I have attended many meetings where speakers discuss how to find sick cows in your herd. But then what? Let’s take a few minutes to determine what to do with these cows once we find them.

Following is a brief outline to go by. Meanwhile, ask your veterinarian to help you learn to perform a thorough physical exam on sick cows. Remember, like any task, use repetition to ensure that it is completed properly. 

Equipment needs

You’ll need the following equipment to perform the exam:

1.          Thermometer. 

2.         Stethoscope.

3.         Urine ketone strips.

4.         Rectal sleeves and lube.

5.         Optional — culture vials for milk or manure, blood tubes.

The physical exam

To begin, take a good look at the cow in question. Do you see any areas of swelling, bloat or lameness?  Does she seem uncomfortable or is she kicking at her abdomen?

Move to the back of the cow.

  • Take her temperature. I prefer a quick-read digital thermometer. But if you use a mercury thermometer, make sure that you shake down the mercury before using. If the rectum is full of air or constipated feces, then the reading will be inaccurate; you will need to press the tip of the thermometer against the cow’s rectal wall. Normal temperature is 101 to 102.5 degrees F.
  • Assess odor and color of uterine discharge. Ask your veterinarian to define normal for fresh cows so you do not over-treat uterine infections.
  • Perform a urine ketone test according to test directions. Hint: rub the cow below the vulva to get her to urinate. Do not hold the tail while rubbing.
  • Next, check the color of mucous membranes inside vulva. They should be a healthy shade of pink. Note if they are pale.
  • Perform a rectal exam to check for the consistency of the manure (constipated, normal, loose, diarrhea). You should also palpate for any abnormal masses and check the uterus for swelling.

Move to the cow’s left side. With your stethoscope, listen to her rumen and feel for rumen fill in the triangular area behind her ribs. The area should have a firm, doughy feel. A gassy or empty-feeling space is abnormal. With your thumb and middle finger, ping the left side of the cow.
It should sound like a dull thud. An abnormal sound is a high-pitched ping.

Next, listen to her heart and lungs from this same side. Push your stethoscope forward under the forelimb along the chest to hear the heart. Normal heart rate is about 60 to 80 beats per minute; more than 100 beats per
minute is abnormal. Note whether her breathing seems fast or labored.

Move around to the front of the cow. Check for the following: Are her eyes sunken? Are her ears cold? Any odor to her breath? Any discharge from her nose or mouth? Any coughing?

Listen to the heart and lungs on the right side. Do they sound the same as the left? Pinch the cow’s topline to see if she drops down or if she has pain in the abdomen. Ping the right side of the cow like you did on the left.

Check the udder for swollen or hard quarters. Strip quarters to detect mastitis.

Develop a diagnosis

Once you have completed the exam, list the results. This can be on paper, in your hand-held computer or on her back with tail chalk. I have often found that we don’t need an exact diagnosis, but instead need to list her problems and then treat them. 

Consult with your veterinarian to develop basic treatments that you and your employees can use to treat common conditions. And work with him to recognize when to call for help.

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