Carol Erikson, DVM, offers her farm animal health experience in caring for cows, calves, horses and sheep.
Farm Animal Health Topics
I bought a horse in Kentucky and I need to haul him home to
New Mexico in a few months. I was told I need a vet to
issue health papers on him so I can cross state lines. What
does this involve? Will I need to get vaccinations? What is
the reason for this inspection?
Health papers for livestock were developed to control the
spread of contagious disease as well as to protect the
owner/mover from unforeseen health problems during
transport. Regulations governing vaccination and testing
vary from state to state. Your vet will be able to tell you
what is required before entering a specific area.
Your horse should always be current on vaccinations anyway.
A four-way tetanus, influenza, and sleeping sickness
vaccination should be given annually regardless of
transportation status. Other vaccinations depend on age,
breeding status, and use of your animal. These would be:
streptococcus equi, rhinopneumonitis and Potomac horse
fever. Vaccination not only protects your horse when
entering a new area, but also other horses that s/he may
A blood test for equine infectious anemia, commonly called
the Coggins Test, may also be required when crossing state
lines. Your vet must fill out the proper forms, draw blood
for serum, submit this to a lab, and get results before
your horse can be moved. It pays to start early when
considering shipping livestock.
In Western states, your move would require obtaining a
brand inspection regardless of whether your horse is
branded or not. A brand inspection confirms that the horse
in question is being moved legally, and not being stolen.
This would be similar to carrying vehicle registration
papers in case you're pulled over by the highway patrol. It
may also be wise to carry your horse's registration papers
and the bill of sale should proof of ownership be
Certain tests and inspection papers have time constraints
as well. You need to be well-prepared for all regulations
that your horse may encounter. This can really be
frustrating to owners who need a horse shipped yesterday.
But believe me, the reasons behind these laws have
This summer/fall we had a disease called vesicular
stomatitis (v.s.), spread across the Southwestern United
States. This disease mainly effected only hoofed creatures
causing oral blisters and general malaise. Thankfully this
disease wasn't lethal, but it was economically crippling.
The beef, dairy and horse industries suffered major
Primary means of spread of v.s. were insect vectors and
direct contact with infected livestock. The most effective
means of controlling the spread of v.s. was through
quarantine and health-inspection requirements. Some states,
like Kentucky, prohibited movement of horses into the
state, period. There were threats that many livestock
markets would also shut down in order to halt the epidemic.
As you can see, veterinary health inspection is not an idle
pursuit. It not only protects your animals and those who
move them, but also protects the livestock industry as a
whole. The key to a successful move is getting an early
start. Contact your vet at least one week prior to
shipment. Don't forget to ask about regulations like brand
inspection, too. If you can prepare ahead of time, your
move should go without a hitch. Good luck, and enjoy your
We have a few Hereford cattle and we'd like to get a cattle
dog. What's the best way for us to decide what kind of dog
to get? Are some cattle dogs or sheep dogs easier to train
than others? I've heard that Australian Shepherds are
temperamental with children. Is this true?
Your questions are very valid, and it is good to see
someone doing her homework before acquiring any dog. There
are many breeds of dogs for working livestock. The three
most popular in my area are the Australian shepherd
(Aussie), the Australian cattle dog (Heeler), and the
Border collie. Any one of these can be used for sheep or
cattle if properly trained. Classically, Heelers are used
for cattle, Border collies for sheep and Aussies for either
cattle or sheep. A good dog starts with basic obedience:
sit, stay, come, no etc. Many working dogs are trained to
respond to whistle commands or other strange sounds or
words that indicate direction, speed, or aggressiveness.
The bottom line for having them actually be helpful is
obedience. I don't care how much your dog loves to work
livestock, if you don't control him, he will only be a
I don't think you can label Aussies as temperamental with
children. Any of these sensitive working dogs can be
temperamental with anyone. On the other hand, any of these
breeds can make wonderful family pets, too. A lot depends
on their breeding and how they are raised. I personally
have a Heeler and an Aussie, as well as a 3-year-old
daughter. My Aussie, who is just a pup, is learning
manners, but her basic nature is a very happy, friendly
sort. You must start with good temperament and keep
enforcing the type of behavior you want.
When you think you are ready to commit to owning a working
dog, there are many things to consider other than breed. Do
I get a puppy or an adult, purebred or cross? Do I train it
or have it professionally trained? Sex of the animal has
never made a difference to me, but neutering and spaying
do. A "fixed" dog will be a lot easier to own (and usually
train), due to the fact that you have eliminated one of the
dog's strongest instincts—reproduction. I have seen some
fabulous "intact" dogs, but I would leave these in the
hands of professionals and folks who understand the
seriousness of breeding dogs.
