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Tips On Using A Stomach Tube

There are times you must get fluid into a calf, such as a newborn that needs colostrum or a sick calf that needs fluid and medications orally. If a newborn is unable to nurse, the quickest, safest way to get colostrum into him is by tube.

There are two ways to “tube” a calf. You can use an esophageal feeding probe (a metal or stiff plastic tube that goes down the calf’s throat and down the esophagus — about 16 inches. It is attached to a container or bag that holds the fluid. Or, you can use a smaller-diameter long flexible nasogastric tube that goes into the nostril and then down into the stomach.

For giving baby calves colostrum or electrolyte fluids, the esophageal feeder is adequate, and easy to use. Many ranchers today use this handy tool. When the calf is properly restrained and the probe carefully placed, it’s an effective, safe way to give fluid. It’s not adequate for getting fluid into a large calf or an adult cow, since the probe doesn’t go far enough down the bigger animal’s esophagus. And, if you want to let gas out of a bloated animal, a nasogastric “nose” tube (stomach tube) is best.

For calves, a flexible plastic or nylon tube about four feet long is adequate. It should be about a quarter-inch in diameter. For adult cattle you need a larger diameter tube about a half-inch, and at least seven feet long.

You can make a nasogastric tube from any flexible tubing of proper diameter. Smooth or bevel one end with a knife, sander or grinder so it won’t scrape the nasal passage and throat. Administer fluid by attaching a large funnel to your end of the tube after the smooth end has been put into the stomach via the nostril. To administer mineral oil or castor oil — which is thick and won’t run down the tube-use a large (140 cc) syringe to force warm oil mixed with warm water down the tube.

In cold weather, keep the tube

Once you get the calf stable and secure, insert the tube into a nostril (left photo) and after you know the tube has reached the stomach fill a funnel (right photo) with liquid to be administered.

in a thermos jug of warm water until use, to keep the tube warm and flexible so it won’t get stiff, then blow any water out of it just before you insert it into the calf. Restrain the calf by backing him into a corner and holding his head/neck between your legs. Tuck his nose downward toward his chest before inserting the tube. If his head is pointed up or stretched forward, the tube is likely to go into the windpipe instead of the esophagus. The esophagus is slightly above the windpipe. The tube will go into the esophagus if the calf’s nose is tucked downward. If his head is stretched forward the tube may travel straight into the windpipe.

Put the smoothed end into one nostril, rather quickly — before the calf sees it coming and resists by clamping the inner part of his nostril shut. If he clamps it shut, it will be difficult to insert the tube and may bloody his nose. Push the tube quickly to the back of the throat and then go gently and slowly so the calf can swallow it. He must swallow it before it can enter the esophagus. If he fails to swallow, it goes into his windpipe instead. On rare occasion it may even curve around and start back out through the other nostril. If this happens, gently pull it out and start over.

Make sure the tube is swallowed and goes down the esophagus. Don’t administer fluid, oil or colostrum until you are sure it’s in the right place, or you risk drowning the calf. There are clues to tell if it’s right. If the calf coughs as you try to put the tube on down, it’s in his windpipe. Take it out and start over. If it goes down easily and you meet with no resistance — and it goes in at least two feet or more in a small calf — it’s in the stomach. It can’t go that far in the windpipe because it branches into smaller bronchial tubes.

Check to make sure it’s in the stomach by blowing on your end. If you hear burbling noises or smell stomach gas coming out, it’s in the stomach. If blowing makes the calf cough, it’s in the windpipe and you must take it out.

Once you are sure it’s in the stomach, attach a funnel and administer the fluid or colostrum, or use a syringe to force down mineral oil or castor oil if you are treating bloat, a plugged up calf, or an acute toxic gut infection that has shut down the gut. If giving castor oil to a plugged or shut-down calf, shake up four to six ounces of oil with an equal amount of very warm water (in a small jar) and draw the mixture into your syringe. If you keep castor oil warm it will go down the tube much more readily than if it’s cold and thick.


Years ago, before esophageal feeders were invented, the flexible nasogastric tube was the only way to get fluid into a calf. Our vet showed us how to use the “nose tube” more than 40 years ago, when we were treating calves for scours. Since then, we’ve tubed hundreds of calves. This handy tool made it easy to give fluids/electrolytes and oral medication to sick calves, revolutionizing our ability to head off dehydration. We still use this kind of tube. In some instances it’s more effective than using the shorter esophageal probe. We also use a larger-diameter nasogastric tube for administering fluid or mineral oil to adult cattle.

It’s handy to administer fluids or liquid medications, and better than an esophageal feeder when treating a bloated animal; it goes clear into the rumen and can let gas come back out the tube before you pour in mineral oil or other medications. It’s also useful if a calf has been eating dirt and plugged up. Put a small amount of water directly into the stomach and let it come back out the tube, bringing dirt with it. By alternately putting water in and draining it out, you can clean a lot of dirt out of a calf.

HeatherSmithThomasrancheswithher husbandLynnnearSalmon,Idaho.Contact herat208-756-2841

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