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Be alert for common young calf problems

photo: file

Every calving season, veterinarians are called on to examine calves with a multitude of problems. Some are herd management related but many are individual problems of no concern to the rest of the herd. Most cases fall into a few broad categories. Each category has a much different treatment regime.

With calves, clinically we need to differentiate between whether the condition involves the lungs (pneumonia), intestines (scours), navel (omphalophlebitis) or a multitude of miscellaneous conditions.


The two main diseases scours and pneumonia often are treated much differently and may not be as easy to tell apart as one thinks. Scours may initially present as a very dopey, heavy-breathing calf. The calf may be quite acidotic and is attempting to blow off the acid through an increased respiratory rate, fooling you into thinking it has pneumonia.

A calf born selenium deficient may have heart issues if the heart muscle is affected. The lungs will start to fill with fluid because of the heart failure and again respiratory rate will be increased. While specific antibiotics have been developed for pneumonia they often are not the same ones we use to treat scours. Also the best initial treatment for scours is to give replacement fluids, as it is dehydration that kills the calf. Many causes of scours are viral in nature against which antibiotics don’t work. You can see making the distinction between which organ system is involved can be a difficult and one your veterinarian may even struggle with at times.


As mentioned many times before, we can never stress enough the importance of good-quality colostrum in giving calves a head start in life. Their ability to fight off disease challenges is much greater. Many cases of pneumonia, scours and septicemias (blood-borne infections) can be attributed to not receiving adequate colostrum, so try and ensure the colostrum is received in the first six hours of life.

The navel area is another area to pay close attention to, as it is a common source for entry of infectious organisms. Again we need adequate colostral uptake. Watch the area for signs of swelling and an arched back and tucked-up calf. If you palpate the navel area and it is painful that is a telltale sign infection is present.

Backwards calves or those derived by C-section have their navels rip off short and are much more susceptible to navel infection. At our clinic any calves born by C-section we purposely separate the navel by hand further down the cord so the calf has a decently long navel cord when it is born. Some producers if they have a problem will even give metaphylactic antibiotics at birth under the supervision of their veterinarian to counteract navel ill. If the navel infection spreads internally it has a good chance of landing in the joints and a severe arthritis ensues. Be sure to differentiate between navel infection and a simple hernia, which may require surgery.

From the Canadian Cattlemen website: Calfhood vaccinations


Lame calves are another common condition with young calves. Again you need to differentiate whether it is arthritis from a navel infection, trauma causing a sprain strain or trauma causing a broken leg. Each condition requires different treatment. The navel infection must be treated with drugs, which will get into the joints, the sprains are usually just left to convalesce and the broken legs need immediate attention by your veterinarian.

If breaks are caught soon enough and are lower on the legs the chances for recovery are very good. The lower the break the better. Fast growing young calves heal and put down bone very quickly so in three to four weeks we often have a complete recovery. Cows will commonly step on calves during heat, so having creep areas where calves can separate themselves from the cow herd will pay dividends in fewer calf injuries.

Creep areas are also very good at getting calves started on creep feed so preventatives for coccidiosis such as deccox can be added to the feed. Calves are naturally inquisitive so products such as diatomaceous earth give calves something to lick rather than dirt, roughage and stagnant water where their odds of picking up something harmful is much greater. Cryptosporidiosis another diarrhea disease of calves’ spreads very similar to coccidiosis so management changes to prevent one may help in prevention of the other. Talk to your veterinarian about prevention for these two diseases especially if they have been previously diagnosed on your farm.


Older calves become stronger and more resistant to picking up the common calf hood diseases such as scours or pneumonia. The four- to eight-week age is where the intestinal accidents and stomach ulcers develop. These conditions were gone into detail in a previous article but suffice it to say they are generally individual fluke-type cases. It is probably most important to have a postmortem done on sudden deaths to rule out infectious causes, which could spread to herdmates. Otherwise know if it was one of these fluke intestinal conditions you really have no control over.

This spring try and differentiate these different categories of problems with young calves. You will then be treating the right problem and your success rate will improve and if contagious possible steps can be made for prevention of further cases. Always check with your veterinarian to make sure you are diagnosing things properly and this will keep you abreast of new treatments and/or management practices. †

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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