By Heather Smith Thomas – Some calves develop calf bloat, an acute enterotoxemia (toxic gut infection), caused by bacterial toxins. These calves are usually about a month old but may be as young as a few days of age or as old as two to three months. They are generally healthy, fast-growing calves that suddenly experience severe gut pain — kicking at their belly (sometimes running frantically, trying to get away from the pain), throwing themselves to the ground and thrashing, like a colicky horse. They may stagger and collapse.
Or, the calf may suddenly become dull and bloated, not wanting to move. The proliferating bacteria damage the gut and it shuts down, causing a sudden buildup of gas and pain. If the calf is not treated immediately, toxins leak through the damaged gut wall into the bloodstream, creating septicemia (toxins throughout the body start attacking various body organs). The calf goes into shock and soon dies — unless this condition can be reversed by appropriate treatment.
In a typical scenario, this infection develops so quickly that the gut shuts down before the calf scours. There are several types of bacterial infections that can affect the gut this quickly. Most common is Clostridium perfringens if calves are not vaccinated for types C and D. These bacteria can cause sudden death in very young calves (less than two weeks of age), but sometimes the problem doesn’t appear until calves are a month or two of age. This was often called overeating disease because it seemed to affect the biggest, fastest-growing calves whose mothers produced a lot of milk. Another cause of calf bloat is when milk replacer for calves isn’t mixed correctly when feeding bottle calves. Be sure the mixture contains the proper amount of water.
A calf stretched out showing the discomfort he’s experiencing, trying to relieve the gas pains.
Vaccinating cows ahead of calving with C. perfringens type C and D toxoid (to produce antibodies which the calf obtains via colostrum), or vaccinating calves at birth or soon after can protect them against this deadly disease.
Yet even with vaccination, some herds continue to have problems, losing calves to a similar type of toxin-forming bacterial infection. It’s not C. perfringens type C or D (because vaccination, and/or treatment with C & D antitoxin in acute cases, will not prevent or alleviate this disease). This problem can also be caused by type A, which is not included in seven or eight-way clostridial vaccines.
Sometimes other bacteria are involved, such as C. difficile (another clostridia subtype) or E. coli. These bacterial toxins are potent poisons. The challenging thing with toxic gut infection is that it can kill calves within a few hours. A calf may be fine one evening and dead the next morning, or healthy in the morning and kicking/thrashing and going into shock by afternoon. These calves can be saved, however, if discovered in time and treated quickly — before they go into shock — even if you don’t know the exact cause of infection.
All calves should be vaccinated soon after birth with C & D toxoid or the seven or eight-way Clostridial vaccine unless the cows were vaccinated prior to calving (to produce antibodies in their colostrum). If calves continue to have problems, you may need to try a vaccine for C. perfingens type A.
It’s also important to have calves in a clean environment, but sometimes this is difficult. Some years, especially wet ones, seem to be worse than others. Calves stay healthier if the ground is dry instead of wet and muddy — with dirty udders and calves drinking from mud puddles or eating dirt/mud that might contain bacteria.
Clostridial bacteria are nearly everywhere and are hardy. Some of them are common inhabitants of the intestine and only cause disease when conditions are right. The clostridia that cause disease in calves are already in the environment, in the cow’s digestive tract, and the calf’s gut. They can be shed in feces and picked up whenever calves ingest contaminated feed, water, mud, etc. Under certain conditions, these bacteria multiply exponentially in the gut and the calf is shedding them into the environment. You might start a calving season with no problems and then suddenly have several cases.
Antibodies calves obtain from colostrum are gone by six to eight weeks of age. This is why calves need to be vaccinated with an eight-way vaccine within the first month or two of life. This will prevent infections caused by types C & D, but won’t protect against other kinds of toxin-forming bacteria not included in the vaccine.
No two years are the same. You may think you have a problem resolved with vaccine and management, only to have a problem the next year. The lower incidence of cases a certain year might have been because it was drier. Pastures that had cattle in the past are still contaminated; the “bugs” can be there a long time in the soil. Close monitoring of calves, to notice any cases early on, gives you a chance to treat them before they go into shock or you find them dead.
If a calf can be treated at first signs of acute gut pain or calf bloat, there is a good chance of saving him. The infection can be halted with the proper antibiotic, and the shutdown gut can be stimulated with castor oil to start moving again. Once the 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.
If you suspect Clostridium perfringens type C or D is the cause, you can give antitoxin — either orally or by IV. You can also give Banamine to help reduce the inflammatory reaction and ease the pain.
Penicillin is effective against clostridial organisms and is most effective for this disease if given orally, into the gut. Oral doses of neomycin sulfate solution also work. Castor oil can get those toxins out of the gut. Castor oil works better than mineral oil, because you don’t need as much volume (a plus if the calf is already bloated and full) and also stimulates the gut to move. Mineral oil merely lubricates. The usual dose of castor oil is two to three ounces for a small calf and up to five or six ounces for a three-month-old calf. Castor oil may help save him by absorbing some of the toxins and stimulating the shut-down gut to move things through.
Once the calf is in shock, the only chance for saving him is to give large amounts of IV fluids, along with medication to combat shock. If you can reverse this condition before vital organs are shut down or seriously damaged, the calf may survive. If internal organs have shut down, you are too late. If you can reverse shock and get enough fluid into the circulatory system to get kidneys working, passing urine, the calf has a chance.
Using a Nasogastric Tube
If you know how to tube feed a calf, then using a nasogastric tube is nothing new to you. To administer castor oil, use a flexible tube about four-feet long and a quarter-inch in diameter. This is better than an esophageal feeder when treating a calf bloat; it goes clear into the rumen and can let gas come back out the tube before you give the oil.
Castor oil is thick and won’t run down the tube so you need a large (140 cc) syringe to force the warm oil (mixed with a little warm water) down the tube.
In cold weather, put the tube 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 the tube into the calf. Restrain the calf by backing him into a corner and holding his head/neck between your legs. Tuck his nose toward his chest before inserting the tube. If his head pointed up or stretched forward, the tube is likely to go into the windpipe instead of the esophagus. Put the smoothed end into one nostril, quickly — before the calf sees it coming and resists by clamping the inner part of his nostril shut. If he clamps the nostril, it will be difficult to insert the tube and may also 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 will go into his windpipe instead.
Make sure the tube is swallowed. Don’t administer any fluid or oil until you are sure it’s in the right place, or you risk drowning the calf. If the calf coughs as you try to put the tube down, this usually means it’s in his windpipe. Take it out and start over. If it goes down easily 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; that passage 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, use a big syringe to force down the castor oil. Shake up four to six ounces of oil with an equal amount of very warm water (in a small jar) and suck the mixture up into your syringe. If you keep the castor oil warm enough it will go down the tube more readily than if it’s cold and thick.
Have your calves experienced calf bloat? Were you able to diagnose and treat it before it was too late?