Puppies are a joy and a lot of work. You can mold them to
your specifications, however. Also, aggression towards
people usually shows up early and can be corrected. Adults
can be easier to own, but sometimes their past upbringing
won't be compatible with what you have in mind. Retraining
can be difficult, but it can be accomplished. My Heeler is
a reconditioned model. He was horrible when I got him; he
seemed to always be looking for trouble. He represents what
happens to a lot of working dogs. Working dogs tend to be
very intelligent and active. If not given a job, they will
often go and find their own work. Many Heelers, Aussies,
and Border collies will work children, cats, chickens,
etc., by nipping or chasing them. They also tend to be
"mouthy" so provide many chew toys; otherwise, they will
find couches, chairs or your favorite boots to chew on.
You must be there to discipline their behavior and you must
be consistent every time. Never let them work animals at
their leisure, only when you are there to direct them.
Before any work on live animals is started, they must be
unsurpassed in obedience. Working with them daily on just
"sit, stay, come" will pay off when it is time to move
livestock. Also, when you work with them daily, it gives
them something to do rather than thinking up their own
activities. If you do not think your dog is learning the
way he should, get help from a professional trainer. Dogs
are like people. Some learn easily and some need
alternative methods to get the ideas across. You can find
good and bad students in every breed.
Other breeds that might be of interest to you are:
rottweilers, originally bred to work cattle; Great
Pyrenees, sheep guardians; or Australian kelpies, very
intelligent and hard working. Do not be afraid to shop
around. These animals are a commitment, but the right one
will be a joy and honor to own.
Last year we thought our cow was having difficulty calving,
so we had our vet come out. He lives 30 minutes away and by
the time he arrived, our cow had already given birth. Our
horse is due this spring. How will we know when the vet
should be called? We don't want to seem overprotective, but
we don't want to lose a baby or the mother, either. What
warning signs should we look for when it comes time for our
animals to give birth?
La Veta, CO
It always pays off to be well informed and prepared when
anticipating parturition (birthing). Dystocia (difficult
birthing) can be dealt with systematically in animals and
not all species are treated the same.
In cattle dystocias are fairly common. Luckily, a cow or
heifer can go for some time without risking the life of the
calf or mother. Horses, on the other hand, rarely have
dystocias, but when they do, it almost always requires the
assistance of a veterinarian. In order to know when a vet
should be summoned, we need to understand the different
stages of labor.
Stage I, cervical dilation, usually lasts two to six hours
in cows and other small ruminants. In horses the time is
much less, probably two to three hours from the first signs
until the breaking of the amniotic sac. Litter-bearing
animals (pigs, etc.) usually have a four- to five-hour
Stage 1. Signs associated with this stage are: attempts at
seclusion, colic or agitation, and the loss of the cervical
Stage II is the actual delivery of the baby. In cows signs
of Stage II labor are abdominal pressing (visible
straining), restlessness, and protrusion of fetal membranes
from the vulva. Stage II in cows is initiated when fetal
parts contact the birth canal and dilated cervix. In most
cows, once the amniotic sac is visible, delivery will ensue
within two hours. If membranes are visible for longer than
two hours without delivery, a vet should be called.
In most instances Stage II is interrupted because the calf
is in the wrong position. The most correct position for
calves and foals is to have both front hooves coming first
with the nose and head closely following. Most cows will
strain for two or three minutes then rest two or three
minutes. If the resting periods are lengthening (20-30
minutes) without any signs of progress, the cow should be
Common causes for inappropriate Stage II labor are: legs or
head not presented correctly, tail coming first, or calves
coming upside down. Many heifers have difficulty birthing
due to inadequate dilation of the cervix and calves too
large for the birth canal. If you feel comfortable
repositioning calves and pulling them, remember to limit
your efforts to only about 30 minutes. If you can't
reposition and extract the calf in this time, a Cesarean
section may be in order. Also, when pulling calves, don't
apply pressure greater than three strong men. Improper use
of "calf jacks" can injure both calf and mother. A calf can
survive about eight to 10 hours once Stage II labor has
started. Don't waste too much time if you know problems
exist. It has been shown that the longer a cow spends in
labor, the longer it will take her to normalize and come
back in heat after birthing.
The end of Stage I labor in horses is usually noted by the
expulsion of two to five gallons of fluid. This event,
termed breaking water, is usually followed by a 1015 minute
period during which the amniotic sac and foal's feet will
become visible through the vulva. If the amnion or feet are
not visible after the appearance of chorioallantoic fluid,
a vet should be notified. If you need to delay labor while
waiting for a vet, you may walk the mare to prevent further
foaling. Foals survive one to two hours after Stage II
labor starts. Indeed, you must act quickly if you suspect
dystocia in the mare.
If feet and amnion appear in the normal time, labor usually
progresses normally. A mare will usually lie down for Stage
II labor when the foal is delivered. This process takes
only 15 minutes in most mares. Any delay could mean a
malpositioned foal and veterinary assistance should be
summoned at once.
