How to recognise sick calves

Success or failure in rearing calves depends to a great extent on the rearers’ attitudes to the calves and their ability to react promptly to the calves’ numerous signals. Do not let your senses idle when handling calves as many potential or actual problems can be picked up by close attention. Once daily feeding regimes should be followed up with at least twice daily visits to the calf shed or paddock.

Recognising healthy calves
Before rearers can recognise sick calves, they must know how healthy calves behave. This allows them to be on the alert for subtle changes in calf behaviour before clinical signs of disease become obvious. They should never be complacent about changes in calf well being and behaviour. Calves charging your knees and running around the pen are healthy. Such calves rest in a curled-up position with feet tucked under and heads back along the body. They appear relaxed with regular breathing. Some healthy calves may also rest flat on their sides.

Signs to look for
Each day look quickly over each pen of calves, then be more specific and check suspect calves’ noses for dampness and ears for temperature. Sick calves often have dry noses and higher than normal body temperatures. Listen to their breathing, noting any “rattles” or laboured breathing. Lift their tail and note the state of any faecal residues. Look at their feet and legs. For the first week to ten days of age, check the navel area for signs of inflammation and swelling. This inspection should be undertaken as part of your daily routine.
Calves resting in the corner of pens, with their head turned away from pen mates should not be ignored. Get the calf up. If it stretches, it is okay. If it does not, it may require further attention. Sick calves show general disinterest, become listless and apathetic, lack vigour and often do not move when approached. They may stand with their ears lowered and head down. Calves must be kept in a stress-free environment. It is difficult to identify changes in the behaviour if calves are kept in conditions where they look miserable and hunched up because of cold stress. Have a “hospital pen” to isolate and frequently observe sick calves. It should be provided with artificial heating, if required, and must be thoroughly cleaned and disinfected after use.

Keep records to help identify problems
Records should be kept of changes in the intake of milk and concentrates and of fluctuations in growth rates. Body temperatures should be recorded in suspect calves to assist with disease diagnosis. The reasons for outbreaks of scouring must be tracked down. It may simply be due to a change in feeding or management routine, in which case little further treatment is necessary. However, if scours persist, veterinary diagnosis should be sought. Only use antibiotics under instructions from your veterinarian.

Calves are very responsive to people, particularly when more than one person is involved in their rearing and welfare. Forming a bond with your calves will develop the rapport to persuade sick animals to eat. Empathy and TLC or (Tender Loving Care) are essential ingredients in any successful calf rearing operation.

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