By Hubert J. Karreman, V.M.D.
Got anything for coughing calves? This question seems to start up again every year around late autumn and early winter—or anytime we have freezing nights and above-freezing days.
With all the variable weather of winter, alternating between rain, sharp winds, and chillier temperatures, it’s wise to keep an eye out for an increase in pneumonia each year. It certainly does seem to be a seasonal illness, ushered in by the changing weather and winds. Germs seem to be waiting on the walls in the barn to jump off and into the calves when the temperatures get above freezing . . . and when there is not much air movement . . . and when the bedding might be a tad soggy or damp. Though any one of these situations won’t necessarily make for coughing calves, all three of these triggers acting together will almost certainly cause problems. Once you need to reach for treatments you’ve already lost the battle to some extent, but treating your animals in time can prevent the situation from turning into a complete train wreck, as coughing animals and full-blown pneumonia is likely to become.
Of course preventing the coughs is best, but it’s often difficult to do. Certainly dry bedding, fresh air, clean water, and top-notch nutrition are critical. And allowing dairy calves to nurse from their mother cows is as close to Mother Nature as can be found—actually, it is Mother Nature.
If you must keep calves near cows in the stable, keep only the youngest (pre-weaned) calves inside. If they are on whole milk, they will probably do fine. Then once weaned keep calves outside, especially recently weaned calves, as their immune systems take a few months to adjust to their new diet (usually poorer quality feed).
Which is worse: poor ventilation and cold, damp bedding or poor ventilation and a warm, stuffy barn? The answer, in my opinion, is that they are equally bad, but perhaps the warm, stuffy barn is worse for the just-fresh adult cows, and the cold, damp bedding and poor ventilation are worse for young stock. Good, clean, crisp air is great for any type of cattle: calves, yearlings, and cows. They are meant to be outside after all, not cooped up inside all the time. If calves must be inside in tie-stalls during the winter, have some windows open above them to allow good air flow, which will help move accumulated ammonia away from surface areas of calf pens and thereby lessen irritation of the windpipe by ammonia (from urine).
Without doubt, individual hutches are the way to go to minimize coughing and pneumonia. There are few things nicer to see than a calf chewing its cud while lying down comfortably on dry bedding inside its hutch on a cold rainy and windy day. The next best prevention of coughing calves is raising calves in a super hutch as a social group, but you need to watch out for any cross-sucking of penmates’ teats. Individual hutches with an enclosed, fenced area that allow the calf to decide whether to be inside or outside are the best for respiratory health. Remember to clean and move hutches to new locations after every calf to minimize contamination between calves. Some folks in the animal science community are now raising questions about individual hutches since calves are very social creatures and like to be in groups. I say that temporarily having the youngest calves in separate hutches to prevent respiratory disease trumps grouping calves just to enable social interaction, especially if respiratory disease has been a problem on a farm. They will be grouped together fairly soon anyway, once weaned.
In more northern areas, calf jackets are an excellent item to have for any calf, especially a sick calf in the wintertime. Regular healthy calves that are outside in the wintertime need as much as a third more energy in their food rations to maintain body heat. Studies in the upper Midwest have shown that using calf jackets can reduce the need for that extra feed. If they use too many calories just to stay warm, their immune system will not be at peak performance. When a calf is sick in the winter, it is almost a basic requirement to use a jacket or blanket to keep their body heat from escaping. (This is true also for a down cow in the field in the wintertime, especially overnight or when the winds are sharp.)
The multi-calf kennels are okay if calves have the room to go outside, like the outdoor areas for hutches. Multi-calf kennels designed so that the animals cannot freely go in and out can cause problems. I find the wooden multi-calf kennels usually harbor bugs that cause digestive problems (scours) associated with coccidia at some point. Though somewhat difficult compared to individual hutches, kennel buildings can be moved, too, and really should be, at least once in a while, to avoid the typical problems with accumulating parasites.
Using box stalls to raise a group of calves in the main cow barn is risky. Box stalls in barns obviously cannot be moved, and perhaps that is part of the reason why they seem to be magnets for diseases, especially those near the adult cows. It is just difficult to clean them out very often. And if one of a group gets sick, it’s more likely that others in the group will, too. If you’re thinking the heat generated in a bedded pack kills germs, you’re correct, at least if you’re continuously adding bedding as a carbon source. I’m not sure which material is best to mix in, just as long as there is a good amount of bedding.
What to Look For
It is critical to know how the lungs sound to decide which treatment route to go. If the lungs sound raspy and rough, then natural treatment can be very effective. If you hear “wet” abscess sounds, the animal needs antibiotics. And if you hear consolidated lungs, it’s too late for anything. Consolidated lungs are lungs with permanently damaged areas that are compacted and can no longer inflate. Usually the worst animal is the first to catch the farmer’s attention.
