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A Novocaine shortage in the UK is affecting an unexpected group: farm animals

The UK is one of the few places in the world that bothers with pain treatment for farm animals. Now they’re running out.

Pigs packed in tightly on an Iowa farm.
Hogs are raised on the farm of Ted Fox on July 25, 2018, near Osage, Iowa. According to the Iowa Pork Producers Association, Iowa is the number one pork producing state in the US and the top state for pork exports. 
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Kelsey Piper is a senior writer at Future Perfect, Vox’s effective altruism-inspired section on the world’s biggest challenges. She explores wide-ranging topics like climate change, artificial intelligence, vaccine development, and factory farms, and also writes the Future Perfect newsletter.

You’ve probably heard of Novocaine, the local and regional anesthetic. It’s commonly used at the dentist, as it sets in quickly and doesn’t last too long.

You might not have known that it’s also used for animals — as the main pain management solution for major surgeries including castration.

Right now, the United Kingdom is facing a severe Novocaine shortage. It shouldn’t affect humans too much — there are alternative anesthetics — but veterinarians are warning it could have an “acute impact” on animals. They warn that farm animals could end up undergoing castration, dehorning, Caesarean sections, and other agonizing procedures without adequate pain relief.

After a plant failure at a major supplier and a springtime surge in demand, the British Veterinarian’s Association says the widely used anesthetic is now barely available at all. British Veterinary Association President Simon Doherty told British newspapers that some vet practices had been able to purchase only a small fraction of the anesthetic they required.

Castration, dehorning, tail cutting, and other procedures are performed on farm animals to make them easier to handle and to improve carcass quality. Pigs distressed by their conditions will often bite their own tails; the cheapest way to manage that behavior is to cut off their tails. (The European Union mandates farmers first try to improve the animals’ conditions, which will usually resolve the problem, but the rule is often ignored.) Similarly, chickens packed into a tight space may peck at each other; slicing off the edge of the beak makes that harder for them.

In the United Kingdom, pain relief is normally used during procedures on animals like castration — at least, when supplies haven’t run out. In the United States, no forms of pain relief are routinely used — and in fact, until 2017, no forms of pain control were legally approved by the FDA for use on livestock animals. In 2017, the FDA approved the first such treatment — for the painful cattle disease foot rot — but virtually all painful procedures are still carried out without pain relief.

Even in countries that have a wider range of pain relief options available, they’re frequently not used, researchers have found, because it’s cheaper to do procedures without anesthetic.

With more than 50 billion animals raised and killed for food each year, many of them in crowded industrial farms, animal pain isn’t just a sideshow — it’s a pressing, urgent concern. Britain is unusual in taking it seriously enough that shortfalls like these are even considered a problem.

We’re still learning all the effects of pain in livestock

The anesthetic in question is called procaine hydrochloride (Novocaine is the brand name for it). It’s widely used in veterinary medicine so that animals don’t undergo agonizing procedures without any pain relief, and it’s particularly widely used in farm animal medicine.

The shortage is reportedly due to a failure at a plant that supplies the raw material to make the anesthetic. The British government says that supplies should be widely available again in May.

Most people don’t have any trouble believing that animals feel pain. But pain in cows, sheep, and chickens might be routinely underestimated — and not just because it’s cheaper not to bother with pain relief.

According to a 2018 summary of pain research in Agriculture, researchers have mostly tried to check whether procedures cause animals pain by looking at the long-term effects on their behavior. For example, we know castration makes lambs less likely to engage in “play behavior” well afterward and that “debudding” — destroying the horn-producing part of the head — in calves does the same thing. Animals with injuries eat less, move less, and interact with their children less. That suggests some lingering pain.

But lambs and calves are prey animals — and prey animals have evolved to aggressively hide signs that they’re in pain, which put them in danger. That means that measuring behavioral changes allows only an incomplete picture of what the animals are feeling. More sophisticated measures are being developed — for example, software tools that try to read pain from an animal’s face — but there are still open questions, such as whether castration and dehorning cause long-lasting pain or only acute pain.

In theory, farming should work better with better pain relief. Pain weakens immune response, so it can make animals sicker; it makes animals eat less and grow more slowly, which isn’t convenient for farmers; and it leads animals to reject their offspring. But pain relief for livestock keeps lagging — whether, like in the current situation in the UK, because limited supply chains lead to sudden medication shortages, or, like in the US, because virtually no industrial farms bother with pain management in the first place.

This is a big deal, because more than 50 billion animals are raised and slaughtered for agriculture annually. Researching new pain medications that are safe for livestock, and making existing medications consistently available so veterinarians don’t have to fight to maintain a supply, could make a big difference for those animals.

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