There are many traditional practices and old wives’ tales about how to get a newborn calf breathing — some of which are valid and helpful, and some that are not.
Cody Creelman, with Veterinary Agri Health Services (VAHS), a five-veterinarian beef cattle practice at Airdrie, Alta., says there are a few practices that are actually harmful, even though they were once recommendations from veterinarians in earlier times.
When a newborn calf is not breathing, for instance, many producers traditionally hung or held the calf up by the hind legs, to theoretically allow fluid to drain from the airways. Likewise, swinging the calf was supposed to help clear the airways.
“This is no longer standard practice,” says Creelman. “You will see fluid coming from the calf’s mouth and nose, but it’s been proven that this is simply fluid from the stomach. It actually makes it harder for the calf to breathe if being swung or hanged upside down, because of all the weight of the gut puts pressure on the lungs.”
Creelman advises people to put the newborn calf in recovery position (upright, rather than lying flat) resting on the sternum, with head and neck extended forward. This allows for maximum oxygenation in the lungs; they can both expand more fully. It is better than the calf lying on its side, where the bottommost lung can’t expand.
“If the calf is upright there is a better ratio of oxygenation and blood flow,” he says. “And extending the head forward allows for an open airway.” This position also allows some of the fluid and mucus from the nostrils to drain.
If the calf is not unconscious, and simply not breathing yet, you can try to stimulate it to start breathing by tickling the inside of the nostril with a clean piece of hay or straw. This often makes the calf cough — and take a breath. This practice is not harmful and can be helpful.
Creelman says that even better is what is called the Jen Chung (GV-26) acupuncture technique.
“There is an acupuncture/acupressure spot on the tip of the nose. If this is pressed or poked, it increases stimulation of the central nervous system. This will increase heart rate and respiration rate and overall consciousness. We teach ranchers to use a very small-diameter needle, like a 20-gauge needle, and poke right into the centre of the tip of the nose, and giving it a little twist. This will stimulate the central nervous system, and works to stimulate breathing.” If you don’t have a needle handy, you can just press that spot with your fingernail.
Another useful technique is splashing the calf with cold water. If it is limp and not breathing, splash a bucket of cold water over the calf’s head. It can stimulate it to shake its head — stimulate the calf enough so it becomes alert and starts breathing. Creelman says it’s like jumping into a cold lake; you gasp. It stimulates those natural reflexes to take a breath.
Try artificial respiration
If the calf has been short of oxygen and is unconscious and won’t start breathing, it may be necessary to give artificial respiration. Before attempting this, the calf should be on its side, with head and neck stretched forward to open the airway and make sure the air will go into the windpipe and not the esophagus. Then you can blow into one nostril, holding the other nostril (and the calf’s mouth) shut.
“One more little trick is to apply light pressure (with your free hand) to the esophagus, just below the larynx — a little higher than mid-neck,” says Creelman. “This will help close off the esophagus, to ensure that you are not just filling the stomach with air. You don’t want to push so hard that you close off the trachea, too, because it is soft cartilage, but you can prevent the air from going into the stomach.” In most cases, the heart is still beating, but the calf is just unconscious and not breathing.
Very rarely will you be able to revive a calf if the heart has stopped, he says. Even if the calf is limp, blue and looks dead, if there is a heartbeat you may be able to revive it. You can generally feel or even see the heartbeat, because it is pounding hard.
If you are watching its chest while giving the calf artificial respiration you can often see the heart thumping — watch to see if it rises as you blow in air.