Editor's note: Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services Inc. in Ashland, Ohio.

Our practice has seen an increased frequency of abomasal bloat in preweaned dairy calves. The unfortunate part of this disease syndrome is that most calves that experience this problem die very quickly. The good news is that by working with your veterinarian and calf-feeding team, this disease can be prevented through proper management.

Signs of abomasal bloat

Typically, the first thing that is noticed is the calf will not drink its full meal and act a little slow. Calves may seem uncomfortable and kick at their belly or want to lie down. Within a short time, the abdomen of the calf will swell and often feel firm. Finally, calves will refuse to stand, be weak, have no suckle, appear dehydrated with sunken eyes, and death typically occurs quickly. The entire course of the signs can be less than four hours, so early intervention is critical. A calf that does not consume its milk feeding should be immediately evaluated. Diagnosis of the disease is usually done at necropsy of a dead calf. Usually, we see a bloated abomasum with inflamed, thickened and bloody stomach walls. Any calf that dies on your farm should be necropsied by your veterinarian to determine the cause and institute preventive measures.

Cause of abomasal bloat

The bacterium that is suspected as the cause of abomasal bloat is a Clostridial bacteria, although other organisms may be involved. This bacterium is a common inhabitant in the calf environment and the gastrointestinal tract of cattle. The bacteria release a toxin, and this is what causes rapid death in the calf. It is important for dairy farmers to realize that this disease should not be considered an infection that can be prevented with a vaccine or drug. This disease, like most calf diseases, is due to a failure of calf management and, therefore, addressing the management changes is most important to prevent further losses on your farm.

Treatment of abomasal bloat

Treatment is not usually successful due to the rapid and severe progression of the disease. Administering antitoxin, antibiotics and IV fluids can be helpful if done very early in the course of the disease. Since the use of these drugs is an extra-label drug use, guidelines for this treatment must come directly from your veterinarian. Decompression of the abomasum may also help, although this procedure should be performed by a veterinarian if possible.

Prevention of abomasal bloat

1. Evaluate colostrum program. Ensure that all calves receive one gallon of clean colostrum as soon after birth as possible. Prevention of any calf-hood disease starts with an effective colostrum program to ensure appropriate calf immunity. Ask your veterinarian to blood-test calves for total protein levels at 24 to 72 hours of birth to determine if calves are achieving adequate immunity.

2. Evaluate milk replacer mixing. This is probably the most important step in preventing abomasal bloat in calves. First, make sure that the water is the correct temperature according to manufacturer’s recommendations. Typically, milk replacer should be mixed at 105 to 110 degrees. Make sure that the correct amount of powder is being mixed with the water. It is a good idea to purchase a digital gram scale and weigh the powder to the correct amount according to the label. Finally, make sure that the milk replacer is mixed and agitated thoroughly and fed immediately to ensure the correct temperature when it reaches the calf. Your milk replacer program can be monitored by using a BRIX refractometer to estimate the total solids in your mixed milk replacer. A correct BRIX reading for milk replacer should be 10.5-11%.

3. Feeding pasteurized whole milk can decrease the risk of abomasal bloat. If you are adding powder, water or milk replacer to your whole milk, use a BRIX to estimate the total solids.

4. Ensure proper cleaning and sanitation of all milk feeding equipment. Milk feeding equipment should be rinsed with warm water (not hot), the scrubbed with hot soapy bleach water, the rinsed with an acid rinse and allowed to air dry.

5. Make sure all calves have free-choice water, especially after feeding their milk.

Work with your veterinarian to ensure that your calf-feeding team is taking all of the necessary management steps to prevent this disease on your farm.