics committee deliberations. Laboratory animals, 48(1), 61-71.

(101) Swiss Animal Protection Act, 2005

(102) Bolliger, G., Spring, A., Rüttimann, A. (2011). Enthornen von Rindern unter dem Aspekt des Schutzes der Tierwürde. Juristische Medien AG. Zürich. Basel. Genf

[103] Schmidt, K. (2015). Integrität. In A. Ferrari & K. Petrus (Hrsg). Lexikon der Mensch-Tier-Beziehungen. Bielefeld: transcript Verlag.

Current political developments

Although the scientific advisory board of the German Federal Ministry of Agriculture classifies dehorning as an animal welfare problem, it is not in itself questioned at the political level. Instead, measures to reduce pain are being discussed there. In Germany, anesthesia for calves is not mandatory until six weeks after birth, and there are no plans to change the law in this regard. Instead, the German government is focusing on expanding the breeding of hornless cattle (104).

In Switzerland, on the other hand, there has been an ongoing debate about dehorning for several years. The issue owes its attention to the "Horned Cow Initiative" that advocates rewarding farmers for keeping horned cattle or goats. Although the inititive does not seek to achieve a ban, but rather relies on incentives and voluntariness, the proposal to promote horned animals has already been rejected by the National Council, the Federal Council, the Council of States, and finally in 2018 by the Swiss people in a referendum (105).

This outcome also foreshadows bad things for cattle outside of Switzerland. If such an initiative is rejected in Switzerland, the country where "the cow with its idiosyncratic horns [...] is the number one advertising medium" (106), it does not look any better for rethinking dehorning in other countries.

(104) Bundesregierung (2019). Tierschutzbericht der Bundesregierung 2019. Bericht über den Stand der Entwicklung des Tierschutzes.

(105) IG Hornkuh (2022). https://hornkuh.ch/de/home

(106) Burtscher, M. (2018). Geld, weil die Kuh ihre Hörner behalten durfte? Ein Pro & Contra. Tagblatt

To take away

Most cattle in Germany have to live without their horns. This practice is justified by the argument that safety for the cattle and the people who work with them is improved with dehorning. This argument has already been refuted in numerous publications and by experienced cattle farmers yet the discourse keeps revolving around it. The economic profitability of dehorning is concealed.

The victims are the cattle. The procedure of dehorning causes acute and chronic pain, carries an increased risk of infection, and does lasting damage to the human-animal bond. Without the horns, whether removed by surgery or already genetically non-inherited, the animals are severely limited in their social and grooming behaviors. The integrity of the animal is violated by dehorning.

The concept of animal integrity must gain prominence in the animal welfare debate. A pathocentric view, i.e., focusing solely on suffering, does not capture the welfare of non-human animals in their entirety.

There is little discourse on dehorning in Germany and some of the voices are very pessimistic. But it is an important issue where there should be a rethinking soon. When there are only genetically hornless cattle, it will be too late for that.

A cattle with only one small horn looks frontally into the camera. The cattle stand on a meadow and from the mouth hangs grass.
©Jo-Anne McArthur / We Animals Media

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