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How to spot 5 common cattle diseases

Spring is here, and weaning time is fast approaching for many livestock producers. Keeping the new arrivals and their mothers healthy is a top priority, and recognizing the signs of disease is instrumental in doing so. 

Tony Hawkins, a technical service veterinarian at Valley Vet, says approximately 90% of his calls in the spring consist of one of five common health issues. 

1. Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex

Bovine respiratory disease complex (BRDC) is a respiratory tract infection that can be caused by a variety of factors, including viral and bacterial respiratory pathogens. Hawkins says BRDC occurs most commonly in young cattle around weaning time. 

Symptoms include:

  • Depression
  • Lack of interest in feed
  • Cough
  • Head extension
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Separation from the rest of the herd
  • Fever

Once BRDC has been identified, early treatment will give producers the best chance of success, Hawkins says. Injectable antibiotics and anti-inflammatories are the most effective treatment choices.

“Prescription antibiotics will be the most successful, and there are a lot to choose from,” Hawkins says. “There also tend to be resistance profiles locally, so what works here may not work in other areas. I advise producers to work with local veterinarians because they will know what’s effective in that area.”

He also recommends quarantining the affected animal to minimize the spread.

2. Pink Eye

Infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is a bacterial infection that irritates the eyes. There isn’t an age cap on the cattle it affects, and pink eye is one of the more common diseases found in cattle. 

Symptoms include:

  • Eyelid squinting 
  • Tearing or watery eyes
  • Cloudiness, over the entire surface or over parts of the eye

Over-the-counter medicines can be effective for pink eye, Hawkins says, and the injectable antibiotic oxytetracycline tends to help. He may also recommend a topical spray and eye patch to help the healing process. 

3. Lameness

Lameness occurs when there is an injury or pain in a leg or hoof, often causing an uneven gait. There are a number of reasons lameness occurs. If the injury is bad enough, the animal may not be able to stand at all, Hawkins says.

Symptoms include: 

  • Lagging behind the herd
  • Limping
  • Swelling
  • Inability to put weight on the leg

“For lameness, it’s best if we’re able to catch the animal, tie up that hoof, and clean between the toes,” Hawkins says. “That way we can make sure we’re not dealing with foot rot. We can get a hoof knife, clean off the surface of the hoof, and look for anything obvious.”

Producers should be looking for anything obvious, such as thorns or nails stuck into the surface of the hoof, or injuries. Remove any foreign objects and flush out the wound with disinfectant, Hawkins says, and then use an injectable antibiotic to help with infection.

If no clear problem is found, he suggests consulting a veterinarian.

4. Scours

Scours is a disease of the digestive system, which Hawkins says commonly and predominantly affects young calves. Around weaning time, older calves can develop coccidiosis issues, noticeable by bloody diarrhea.  

Symptoms include: 

  • Loose stool
  • Depression
  • Poor nursing
  • Weakness

Hawkins says the best treatment for scours in young cattle is to keep them warm and hydrated. Dehydration and hypothermia are leading causes of death, and scours can kill an animal from dehydration within a few days. Oral and injectable antibiotics can be given to ward off secondary infections, but they aren’t effective as a primary treatment.

5. Bloat

Bloat is a typical issue of young calves when switching from nursing to solid food or a concentrate-based diet. This type of bloat, “free-gas bloat,” causes gas to build up in the stomach, says Hawkins.

Symptoms include: 

  • Distention of the stomach, especially the left side
  • Labored breathing

Hawkins says it is important to relieve the gas as soon as possible, as bloat is an emergency that can kill an animal quickly. Producers should pass a stomach tube to ease the pressure, then administer a bloat release liquid. Once the gas subsides, Hawkins recommends a diet of only long-stem grass hay for three to five days. The calf can then be transitioned back to grains. 

Most medical issues should be treated as soon as they are spotted. Hawkins says the faster a producer responds to an issue, the better the chance for success.

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