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Addressing pain caused by mulesing in sheep. (Special Issue: Pain in farm animals.)

By A. D. Fisher

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The surgical operation of mulesing cuts wool-bearing and wrinkled skin from the perineal region and adjoining hindquarters of Australian Merino sheep, and has been shown in combination with tail docking to provide significantly enhanced protection against flystrike for the remainder of the animal's life. There is strong evidence that mulesing is a painful procedure, and its medium term future is doubtful in the face of animal welfare campaigns and societal expectations. Post-surgery analgesia for mulesing is available in the form of a topical anaesthetic treatment that provides amelioration of animal behavioural and physiological responses for some hours after the procedure. However, the topical anaesthetic alone does not provide analgesia during the operation, and its duration of action is less than the indicative period of pain and discomfort that follows mulesing. Greater analgesic coverage of mulesing-induced pain would appear to require the use of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug such as carprofen in combination with topical anaesthesia, but most attention on addressing the mulesing issue is now focused on the development of non-surgical mulesing alternatives, breeding sheep that do not require mulesing, and targeting the fly and its larvae through an integrated pest management (IPM) approach. Non-surgical approaches to achieving a similar conformation change to that induced by mulesing have included research on topical and intradermal administration of chemicals and bioactive agents to cause skin scarring, stretching and depilation. Agents incorporating collagenase and quaternary ammonium compounds have been evaluated and rejected, including on animal welfare grounds. Intradermal sodium lauryl sulfate administration appears to induce a relatively mild behavioural and physiological response, but further evaluation and efficacy testing are required. A physical treatment aimed at achieving a similar result to surgical mulesing involves the placement of clips to remove clamped skin folds through ischaemia. The clip treatment is commercially available, and has been shown to induce only minimal animal discomfort and inflammatory responses. Early efficacy research suggests that breech flystrike rates may not be substantially improved by the clip procedure, and its viability as a long-term replacement for mulesing remains to be determined. The availability of chemical preventative treatments that provide sheep with up to 4 months' protection against flystrike, combined with strategies such as increased crutching (shearing dirty wool off the breech), would allow many producers to cease mulesing. However, this would be at a greater cost and with the likely exit of a proportion from the industry, unless wool value reflected a substantive price differential for non-mulesed flocks. The genetic selection of Merino sheep that do not require post-birth modification to their breech skin, in combination with a strategic IPM program, would appear to provide the most sustainable approach to managing breech flystrike in the Australian Merino. Such a breeding program requires a sustained commitment over at least a 10-year period, and is not helped by attitudes of some within the industry that conventional mulesing does not have a finite lifespan as a flystrike control option.

Date 2011
Publication Title Applied Animal Behaviour Science
Volume 135
Issue 3
Pages 232-240
ISBN/ISSN 0168-1591
DOI 10.1016/j.applanim.2011.10.019
Language English
Author Address Faculty of Veterinary Science and Animal Welfare Science Centre, University of Melbourne, Victoria 3010, Australia.
Cite this work

Researchers should cite this work as follows:

  1. Ammonia
  2. Analgesia
  3. Anesthesia
  4. Animal anatomy
  5. Animal behavior
  6. animal breed
  7. Animal diseases
  8. Animal genetics
  9. Animal physiology
  10. Animal rights
  11. Animal welfare
  12. antiinflammatory agents
  13. APEC countries
  14. Attitudes
  15. Australasia
  16. Australia
  17. Behavior and behavior mechanisms
  18. Body condition
  19. Body mass
  20. Breeding
  21. Breeding program
  22. Breeds
  23. Commonwealth of Nations
  24. Conformation
  25. Developed countries
  26. Docking
  27. Evaluation
  28. Fleecing
  29. Flocks
  30. Integrated pest management
  31. Ischemia
  32. Lifespan
  33. Mammals
  34. modification
  35. mules
  36. Oceania
  37. OECD countries
  38. Pain
  39. pain relief
  40. parasitic infestations
  41. peer-reviewed
  42. perineum
  43. Pharmacology & Pharmacy
  44. placement
  45. Protection
  46. Ruminants
  47. shearing
  48. Sheep
  49. skin
  50. Social psychology and social anthropology
  51. surgery
  52. Wool
  53. Wool producing animals
  1. peer-reviewed