10 Early Interventions to Help Sick Calves

Early detection, coupled with an arsenal of interventions, can help many calves pull through and thrive despite  potential setbacks.
Early detection, coupled with an arsenal of interventions, can help many calves pull through and thrive despite potential setbacks.
(The Author)

Scours and pneumonia are the twin challenges of every calf raiser, especially heading into winter.

But early detection, coupled with an arsenal of interventions, can help many calves pull through and thrive despite these potential setbacks.

According to Pamela Ruegg, DVM, MPVM, Department Chair at the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine, “supportive care is more valuable than antibiotics.”

She said the natural inclination to manage calf diseases solely with a needle and a bottle is trumped by a host of other care methods that can guide calves on the road to recovery.

Together with her former colleague, Sheila McGuirk, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, Ruegg offered the following list of sick-calf care suggestions:

1. Isolate sick calves in their own space, and put down fresh bedding to keep them clean, warm, and dry.
2. Administer warm fluids to help raise body temperature.
3. Provide access to fresh water at least twice daily.
4. Offer milk or milk replacer at the usual dilution and temperature, but reduce volume and feed it more frequently. (Example: 1 quart, fed up to 4 times per day).
5. Use an esophageal feeder to administer liquid feed that is not consumed by suckling. Be sure the feeder is thoroughly cleaned, disinfected, and rinsed between calves.
6. Feed oral fluids (electrolytes) to correct dehydration, provided the calf is strong enough to stand and has no abdominal distension. These feedings should be separated from milk feedings by at least 2 hours.
7. Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs like aspirin, Banamine, and ketoprofen can keep calves eating by helping them feel better.
8. Supplementation with probiotics may help restore the intestinal environment, especially after antibiotic treatment. 9. Use antibiotics only when they are they are known to be effective for the problem identified.
10. Antibiotic selection should be based on culture of the bacterial organism from the farm or during the outbreak.

Ruegg advised that all sick-calf care and treatment protocols be developed collaboratively with the herd’s veterinarian. In addition, she said antibiotics only should be administered according to the veterinarian’s prescribed dose, frequency, route of administration, and duration of therapy.

To help assist with early detection of sick calves – which makes all care and treatment more effective – the University of Kentucky has developed this helpful bulletin. It contains tips for staging the severity of illness; recognizing very early symptoms; and preventing diseases from occurring.


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