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Dealing with intestinal disorders

Every spring brings sudden deaths of apparently healthy calves. Unfortunately, some internal conditions are beyond the control of even the best managers.

Perforated ulcers

We see one to two per cent perforating ulcers every spring on many well-managed farms. These are ulcers on the abomasum (fourth stomach), which have eaten right through the entire wall allowing gut contents to spill into the abdomen. These calves die within 24 hours of this happening, and in fact most are found as a sudden death. If alive they are in shock, weak, dehydrated, may be down, and are often full or bloated on both sides of their abdomen. And very often it is one of your best calves.

Numerous causes have been investigated, everything from clostridial diseases, to hairballs, to BVD, to copper deficiency, to genetics. Most of these probable causes were ruled out by Western College of Veterinary Medicine researchers in Saskatoon 10 years ago. They surveyed herds across Western Canada and found these calves generally are in the six- to eight-week range when they ulcerate and are generally on the upper end of growth. The incidence was just as high in well-managed herds, making it possible to rule out many of the suspect causes.

At the six- to eight-week growth stage, these calves are changing from essentially a single-stomached animal to one that ruminates whereby the rumen is enlarging. As a result, the calf’s diet is changing from only mothers milk to roughage and something triggers this ulcer formation.

Ulcers happen on calves picking at hay or where their mothers are primarily fed silage.

No study has followed up since, but I rarely see ulcers on later born calves that go through this transition at pasture. The diet change is much more subtle going from milk-to-milk and very fine, soft new grass. Perhaps this more natural change has something to do with it. Perhaps calves that die on pasture are not found or examined, but hopefully in the future this question can be researched further. For now, producers have to live with the fact a low percentage of good calves get this condition and die. With a very few colicky calves, found early enough, can be treated with surgery to repair the ulcerated area, but they must be found fast and treated before the ulcer has perforated.

Other issues

Calves in spring, can also be presented to a veterinary clinic simply full with no manure present. If they are alert and lively, it may be a hairball or other object causing an obstruction. Often these are initially treated with laxatives to see if the object will pass. If not, the obstruction can be removed through an enterotomy incision made right over the obstruction.

The calf will generally make an uneventful recovery. If this situation is left untreated, an intussusception may develop which is essentially the telescoping of the intestines into itself. Peristalsis is the contraction, which moves feed down the intestinal tract. With an obstruction, or sometimes spontaneously, the intestines overdo this process and telescope on themselves. The swelling and scarring in itself will also cause a blockage. Surgery can be used to remove a section of the intestine and the two ends are then joined together. The intestines will heal quickly, and again, an uneventful recovery is often the result after a few days of convalescence.

Torsions are intestinal accidents generally involving the small intestines, spiral colon, ceacum (equivalent to the human appendix) or the abomasum. Calves go into shock and bloat very quickly. Again, any corrective surgery must be performed right away. Otherwise blood supply to the intestines or stomach is damaged, since the torsion acts essentially like a tourniquet on the affected tissues. If treatment is delayed even a couple of hours, the prognosis is very grave indeed on all intestinal related torsions.


Every year we have several cases of the small intestines of newborn calves eviscerating through an umbilical hernia site. Sometimes the hernial contents will be contained within a sac. If rushed to a veterinary clinic for emergency surgery, they can have a high rate of success. If the contents are contaminated by straw, dirt, or stepped on by the calf, the odds are reduced drastically. The best approach is to turn calves upside down so no more intestines fall out and wrap a clean wet towel around the area to prevent any exposed intestines from drying out. If surgery can be performed with little contamination to the area, the veterinarian replaces the herniated contents, repairs the hernial site and covers them with antibiotics. It is critical producers discover the condition quickly and get calves to a clinic. The veterinarian can provide a fairly accurate prognosis and advise whether surgery is worth it.

The causes of abdominal problems are varied. In half the cases diagnosis is made on autopsy. With others, there can be a favourable outcome if surgery is performed. Quickly have any of these conditions checked by your veterinarian, as they are true veterinary emergencies. †

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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