Pneumonia in dairy calves

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dairy calf Pneumonia is one of the most common diseases we see in dairy calves from birth to weaning. Diagnosing, treating and preventing pneumonia is very important for every dairy farm. Pneumonia is also a disease that you need to work very closely with your veterinarian for guidance.

Signs of pneumonia

Most calves that have pneumonia will have a fever (rectal temperature over 103 degrees) and a rapid respiratory rate (often over 60 breaths per minute). Often, I will look at the calf before disturbing it to see if it is breathing fast as this is a very sensitive indicator of pneumonia. All calves that are suspected of having pneumonia must have their temperature taken. Listening to the lungs with a stethoscope can reveal increased or scratchy crackling breath sounds. Coughing and nasal discharge is also a sign of pneumonia; however, this can also be a sign of poor ventilation and “stale” air. A calf that is coughing without a fever or any change in respiratory rate may just need fresh air and not antibiotics!

Treatment of pneumonia

Calves with pneumonia need injectable antibiotics. There are many antibiotics approved to treat pneumonia in dairy calves, so work with your veterinarian to choose a treatment protocol for your farm. The one antibiotic you should not choose is penicillin. It is ineffective against many causes of pneumonia and will only increase the chance of permanent lung damage by delaying effective treatment. Also remember that if you are going to give Banamine of Flunix to a calf, it must be given in the vein. Intramuscular injections of this product are not approved, cause pain and severe muscle damage. Be careful of giving antibiotics to bull calves. Many are not approved for veal calves, and an extended withdrawal time is needed since the Food and Drug Administration has established a ZERO tolerance for any antibiotic residues used in a class of animal not approved on the label.

Prevention of pneumonia

  • Colostrum management. All calves must have one gallon of colostrum within 4 to 6 hours of birth to receive adequate immunity. Calves that are not given enough antibodies at birth are at increased risk for pneumonia and scours throughout the entire growing period. The most important step in any calf health-management program is a successful colostrum-management program.
  • Ventilation. Have your veterinarian assess the ventilation in your calf area. In cold weather climates, we often see pneumonia in the winter not due to cold but due to closed up barns with inadequate ventilation. If you are at calf level and smell ammonia, you have a severe ventilation problem. Barns should have open sidewalls and ridge caps to allow stale air to escape. Positive pressure tube ventilation systems assist with bringing in fresh air and forcing out stale air from calf barns.
  • 3Vaccination. There are several pneumonia vaccines on the market today. Some are for the common bacteria that cause pneumonia, such as Mannheimia (formerly known as Pasteurella) and others are for respiratory viruses that cause pneumonia (IBR, BVD, PI3, BRSV). There are also intranasal vaccines that can be used in young calves to prevent pneumonia and are a great benefit to many calves. Remember that correctly administering and storing vaccines is important to improve the success of a vaccination program. Ask your veterinarian to review your calf-vaccination protocol on a routine basis and above all follow these guidelines! No vaccination program will correct a poor colostrum-management program.
  • Nutrition. A calf must grow one pound per day to maintain an adequate immune system. Feeding calves 2 quarts of milk twice a day is inadequate to ensure health and growth. Calves must have 6 to 8 quarts of milk per day, fresh water free choice and starter feed free choice to be healthy. Do not overlook the simple fact that calves must grow to be healthy, and in many situations we find inadequate nutrition to be a major cause of calf disease.

In a disease outbreak, it is very important to have your veterinarian evaluate the cause of the pneumonia in your calves. This includes necropsy of all dead calves to evaluate for mycoplasma. Pneumonia can be preventable, as well as treatable, by working with your veterinary and management team.


Fred Gingrich is a practicing veterinarian and owner of Country Roads Veterinary Services Inc., in Ashland, Ohio.



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