Calves sometimes develop systemic infection in which bacteria or their toxins get into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body.
Some types of toxin-forming bacteria (usually gaining entrance to the body via the GI tract, after damaging the gut lining and slipping through it) cause rapid death. The calf goes into shock when internal organs are damaged and start shutting down.
Any blood-borne infection may become life threatening if bacteria or their toxins damage vital organs. In some instances the infection may localize, creating internal abscesses, or may settle in the joints — causing a painful arthritis (“joint ill”).
Dr. Steve Hendrick, with the southern Alberta Coaldale Veterinary Clinic just east of Lethbridge, says calves (because of the type of placenta in the cow) are unable to get antibodies from the cow’s bloodstream and are born without any antibodies to protect them from disease.
“Thus they need to obtain the needed antibodies from the cow’s colostrum,” says Hendrick. “Many people don’t realize how critical this is — to make sure the newborn calf has adequate colostrum.
“Ideally it should come from the dam because hopefully she has been in the environment the calf will be born into (unless the cow was purchased just before calving), exposed to pathogens the calf will face and has the needed antibodies in her colostrum.”
Producers can use a commercial supplement if necessary, in cases where the cow dies before the calf can suckle, or doesn’t have any milk. But, colostrum harvested to create commercial products comes from a different environment, Hendrick says.
“It’s best to use colostrum from your own cows. Many calves that develop septicemia are calves that didn’t get enough antibody protection from colostrum.”
Keep calving areas clean
Even if they did, sometimes their immunities are overwhelmed if they are born into a filthy environment and develop navel infection. Calves may be exposed to a high dose of pathogens. It’s important to make sure calves are born in a clean environment.
“Clean bedding is good prevention against navel infection, especially if the cows are confined rather than calving on large grass pastures,” Hendrick says.
Those who calve early in cold weather, or are calving out heifers, generally have them confined so they can watch them closely. It takes more diligence to make sure that area is clean.
“We often see calves born in dirty conditions, and have to suckle a dirty udder,” Hendrick says. “This increases the number of pathogens the calf will ingest, and there are also more pathogens that will come into contact with the raw umbilical stump. There’s a huge challenge to the immune system.”
Infections can get into the bloodstream from any location of the body, even the respiratory system. With septicemia, the big challenge is treating the systemic infection. If treatment isn’t started early to halt the infection, some internal organs and/or joints may be damaged.
“Septicemia is ‘blood poisoning’ and simply means bacteria in the blood,” says Hendrick. Signs of septicemia may include weakness and dehydration. The calf may be unable to get up, with signs of shock — pale gums, cold feet and cold ears. The heart may be beating fast, trying to get blood to vital organs as everything starts shutting down.
If the calf is young and sick and has swollen joints, check the navel for signs of infection such as swelling, heat, a thick umbilicus, or pus discharge. A common cause of septicemia is navel ill. Infection from the umbilicus gets into the blood and travels to other tissues. A healthy calf that had good colostrum may still get an infected umbilicus but will generally wall it off as a local abscess and is not as likely to get septicemia. The joints are a common location for blood-borne infection to localize — the joints swell and become painful and the calf is lame.
Work with veterinarian
It’s important to work with your veterinarian when early signs are noticed (lame calf, or very sick calf), because the earlier you treat the calf, the better the chance of halting the infection before it causes extensive damage or makes it impossible to save the calf. Your veterinarian can advise on the proper antibiotics because there are several that could be effective.
“These infections tend to filter into some of the smaller blood vessels like the capillaries, particularly in the joints or where the bones are growing (ends of the bones),” says Hendrick. This may result in a chronic arthritis. It’s difficult to get enough antibiotic into those areas.
He urges producers to monitor young calves closely to make sure they are up and moving around, and not stiff or lame. If they look sluggish or sore, you have a serious problem. “Hopefully you can catch them before they get to this point,” he says.
Prevention is preferable to having to treat calves or risk losing them. A clean environment, adequate colostrum, and adequate nutrition for the cow herd are crucial factors.
“If cows don’t have good condition and are not passing good colostrum to their calves, you are fighting an uphill battle,” Hendrick says. “Some producers try to give every calf a long-acting antibiotic at birth, and this might be a short-term help, but is not a good solution. Antibiotics are not a cure-all for sloppy management and poor conditions.”