Newborn Calves May Benefit from Pain Relief

( Maureen Hanson )

A traumatic birth can leave newborns struggling to get off to a healthy and vigorous start. Michigan State University Extension Dairy Specialist Faith Cullins suggests supportive pain relief may help these disadvantaged calves feel better and turn the corner to vitality more quickly.

Cullins said dystocia – or difficult birth – can cause a host of setbacks for newborns. Depending on the severity of the birth event, calves may have oxygen deficiency; trouble maintaining body temperature; acidosis; vertebrae and rib fractures; and even broken legs. Due to the pain and fatigue of a difficult birth, “these calves are at a higher risk for death in the first 24 hours; reduced vigor short-term; and may have long-term health consequences,” noted Cullins.

To assess whether administration of pain relief medication may help dystocia-stressed calves, a team of Canadian researchers conducted a comparative study on newborn calves on two commercial dairy farms, both of which used automated feeders. The researchers were testing an evaluation system similar to the “Apgar score” used to evaluate newborn human babies. Their system is called VIGOR, which stands for: Visual Appearance, Initiation of movement, General responsiveness, Oxygenation, and heart and respiratory Rates of the newborn calf. Overall, the calf VIGOR score was found to be a good indicator of trauma at calving.

Half of the 284 newborn calves in the study were injected with a subcutaneous dose of a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), while the other half received a placebo. VIGOR was assessed in all calves before the first treatment, and again in a subset of 61 calves 1-6 hours after treatment.    

Their findings, summarized in the Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry, showed:

  • Calves that experienced a difficult birth had lower VIGOR scores initially.
  • Calves that received treatment had significant improvement in VIGOR compared to the placebo-treated calves. 
  • Treated calves also had improves suckling reflex. 

“The improved VIGOR and suckling applied to all calves and was not differentiated specifically by dystocia calves, likely because of the small size of the study,” said Cullins.  At an 8-week follow-up evaluation, treated calves also had higher total milk intake on the automatic feeders, though there was no difference in health and average daily gain between the two groups.

“These results suggest that treating calves with NSAIDs may be a good strategy to reduce pain and inflammation associated with birth, and is very economical,” concluded Cullins. “Getting the calf off to a good start early in life can pay big dividends later in improved health and milk yield.”