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Put on Your Detective Cap to Identify Sick Calves Sooner

DULUTH, Ga. (June 13, 2023) — Dealing with sick calves is not a unique or new challenge across the cattle industry, especially when it comes to bovine respiratory disease (BRD). Even after taking steps to build immunity and mitigate BRD risk, we know some calves are going to get sick. That’s why cattle producers need to put on their detective caps and look for the smallest clues that will lead to an early BRD diagnosis.
Sick cattle can be hard to identify in a group, making a keen eye and solid evaluation protocol essential. With the proper investigation tools, producers can prevent BRD from sneaking up and causing damage.
 
Look for clues
The sooner producers can take action and treat a sick calf, the more likely the calf will respond to treatment. According to Joe Gillespie, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim, one of the biggest challenges is recognizing early signs of illness. Having a trained eye for the following list can be all the difference in catching a sick calf early or too late:
  • Appetite is one of the easier indications of a sick calf. If calves go from consuming an accessible diet to not eating as much, or in some cases not eating anything, we should be flagging them for further evaluation.
  • Key body language that indicates a calf may feel sick includes droopy ears, resting more than normal, and moving sluggishly or slowly.
  • A calf may suffer from a variety of visual symptoms, all depending on what is causing them to get sick. Drainage from either the eyes or nose is an indicator of BRD.
These clinical signs of sickness are not necessarily unique to BRD, but are a sure way to flag animals that are becoming ill.
Evaluate the evidence
When an animal is showing symptoms of being sick, it is important to pull that animal from the herd and evaluate them further. Dr. Gillespie explained where producers should start their examination of a calf that may have BRD: “When we bring a calf in for examination, we should evaluate its rectal temperature and its breathing,” he said. “If the body temperature is elevated, we need to consider if that indicates disease. And with the advice of your local veterinarian, you can listen to the lungs and hear if they sound normal or abnormal.”
High body temperature and irregular breathing can both be indications of livestock that need treatment.
Some operations may identify and evaluate cattle using the D.A.R.T. assessment, which looks at four areas: Depression, Appetite, Respiration and Temperature. “The criteria should be easy to implement on your operation, and used consistently from one day to the next,” suggested Dr. Gillespie. For help diagnosing sick calves on your operation, talk with your local veterinarian for guidance.
Kick out the culprit
Once it is determined a calf needs to be treated, producers should find an antibiotic that best helps the calf fight infection. With the help of veterinary diagnostics, it is possible to test for and identify which bacterial pathogens are the leading culprits. Not every antibiotic is created equally, making it important for producers to find a fast-acting, long-lasting antibiotic that targets all four BRD-causing pathogens.
“With long-acting antibiotics, we have the ability to treat animals and access therapy for multiple days, giving us the opportunity to place that animal back into its pen of origin,” said Dr. Gillepsie. “When an animal is back with its pen mates, there is a greater opportunity for it to go back on feed, feel more comfortable and have less stress, which is very important.”
Implementing D.A.R.T and other investigation tools can help diagnose a sick calf and reveal BRD as the problem, sooner. Do note that if an animal has progressed too far with BRD, an antibiotic will not be an effective treatment option. Work with your veterinarian to find treatment protocols that will best fit your herd and guide treatment to calves that need it most.
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