The next time a veterinary student joins a practicing veterinarian for palpations, lose any qualms about their palpations doing damage to a fetus.

Veterinary students need experience, and some people fear that the experience could be costing them calves. The fear exists on farms and even among some veterinarians, said Randy Bond, DVM, of The Ohio State University’s Large Animal Services in Marysville, Ohio, at the 2015 American Association of Bovine Practitioners 48th annual conference in New Orleans, La., last week.

Bond noted that the fear is not unfounded, as early literature from the 1960s on palpations performed by veterinarians showed it was damaging to the fetus. However, the most recent studies have agreed that palpations do not seem to cause any rise in calf losses pre-term.

But, Bond decided to examine the theory that veterinary students, with a lack of experience and understanding, may be too aggressive while palpating and causing harm to the fetus. His study is the first done on veterinary students.

The experiment sent fourth-year Ohio State University veterinary students to perform rectal palpations on cows that already had a pregnancy diagnosis, via ultrasound by a clinician, at or around 37 days (range 30-45 days). The other half of the confirmed-pregnant cows were not palpated by students, serving as the  control group, but lived in the same pen and were locked in palpation rails with those palpated for pregnancy. The students did know the cattle were pregnant, but did not know they were being evaluated for potential damage to the unborn calves.

With over 1,200 palpations and nearly equal numbers in control and treatment groups, just 4.36% were lost – a number lower than published averages. But the number lost from the control and treatment groups were almost exactly identical, 26 and 27, respectively, with no significant statistical difference.

Do more experienced vet students fare worse?

Within the dataset, Bond also examined if more experienced students – a subset that had taken an elective palpation course – might be more aggressive in palpations and cause more damage than those doing it without as much training. But again, within that group there was no significant difference in pre-term calf loss compared to other students.