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.