In both cattle and horses, the placenta is usually expelled
15 minutes to an hour following delivery. Retention of
membranes beyond six to nine hours would require veterinary
care. Examining the rectal and vulva area after delivery is
a good idea, too. It may be purple and swollen, but should
not show signs of hemorrhage or tearing.
Preparing yourself and your animals for delivery is
paramount if you wish to avoid complications. Knowing the
exact birth date is helpful, but other signs like increased
mammary size, colostrum secretion, and softening of the
vulva and muscles around the tail area are good indicators
for the impending parturition. You may have to set up a
watching schedule one to two weeks prior to the due date,
especially if the above signs are evident. One can be
fairly lenient in older cows possibly checking every six to
eight hours. In heifers, checking every two or three hours
may be necessary when nearing the due date. Some horse
owners prefer to sleep in the barn with their mares,
especially if the mares are "waxing"—secreting colostrum.
Of course, even the best foal watchers sometimes miss the
great event. Most animals will deliver early in the
morning, say two or three o'clock. I have gone in for a cup
of coffee only to come back and find a healthy foal on the
ground. Just remember that you have more time with cattle
dystocias than with horses; however, cattle tend to have
more dystocias than horses, statistically. If you are
observant and well informed, you should be able to tell
when an animal is in trouble or when things are progressing
normally. Good luck with your babies, you are on the right
Is branding with hot irons a cruel practice? Are there
alternatives to branding irons that work? I've heard about
freeze brands, but I also heard they don't last.
Branding with hot irons is an issue that has recently come
to light with the surge of animal rights awareness in this
country. In my opinion, it is not cruel if done correctly
and judiciously. To appreciate why we brand livestock
today, one must look at the roots of this practice. A brand
is like the title to your car. A brand registered in your
name decrees that all cattle and horses wearing this brand
belong to you. If you sell this animal to someone, they
must get a brand inspection, which is similar to a transfer
of title. In areas where cattle are on open range, brands
help distinguish between different owners. In a grazing
association, several different ranches may run their cattle
together. At gathering time, a permanent symbol on the
cattle allows for quick identification of the animals in a
legal manner. In this area of the country (that is,
Colorado and other western states), you may not
sell—or even transport—livestock without a brand
inspection. This deters theft and illegal movement of
Now, why must hot irons be used instead of other methods?
First, the labeling of cattle must be permanent. Therefore
ear tags, hair colorants, etc., would not work because they
can be altered too easily. Second, the symbol must be
easily visible. Microchips and tattoos are great ideas, but
impractical from an economic as well as a labor standpoint.
Most cattle are not handled as easily as horses or dogs.
Imagine scanning 5,000 head of wild cattle at a sale yard
in an eight hour day; a brand can be identified at a glance
and at a distance.
Freeze branding is easily read but does tend to fade with
time. The problem here is the practicality of applying the
brand. Many operations brand cattle out on the range.
Sometimes access to rangeland may prohibit hauling liquid
nitrogen needed for freeze branding. Also, liquid nitrogen
may not be readily available in some parts of the country,
but fire is. Another problem with freeze brands is the
cattle must be dark haired in order for the brand to show.
Freezing doesn't destroy the hair follicle, just the
pigment production. You would not be able to see a freeze
brand on Charlais or other light-haired cattle.
Furthermore, if you wanted to destroy the hair follicle so
a dark symbol appeared, you would have to freeze the skin
for a greater length of time. This in itself is stressful
and painful to the cattle. Freeze branding is also not
recognized as a legal mark in some states.
Branding with hot irons evolved from convenience and
practicality. We brand our new calves each spring. While it
is true that the calves bawl momentarily when a hot iron is
applied, they do not seem to be in pain once turned loose.
Remember, cattle hide is several millimeters thick compared
with our skin. Also, the number of nerve-endings is far
fewer per square centimeter than in most other animals. A
correctly applied brand leaves a smooth, hairless scar. If
the iron is applied too cold or too quickly, blisters form.
Blisters can form open wounds leading to avenues for
infection and discomfort. If they arise, the hot iron
should be superimposed and reapplied to the area. Actually,
once the initial brand is laid second applications do not
seem to cause discomfort. A correctly applied brand really
is no more painful than a vaccination or an ear tag.
Branding is really only necessary for those who run large
herds of cattle, where the possibility of theft or mixing
with other herds exists. In fact, brand inspection laws are
really only enforced in a few western states. In those
states even cattle not branded may receive a brand
inspection to be sold or transported. The decision to brand
or not to brand is in the hands of the owner. If you only
have a few head of cattle, it may be unnecessary—as well as
impractical—to brand. For those who have many animals or
those who graze them with others, hot-iron branding is
still the most practical and legal means of marking cattle.
Dr. Erikson would be glad to answer your questions regarding farm animal health. Send them to: "Country Vet," c/o MOTHER EARTH NEWS, Arden NC. Send us a photo too!