Oftentimes the sickest calf in the group will already have serious lung damage (consolidation). A consolidated lung means that air entering the lungs through the windpipe never gets effectively absorbed because the areas of diseased lung tissue are no longer functional. By listening with the stethoscope, a vet can alert the farmer as to how much permanently damaged tissue there is. These calves, if they survive, usually show respiratory problems in a couple of years when heavy in calf in the hot summer days. Aggressive antibiotic and anti-inflammatory therapy is their only hope—but the permanently damaged tissue will still be useless later on. Animals simply don’t function well with less than 100 percent lung capacity (neither do humans).
Other than coughing, symptoms include wet rings around the eyes, with the whites of the eyes themselves appearing slightly pink or reddened in general—this is the case when the initial virus is affecting the animal. Some animals may also show very small blisters at the bottom outside edge of the nostrils, and occasionally white plaques may be seen within the nostrils if infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) is the cause (it is rare to see such blisters or plaques). Eventually a mucopurulent discharge (“snot”) will be seen from the eyes and nostrils as the bacterial stage sets in. There will typically be other animals in the group coughing, but they remain bright, alert, and keep on eating. Checking the lung sounds and temperatures is critical in order to decide how best to treat them. Within a group of animals will be a variety of temperatures, lung sounds, and displays of general illness, depending on the stress level. The worst affected are usually those recently weaned, with poor body condition, parasitized, and/ or just fresh from calving. Using a stethoscope, listen for lung sounds that range from slightly raspy to harsh friction rubs, worse yet are fluid sounds/abscesses, and the worst being only windpipe sounds in certain lung areas (when areas of the lung are no longer functional). With only mild to harsh sounds, animals generally keep on eating, if the fever isn’t too high. If no action is taken, each animal will become ill to various degrees, depending on how virulent the viral or bacterial strain is and how they individually react to the challenge. A cow that has severely compromised lung function will often be heard grunting with every breath, an indication that the animal will likely die within a few hours. If pneumonia is contained to the viral stage only, the situation isn’t too bad; however, it almost always degenerates to the bacterial stage, which can easily lead to death if left unchecked.
Cattle Herd Pneumonia Treatments
In my time practicing veterinary medicine, I have treated animals of all ages sick with pneumonia, both on organic and conventional farms. No matter which type of farm is experiencing a pneumonia outbreak, the sickest animal will usually end up having permanent lung damage since it is too far advanced in the disease process due to starting treatment too late. On farms that are not certified organic, the best and most quickly effective treatment will be an antibiotic such as ceftiofur
(Naxcel or Excenel), florfenicol (Nuflor), or tilmicosin (Micotil). Tilmicosin is very effective for calf pneumonia, as can be florfenicol, but the tilmicosin seems more effective in my experience. Naxcel works nicely, but it needs daily injecting. Alarmingly, although ceftiofur was originally designed to treat shipping fever (pneumonia), it doesn’t seem to be as effective as it once was. Bacteria seem to be mounting resistance against it in barns where it is used frequently. However, if a farmer only rarely uses antibiotics on his farm, it can still work very well. Oxytetracycline (LA-200) may work, but oftentimes it only puts a damper on the pneumonia and doesn’t clear the infection. I would not use penicillin against pneumonia. If reaching for an antibiotic, remember that antibiotics need a functioning immune system to do their job. They work by giving the immune system time to rally instead of becoming overwhelmed and beaten, which certainly can happen in pneumonia. Therefore, keep in mind injectable antioxidants like vitamins C and E. Withholding times of antibiotics and the time it takes to administer the medicine will usually dictate which of these medicines will be used. If the animal hasn’t degenerated to having portions of the lung consolidated and nonfunctional, recovery is usually rapid.
Antibiotics can be excellent for bacterial pneumonia, but if an organic animal is given an antibiotic, it is banished from organic production forever (in the U.S. certified organic system). On organic farms, pneumonia treatment relies much more on non-synthetic measures, namely boosting the immune system using plant medicines with strong antibacterial effects and moving the animal to fresh air. However, according to U.S. law, organic farmers cannot withhold prohibited antibiotic treatments just to keep an animal organic. This restriction makes my life as a veterinarian more interesting and challenging, especially when faced with a disease like pneumonia that can easily kill an animal if not quickly and effectively treated.
A key point to keep in mind is that natural treatment of pneumonia using biological methods tends to take a little longer for the animals to normalize—about five to seven days instead of the one to two days with antibiotics. But then the animals have essentially healed themselves and should be stronger in the long run. My rule of thumb is to stick with the biological approach if the animal is holding its own and going the right way, but switch to antibiotics if the animal is worsening.
If treatment is started soon enough, I have seen countless cases of pneumonia cleared up by using purely biological treatments to work with the animal’s own immune system.
Source: Four-Seasons Organic Cow Care