In a lot of periodicals, this title would require reading the article for clarification. But a majority of BEEF readers probably guessed I’m referring to a cow. Oh, we claim we don’t name them, but a number often becomes a name.
177 went to the fair as a 4-H heifer, one of four new ones that year. Halter breaking took only a few days, and she gave us a nice steer calf this year, breeding right back as a first-calf heifer as soon as the bull was in. She was just right, maintaining flesh but not a forage-hogging toad like 944 (see, names again).
177 is my subject this month because I had to put her down recently. Why do we lose good cows like her?
In 177’s case, she was building fluid under her belly, in her brisket, and under her jaw. She also displayed fluid build-up in her abdomen, a moist cough, and a very obvious jugular pulse.
“Hardware,” in which wire, nails or other metal are consumed and then migrate through the stomach wall to the heart, was a good initial suspicion. However, the physical exam tests didn’t point to hardware, although they aren’t always definitive. Heart disease was another suspicion.
The diagnostics can range from a physical examination to serum chemistry, complete blood counts, ultrasound, abdominal exploratory surgery, or even threading a pressure sensor in the artery between the heart and the lungs to measure pressure. The treatments I administered to 177 didn’t change the course of disease.
Upon necropsy, I found no visible heart lesions, and no evidence of a wire, leaving us to speculate on abnormalities in heartbeat, lungs, or a toxin; I’m following up with additional tests. Even though my diagnosis in this case may not be that specific, it will create a baseline should others occur and justify digging even deeper in diagnostic work.
Besides trying to save a good cow, it’s wise to consider whether such a loss might be the tipoff to a coming disease outbreak in the herd, or indicate the presence of an ongoing problem. Here are a few other examples of diseases that may cause cows to “drop out,” possibly fatally.
- Anaplasmosis. In areas with anaplasmosis, when cows drop back and loose energy, often in August to about a month after the first killing frost, they should be evaluated for this red blood cell parasite that can be transmitted by insect vectors and also by needles.
- Johnes. This intestinal disease leads to severe weight loss and chronic diarrhea, usually in older cows. Your veterinarian can provide and interpret diagnostic tests.
- Parasitism. A simple fecal examination can give a lot of information on this common challenge.
- Feet. You’re probably pretty good at spotting foot rot, and most of these cases won’t get a close examination of the foot prior to treatment. However, when they don’t respond quickly to treatment, that foot needs to be closely examined for lesions in the sole or along the white line (the junction between the sole and the hoof wall).
- Viral diseases. Diseases such as infectious bovine rhinotracheitis and bovine viral diarrhea can cause pregnancy loss as well as systemic disease. This year’s outbreak of epizootic hemorrhagic disease in deer has also caused some cases to spill over into cattle.
We could build a long list of additional possibilities, including liver abscesses, respiratory diseases, abomasal ulcers, peritonitis, kidney disease, various toxins, anthrax, and many more. Some of these diseases just happen occasionally in the individual animal; others are telling us about a larger potential problem in the herd.
Your veterinarian can use a combination of case history, physical examination, necropsy, diagnostic tests, and therapeutic results to help you determine what you’re dealing with, and how to address it. It’s not necessarily just this cow; it might be your whole herd.
Mike Apley, DVM, Ph.D., is a professor in clinical sciences at Kansas State University in Manhattan.