In some herds, calves die nearly every year from enterotoxemia caused by bacterial toxins. The calves are usually about a month old, but may be as young as a few days or as old as two to three months. They are generally healthy, fast-growing calves that suddenly develop acute gut pain, kicking at their belly (sometimes running around the field trying to get away from the pain), throwing themselves to the ground and thrashing like a colicky horse.
Or a calf may suddenly become dull and bloated. In either case, these calves were happy and healthy right up until the acute infection started creating toxins. One theory is that the multiplying bacteria start to damage the gut and it shuts down, perhaps causing a sudden buildup of gas in a certain area, and hence the acute pain. If the calf is not treated immediately, toxins leak through the damaged gut wall and into the bloodstream to create toxemia — toxins throughout the body that start attacking various body organs. The calf goes into shock and soon dies unless this condition can be reversed by appropriate treatment, including IV fluids.
Usually the calf does not have diarrhea. This infection comes on so quickly that the gut shuts down before the calf scours. There are several types of infections that can affect the gut this quickly, and the most common was Clostridium perfringens before the advent of vaccine for types C and D.
This serious disease has been called enterotoxemia, overeating disease, purple gut, toxic gut, and other names. Dr. Lee Meyring, a veterinarian near Steamboat Springs, Colorado, says clostridial organisms are a very diverse group of bacteria.
“We have good vaccines for some, and yet there are many herds that still battle this type of gut infection in calves,” says Meyring. “One of the different genotypes may be the more prevalent problem in those herds and we have to come up with a different program to try to prevent it.”
Along with a vaccine for C. perfingens Type A bacteria, there are also some treatments that work. If a calf can be treated early — at the first signs of acute gut pain or bloat — there is a chance of saving that calf. The infection can be halted with the proper antibiotic, and a shut down gut can be stimulated with castor oil to start things moving through again. Once toxins get into the bloodstream, however, the calf quickly goes into shock and internal organs begin to shut down. At that point it’s more challenging to save the calf.
Meyring’s first approach if dealing with Clostridium perfringens type C or D is to give the calf antitoxin either administered orally or through IV Banamine also helps reduce the inflammatory reaction and eases pain.
“If a calf is bloated, I usually give some oil, to help get things moving through — if he’s not so ‘full’ that there’s no room for the oil,” says Meyring. “Oil has a laxative effect to get those toxins out of there.”
Castor oil works better than mineral oil, partly because you don’t need as much volume (plus if the calf is already bloated and full) and it also stimulates the gut to move. Mineral oil merely works as a lubricant. The usual dose for castor oil is two to three ounces for a small calf, up to five to six ounces for a big two- to three-months-old calf. You can’t really overdose on castor oil, and it may save him — by absorbing some of the toxins and stimulating the shut-down gut to move things on through.
Some calves are severely bloated, and some just have extreme gut pain without bloating.
“It would be interesting to culture the organisms and find out exactly what you are dealing with,” says Meyring. “Some of these bacteria are tremendous gas-producers and some less, and this may be part of the difference.” Regardless, the castor oil stimulates things to move through.
If the calf goes into shock, however, the only chance is to give large amounts of IV fluids along with medication to combat shock. If you can reverse shock before vital organs are completely shut down or seriously damaged, the calf may survive. If organs have shut down, you are too late. If you can reverse shock, however, and get enough fluid into the circulatory system to get the kidneys working, passing urine, the calf has a chance.
Prevention is the best path, if you can do it, and close monitoring of calves to notice any cases very early on — before they go into shock or you find them dead.