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What is Branding?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Branding is a form of body modification which involves the creation of a distinctive raised scar with the use of heated tools applied to create a pattern. There are a number of different styles of branding, including freeze branding, which utilizes liquid nitrogen and other chilling agents to cool the tools used for branding, rather than heating them, creating a more subtle pattern on the skin. Many people consider branding to be a branch of scarification.

People have been practicing scarification on each other for thousands of years, with some tribes continuing to practice scarification as part of their cultural identity. In addition to being used to mark individuals, branding and scarification have also been utilized to mark animals, ensuring that farmers can easily identify their flocks. In some parts of the world, branding has also historically been used to mark criminals, since it creates a permanent mark which cannot be removed.

Liquid nitrogen is used during freeze branding.
Liquid nitrogen is used during freeze branding.

The process of branding starts with the creation of a pattern, which is typically bold and simple, because complex designs do not always heal well. Once a design has been created, a number of styles of branding can be used to apply it. Strike branding, for example, is the classic branding technique, using a piece of metal shaped into the desired design and heated before being applied to the skin. Some people also use electrocautery pens and similar tools for branding.

Branding with a hot iron was once the method of identifying cattle ownership.
Branding with a hot iron was once the method of identifying cattle ownership.

Because a brand is a burn, branding can be painful, and the healing time can be prolonged. Many brands take at least two months to heal, and they may go through a number of ugly stages before the healing is complete. It generally takes another four months after this primary healing period for the brand to settle, revealing a distinctive raised scar at the site where the brand was applied. Branding is considered to be a permanent method of body modification, although the same surgical techniques used in the treatment of burn victims can be used to treat a brand.

There is some debate over the best healing process for a brand, with client receiving different aftercare instructions from different practitioners. Some people believe the brands heal best when largely left alone, although the site should be kept clean to prevent infection. Others believe that the brand should be irritated during the healing practice, to increase the raised scarring at the end of the healing process. However, irritating the wound sets up the potential for infection, and may result in an uneven scar.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a WiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments


I was branded three weeks ago for a fraternity and I have no regrets! It was optional and important!


I think microchipping is an ideal method for domestic horses even though it might be expensive. I paid to have my cats chipped because their security means everything to me.

Neither branding system seems humane but it must be difficult to consider branding systems. Is there any radi chip that can be shot into them by vets? More expense but worth the cost surely to prevent pain?


Does anyone know how high the risk of infection is with branding?

I have a friend who is pretty gung-ho about the idea of getting a brand, and while I think it is a pretty bad idea, its his body and I suppose he can do what he wants with it.

The tattoo parlor in our city has started offering branding as an available body art and I really wonder if anyone there is actually trained to do this sort of thing?

Branding seems like a pretty dangerous way to make a statement about your individuality. I suppose that the same could be said for tattoos, but at least people have been doing that locally for ages and there are health standards in place.


When I was in college I helped my school produce an arts magazine that covered alternative trends in art. One of the first articles I had to help out with was about branding as body modification. I remember how horrified I was to see the photos of bold designs on peoples bodies and realize that they were basically burning them into their skin.

While I can understand wanting a unique look, I think tattoos are painful enough. I can't imagine wanting to brand yourself.

The friend I had that took the photos for the article said she felt a bit sick over the whole thing. I can certainly understand why.


My brother was crazy in love with a girl in high school, and he wanted to show his undying devotion to her. He branded her name into his chest.

This gesture actually scared her and caused their breakup. She thought that he was into self-mutilation. Also, she considered the branding of her name into his skin to be a stalker-like behavior.

He couldn’t convince her to stay. He felt pretty stupid with her name on his chest after that. Years later, he had a surgeon cover the area with a skin graft. He will never do so much as get a tattoo now.


@amsden2000 - Jack Sparrow from "Pirates of the Caribbean" is shown to have a "P" branded onto his arm when he is caught in town, along with his pirate tattoo.

Branding is still common in hazings and some college houses. My buddy had to get a tiny brand on his back to join his fraternity. He said it hurt like crazy and he has been trying to get rid of it for years now.

I would never get a brand just because they take so long to heal -- if ever. Just like a tattoo, it will probably be with you for life. So it better mean something *really* important.


@yamina - The Nazis aren't the only people in history to brand "slaves" and people they considered lower than them in society. It's been going on for a really long time, they just used it recently.

The Puritans would brand men and women who did adultery with an "A" on their chest. I thought that the placement was a little weird, since no one saw that area. I guess it was more for punishment to the individual than a visual mark for others.

Pirates were also hot iron branded -- both by choice and as punishment. They were marked with a "P" for pirate. Some modern pirate groups still do it, but it's more of a gang thing. Like the Yakuza cut off their pinkies.


I don't think that hot iron branding should be used anywhere. I've grabbed a hot pot before and ouch! Who would want that pressed to their rear end?

Freeze ironing isn't much better. It probably still hurts like crazy after the numbness goes away. Plus, it takes way more time for the brander to do -- so most don't want to take the time to spare the animal the pain. I know that a lot of horses are freeze branded now, but it's still more expensive that the regular old hot iron treatment.

Freeze branding needs to be improved so that it can be faster and cheaper before it will replace hot iron branding.


This reminds me of the Christmas present I'm getting my brother. He loves all kinds of meat, but mostly steak. We always have lots of barbecues during the year and he's usually the host.

While browsing online, I found a steak branding iron! You can customize it to say whatever you want -- which will work with a lot of inside jokes we have. It has a full alphabet and everything. I don't support branding living animals, but grilling your meat with your name seems funny to me. I'm sure he'll like it!


@feruze-- I'm so glad you guys are switching over to freeze branding. Freeze branding is so much less painful for the animals. The cold actually numbs that area and the animals don't even feel anything until the last five seconds the label needs to be on their skin.

The brands looks so much better too. I have a couple of horses with hot branding and you can't even tell what the brand is. Didn't have a single problem with freeze branding. You don't have to use nitrogen either, you can also use ice and alcohol which I think is better.


I'm from Texas and we have a farm with livestock and horses and we brand all of them. The reason is because they graze on open fields and theft of unbranded animals is pretty common, especially horses.

Branding is also a good idea if there is a natural disaster. I heard that in the last hurricane, a lot of livestock and horses got loose and the owners couldn't identify which were theirs and which were not. It's just a good idea to brand them.

We used to do hot branding but now we're switching to freeze branding, which is supposed to be easier to do. I think we're going to have a professional come and do it for us until we get the hang of it.


I think branding was also used by the Nazis to mark Jews during the Holocaust which is just horrible.

Like the article mentioned, some cultural groups and cults often brand their members and even feel that it is a privilege to do so. I don't think there is anything wrong with this if the individuals getting branded do it out of free will and accept the physical consequences of it.

The Nazi example shows us however, that it can also be used negatively, to humiliate and mistreat others.

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    • Liquid nitrogen is used during freeze branding.
      By: Gman73
      Liquid nitrogen is used during freeze branding.
    • Branding with a hot iron was once the method of identifying cattle ownership.
      By: Janis Tremper
      Branding with a hot iron was once the method of identifying cattle ownership.