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When it comes to pain relief, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander — or, rather, what’s good for the farmer is good for their stock. Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Nanoscale BioPhotonics (CNBP) are teaming up with the livestock industry to ensure animals lead happier, healthier and chronic pain-free lives.

The agricultural sector is paying increasingly greater attention to animal wellbeing, driven in part by demand for ethical meat and dairy production, said Prof Mark Hutchinson, who leads the CNBP and the University of Adelaide’s Neuroimmunopharmacology lab.

‘And what’s clear is Australian farmers want to do what’s best for their animals based on the evidence and the resources that are available,’ he said. ‘We know persistent pain exists in livestock, but it’s probably an under-recognised and under-quantified issue in that setting.’

Australia is one of the world’s largest exporters of beef, mutton, lamb and dairy. The beef industry has been part of the nation’s farming landscape since the first herds were introduced in 1788. Some 230 years later, Australia is home to more than 67 million sheep, 26 million beef cattle and 1.5 million dairy cows.

Keeping livestock usually involves animal husbandry practices such as castration. And just as humans can develop long-term, or chronic, pain after surgery or an injury, so too can animals, Prof Hutchinson said.

We know this because chronic pain changes the structure of the animal’s central nervous system, he adds.

‘The cool thing about our research is that we’re now able to start exploring the brain and spinal cord to ask, what is the accumulated lifetime pain experience of the animal that is represented within the animal brain and spinal cord?’

To ensure livestock live a life that’s as healthy and pain-free as possible, Prof Hutchinson and his colleagues are working with farmers to stop chronic pain from developing in the first place and, if it’s already established in the brain, provide appropriate treatment.

Herd animal hurdles

There are, of course, challenges. Like people, some farm animals seem to be more susceptible to developing chronic pain following an injury than others. Unlike us, though, they can’t pop over to the doctor and tell them there’s a problem.

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An objective measure of pain, using specific blood biomarkers, could help identify the amount of discomfort being experienced and which cells in the central nervous system are responsible.

Another complication with livestock is infrequent contact with humans or ‘touch points’. Beef cattle, for instance, only encounter humans a handful of times, and those are months apart.

‘So how can we set this animal up the best for its entire life by intervening, at most, two times?’ Prof Hutchinson said. ‘And that intervention needs to be damn effective, and only cost a few cents to a couple of dollars per animal to be deployable, economically rational treatment.’

Lessons from human medicine

Veterinary medicine could learn plenty from mistakes made in human pain management, which has treated chronic and acute pain the same way, fuelling the opioid crisis.

‘We tried to cover chronic pain with the wrong drugs, and we’re now trying to undo that problem in human medicine,’ Prof Hutchinson said.

‘But I can see veterinary medicine is heading in that direction.’

To steer animal pain management onto a more effective course, Prof Hutchinson has for the past two years been working with colleagues at the Roseworthy Campus of the University of Adelaide and the Animal Welfare Collaborative to engage with animal welfare organisations, such as PETA and Zoos Victoria, and farmers.

Ensuring all parties are on board is crucial to the success of what he calls ‘wellbeing research’.

‘We’re saying to them we’re trying to do the best for the animal, so let’s talk about science,’ he said.

Early studies are already to starting to look for animal discomfort and intervene with ‘a single hit at that perfect window in time when the injury has just occurred,’ he explains.

Such interventions benefit not only the animals, but also the farmer. A happier, healthier animal is a more productive one. The extra meat or milk could justify spending time and money on treatment from a business perspective.

‘We’re really levelling the playing field for the farmer and the animal,’ Prof Hutchinson said.

‘If it’s good enough for a human, then it’s probably good enough for the animal, especially if that animal is intentionally in our care and we’re using it for some purpose.’