Since their domestication millennia ago, nonhuman animals have been considered property. As such, they are often identified using various methods, including branding, that indicates their belonging to a certain ranch. Branding is used as a property stamp identifying the stockbreeder as the owner of the animal. By branding the animals, ranch owners are expressing the animals’ legal condition as mere things, or as slaves. There are many types of branding, including:
Heat branding is a permanent, painful branding method in which a red-hot iron is applied directly to the animal’s skin. This is a traditional branding method for cows, horses, mules, and buffaloes, although it has also been used on sheeps and goats.
Calves and colts are branded before being weaned (at approximately 3-5 months of age) because ranchers believe it is easier to handle and tie them up at this age.
The brand is usually made on a visible area of the animal’s body (on the haunches or side) although it is occasionally done in other, less visible body locations such as the cheek to avoid damage to the skin that would lead to the depreciation of the leather.
This old-fashioned method has been prohibited in many countries1 because of the great pain it causes, although it continues to be officially permitted in others.
There are also temporary heat brands for animals who will be sold. In these cases, the branding iron is applied more lightly and only for a few seconds to burn the hair but not the skin.2
Caustic chemical products are used. Initially, corrosion was proposed as a less-painful alternative to fire branding, although it has been found to also be a very painful branding method.
This method is used to replace heat branding on dark-coated animals. It is a somewhat less painful alternative and is considered acceptable by the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs, even though it does cause suffering.1 For cold branding, dry ice at -70ºC, and liquid nitrogen at a temperature of between -170ºC and -197ºC are used. Prolonged contact with this material produces the destruction of melanocytes (cells that produce skin pigment). The skin freezes, an edema (swollen section of the skin) is formed, and in the following weeks the skin and hair in the area will fall off. The hair later grows back white in color.
Cartilage branding (via cuts and lesions)
This is a traditional and very common practice in cows, sheeps, pigs, and goats,2 and consists of the mutilation of animals’ ears.
The mutilation is performed with simple razors or sharp pincers. It is a painful method that can cause necrosis, parasitic infections, or torn ears. In the case of pigs, these mutilations are considered a cheap method,3 and they continue to be widely used today.
Earmarks are sometimes combined with the use of eartags, which increase the risk of tearing the ear. This method is most commonly used to individually identify farm animals. The tags can be made of various materials, though plastic tags are currently the most common. They are put in place by puncturing the ears with special pliers, which is a painful process. Cases of tetanus have occurred due to the misuse of these pliers.4
Metal eartags are made of aluminum, brass, or steel. Brass tags are especially dangerous for sheeps and cows,5 as they can cause major damage and infections. Incorrect placement of metal eartags can also cause infections.6 A significant number of cows and sheeps suffer from ear lesions and pus-filled infections that must be treated with antibiotics.7
Electronic ear tags are also used. These are particularly harmful for sheeps and goats, who may suffer injuries due to friction and medium-term infections. In one study, after four weeks of use, only a small percentage of the animals had scarred correctly, and there were severe infections in between 10% and 50% of the animals studied.
Tatooing consists of marking the animal’s ear with indelible ink. Given that the complete immobilization of the animal is required to be able to read the tattoos, they are often used in combination with some other kind of branding.
To make the tattoo, the inside of the animal’s ear is punctured with tattooing pliers made of a series of needles. The injury is filled with ink and leaves a permanent mark. This type of branding can cause infections such as tetanus if the tattooing pliers are not disinfected.
These are small microchips that are injected into the animal’s body subcutaneously. The microchip emits a code that is transmitted by radio frequency to an electronic reader.
An alternative to eartags and injectable transponders, electronic boluses are permanent, 2.5 inch (6-7 cm) microchip devices coated in ceramic material and implanted in the animal’s reticulum by an applicator gun. If the angle at which they are implanted is not exact, the procedure could cause an esophageal perforation, likely leading to the animal’s death.9
Temporary and non-invasive methods
This is generally used to brand sheeps after shearing them. To avoid damaging the wool, farmers use paint that can be washed off. Because it is a temporary brand, it is usually accompanied by another method of identification.
Electronic disks, medallions, and buckles
Plastic-covered microchips placed on an animal’s ear, limb, or around the neck are also used regularly.
Rings, bracelets, and collars
These are labeled with the stockbreeder’s information and placed on specific areas of body.
Identification by animals’ natural characteristics
A method that consists of taking a digital photograph of the animal’s iris or retina.
Nasograms (nasal prints), hoofprints, coloring and pattern of the coat, and special hair characteristics
These methods are based on visual perception and are used infrequently.
Via DNA analysis.
1 United Kingdom. Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (2003) Code of recommendations for the welfare of livestock: Cattle, London: DEFRA [accessed on 23 March 2013].
2 Landais, E. (2001) “The marking of livestock in traditional pastoral societies”, Revue scientifique et technique (International Office of Epizootics), 20, pp. 463-79.
4 Aslani M. R.; Bazargani, T. T.; Ashkar A. A.; Movasaghi, A. R.; Raoofi A. & Atiabi N. (1998) “Outbreak of tetanus in lambs”, Veterinary Record, 142, pp. 518-519.
5 Edwards, D. S. & Johnston, A. M. (1999) “Welfare implications of sheep ear tags”, Veterinary Record, 144, pp. 603-606. Johnston, A. M. & Edwards, D. S. (1996) “Welfare implications of identification of cattle by ear tags”, Veterinary Record, 138, pp. 612-614.
6 Stanford, K.; Stitt, J.; Kellar, J. & McAllister, T. (2001) “Traceability in cattle and small ruminants in Canada”, Revue scientifique et technique (International Office of Epizootics), 20, pp. 510-522.
7 Hosie, B. (1995) “Problems with the use of ear tags in sheep”, Veterinary Record, 137, p. 571. Wardrope, D. D. (1995) “Problems with the use of ear tags in cattle”, Veterinary Record, 137, p. 675.
8 Heeres, J. J. & Hogerwerf, P. H. (2003) Ear tag transponders studied in sheep and goats”, in van der Horning, Y (ed.) Book of abstracts of the 54th Annual Meeting of the European Association for Animal Production, Wageningen: Wageningen Academic Publishers, p. 190.
9 Macrae, A. I.; Barnes, D. F.; Hunter, H. A.; Sargison, N. D.; Scott, P. R.; Blissitt, K. J.; Booth, T. M. & Pirie, R. S. (2003) “Diagnosis and treatment of tretropharyngeal injuries in lambs associated with the administration of intraruminal boluses”, Veterinary Record, 153, pp. 489-492.