Early Identification of Sick Cows Picture 1

The health of dairy calves early in life (first 8 weeks of life) directly impacts future milk production and longevity in the dairy herd. Protecting the future health and survivability of calves starts with timely feeding of adequate amounts of high-quality colostrum and disinfecting the navel with 7% tincture of iodine or a chlorhexidine solution. In addition, dairy calf managers must be able to identify sick calves early and provide supportive therapy early for the best survival rates and to minimize effects on long-term productivity.

Excellent dairy calf managers can spot diseases early and treat these calves so they have the best chances of recovering quickly. To help train employees and family members to detect illnesses in dairy calves a check sheet with common symptoms to evaluate is outlined here. Once sick calves have been identified and more closely examined, protocols developed with your local veterinarian, should be implemented to treat these calves.

Step 1: Identify calves needing more careful evaluation at and just before feeding times.

Part 1: Response to calves at feeding time: For calves where the answer to the question below is no, examine these calves more closely using the questions listed under step 2 – closer inspection).

Does the calf get up and actively position itself at its milk feeding station?
Does the calf want to drink her milk?
Does she drink her milk at her normal expected rate?
With automatic feeders, does the calf drink their normal allocation of milk within the allocated time frame?
Are the calf’s ears erect and is calf alert? Droopy ears are a sign of illness.

Part 2: Additional observations done at each feeding: If any problems are detected, calves should be examined closer using the questions listed under step 2.

What is the manure consistency of calves? Check the description that is the closest. Calves that are scouring need addtional fluids, and need to be examined closer and should be fed last to prevent spread of diseases to healthy calves.

□ Pudding consistency- normal fecal consistency
□ Yogurt consistency- fecal consistency does not warrant feeding electrolytes
□ Maple syrup consistency and/or strong odor- too thin (calf needs closer examination and electrolytes should befed in addition and separately from milk)
□ Apple juice consistency – too thin (calf needs closer examination and electrolytes should be fed in addition andseparately from milk)


Is the calf coughing or/and has a discharge from her nose or eyes? If so, closer examination of the calf is
needed for potential respiratory illnesses. Your veterinarian can help you diagnose the source of the problem
and prescribe the best course of action to take. Antibiotics should be used as directed by local veterinarian.

Step 2: Closer Inspection for calves with potential illness (detected through questions answered in step 1)

Calf’s Vital Signs or Physical Measurements - If calf’s vitals are outside the normal range (answered yes to any question), treatment protocols which have been developed with the help of your local veterinarian should be implemented.

YesNoNormal or expected calf vitals
Is the calf’s temperature elevated?101 to 103 °F is normal.
Is the calf breathing rapidly?24 to 26 breaths per minute is normal in calves less than 1 month of age and 15 to 30 breaths/minute in older calves.
Is the calf’s heart rate elevated?100 to 140 beats per minute is normal in calves (twice as fast as a cow). An irregular beating of the heart is one sign of illness.
Are the calf’s eyes sunken into the eye socket? Gently evert the lower eyelid of the calf and observe the amount of space between the eyeball and the lower eyelid.
Cow eye

Healthy calves have a minimal amount of space between the lower eyelid and eyeball (less than 2 mm or a little more than 1/16th inch). As the calf becomes dehydrated, the amount of space between the eyeball and lower lid increases.

When the skin of the neck is pinched and gently rotated 90°, a tent of the skin forms. Does this skin tent return to normal within 2 seconds?
Tenting of skin

Normally, expect the tenting
of skin to return to normal
within 2 seconds.

Are the calf’s gums dry and white in color?Normally, calves’ gums are moist and pink in color. Dry, white gums are a symptom of severe dehydration (8-10% dehydra-tion).
If the calf is lying down, does she fail to want to get up when given a small amount of persuasion?For calves that are unable to rise, contact and/or follow your veterinarian’s recommendations immediately. These calves might need IV fluids (fluids administered directly into the blood) to help treat the dehydration and possible acidosis. If not treated appropriately and quickly, this calf may die.


Author:  Donna M. Amaral-Phillips
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