Recent discussions among dairy veterinarians and herd owners suggest that "jejunal hemorrhagic disease," or "intestinal hemorrhagic syndrome," is on the rise.

Although this disease has been around for years, the number of cases reported has increased during the last four or five years.

Usually, it shows up in one of two ways. In one scenario, an adult dairy cow is found dead with no prior signs of illness. Postmortem examination shows a segment of the middle small intestine (the jejunum) engorged with blood, and the heart may have areas of bleeding and discoloration. A second scenario, seen more commonly in my practice, involves an adult cow with signs of acute abdominal pain. These signs may include kicking at her belly, restlessness, and repeated attempts to lie down and get up. After several hours, the signs ease, and she quits eating and becomes progressively more depressed, with a dramatic decline in milk production. If surgery is performed, a 6-to-12-inch segment of the jejunum is found filled with clotted blood. If surgery is not done, the cow will die from the intestinal blockage.

In cases that don't involve sudden death, we have had some success by administering penicillin at the time of the initial signs of colic noted above. Then, if manure does not pass within 24 hours, exploratory surgery is performed. We then massage and crush the blood clots through the intestinal wall (rather than remove them or the affected segment of intestine). Four animals treated this way have all recovered.

The suspect
The cause or causes of these syndromes is still undetermined, but at least one organism is strongly suspected - Clostridium perfringens Type A. In the past, Type A strains were not generally considered to be pathogenic. However, that is no longer the case.

Commercial vaccines are designed to be effective against Type C or D strains, not Type A. Some veterinarians report that frequent vaccination with Clostridium perfringens Type C and D toxoid helps reduce the incidence rate of jejunal hemorrhagic disease, providing some cross-protection for disease caused by Type A bacteria. And, others have used tissue from dead animals to manufacture an autogenous vaccine for Type A clostridial infections.

Although the disease occurs across the country, reports have been more prevalent in the West and Northwest. Veterinarians at Washington State University have posted information on their Web site about the disease. You can find it at:

Risk factors
This disease tends to show up in high-producing herds, especially those that feed large amounts of haylage - particularly wet haylage - and high levels of carbohydrates in the ration. In general, it seems the risk of all clostridial diseases is increasing in the dairy cattle population. Two possible reasons exist:

  • Increased likelihood of soil contamination of feed due to changes in the way we harvest and store forages.
  • Changes in feeding practices that result in a more hospitable environment within the intestine for clostridial infections, such as higher concentrations of fat and carbohydrates in the diet.

If jejunal hemorrhagic disease occurs on your dairy, consult your veterinarian. Make sure that your clostridial vaccination protocol is up-to-date, and examine your herd's diet for other risk factors.

Brian Gerloff is a veterinarian and operates Seneca Bovine Service in Marengo, Ill.