It is likely cattle feel pain in similar ways to humans, Jon Huxley from Nottingham Vet School told a packed audience at last week’s British Mastitis Conference.

“A cow is a stoical creature and there has been evolutionary pressure over the years for weak or sick animals not to show pain or discomfort,” he said. This presents challenges for farmers and vets when assessing pain in conditions, such as mastitis.

Dr Huxley examined the role of analgesics or non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) as a drug to reduce pain and sometimes swelling, in cows with mastitis. “How painful is mastitis and when should pain relief be administered?” he asked. “More than 2300 UK vets were sent a survey questionnaire and the results revealed that nearly 100% said cows benefit from receiving some NSAID pain relief when they have mastitis, while 90% said cows recover more quickly when this type of drug was administered.

Admitting their use is commonplace in severe cases of mastitis, those graded as level three by vets, he said these drugs have a role to play in grade one and two mastitis (grade 1 = changes in milk, grade 2 = changes to the affected quarter).

Studies into how cows respond to pain show those with grade 1 and 2 mastitis have a higher heart rate and respiratory rate than cows without mastitis. “This means they are in pain,” he said.

“Have the conversation with your vet,” he urged. “Understand how painful mastitis can be and look at the different NSAIDS available with a view to reducing pain in your herd and helping cows recover more quickly.”