Farm Animal Health: Calving a Jersey Cow, Prophylactic Surgery for Dogs, and Navicular Disease in Horses

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The approach of parturition (actual birthing) in the cow is characterized by udder enlargement and relaxation of the pelvic ligaments, giving the tail head a raised appearance.

Dr. Andrea Looney, DVM, offers her farm animal health experience in caring for cows, calves, horses and sheep. This issue features a small farmer’s guide including questions on calving Jersey cows, prophylactic surgery for dogs, and how to prevent navicular disease in horses.

The trend towards virtual extinction of farming is sadly accelerating. The farmer’s share of economic activity involved in delivering food to consumers has fallen from 21 percent in 1910 to less than 5 percent in 1996. Over time, activities once performed on farms have been taken over by the farm supply and food processing industries. Some would argue that much of the farming activity in this country is being absorbed by non-farmers, those who believe in small, independent efficiency in the shadow of major producers, consumers, and mechanical management. What’s wrong with this picture? Absolutely nothing! In fact, it may be the gentleperson farmer that may very well return the whole of the farming industry one day to its roots.

Most companion animals provide us with an important link to these agricultural roots. I invite you, who value this special link and the continuing companionship these animals provide to our lives, to keep those questions coming. Hopefully, the spirit of the small farmer will persist!

What are some of the essentials to watch for when a calving will take place? We adopted a Jersey cow, and she is expected to calve soon (within 2 months). The kids are anxious to watch, and we’re just plain anxious. She’s a pet, and we warm to make this a good experience for everybody. Help!

–Sarah Wilson
Hamilton, OH

Whole watching a newborn calf find its feet and hobble up to mom (or the bottle) us a breathtaking experience, following a few basic steps can help ensure a good start.

First, find an appropriate area for mom. Whether field or pen, it should be clean and dry, with good ventilation, footing, access to plenty of water, and good lighting. Air movement in the maternity area is essential to keep things fresh, but not too much to cause drafts. The feed should be changed gradually within the last month or so prior to the date to a milk herd ration, which is higher in protein, calcium, and phosphorus. This ration isn’t something to take lightly since serious perinatal problems like milk fever, placental retainment, etc. may be linked to a poor or unbalanced nutritional state. Most veterinarians can determine approximate gestation/delivery dates via rectal examination, which would be appropriate along the lone to assure that everything us in the correct configuration for the birth.

The approach of parturition (actual birthing) in the cow is characterized by udder enlargement and relaxation of the pelvic ligaments, giving the tail head a raised appearance. Frequently, the vulva becomes puffy and wall have a strung of gummy mucous hanging from it. Oftentimes, animals go off feed 6-12 hours prior to calving. Calving should take under one hour once it begins. Don’t intervene unless absolutely necessary, and even then your vet should be the one helping. Front feet showing and head started are normal presentation. Any other positioning may require some experienced help.

If your cow is a good mother, she will take care of her baby as soon as its born, and you can mostly just stay out of her way. The first thing to do when the calf is born is to make sure it is breathing. Clear the mucous from its nostrils and if it doesn’t take a breath, tickle the inside of its nose with a piece of straw. If mom seems a little bewildered, move the calf toward mom’s front end and allow her to lick the calf clean. Licking dries the calf and helps the cow relax and release oxytocin into her bloodstream. This is the hormone that causes the uterus to continue expulsing the placenta and causes the cow to begin milking. Once the calf is breathing, dip the navel cord in an iodine solution, specifically one made for dipping navels, greater than 7 percent iodine.

Unlike a human baby who is born with immunity, calves derive a “passive immunity” from colostrum, the first milk produced by the cow after she calves. If your calf doesn’t suck, the colostrum should be milked out of the cow by hand immediately after birth and hand fed in a bottle as soon as possible (within 15 minutes). A 100-pound Holstein calf should receive roughly 5 pounds of colostrum during its first few waking minutes. Err on the side of giving too much versus too little.

Finally, separate mom and calf after birth if you want to milk mom. When calves suckle the cow, they can ingest dirt from the udder, legs, and the belly. Towel dry the calf well and place it in a calf stall. Make sure mom freshens well–passes the placenta–and is in good nutritional plane, especially with regard to calcium.

Each new life beginning marks a special occasion. With any luck, your newborn will receive a happy and healthy welcome.

Our Great Dane has had several episodes of attempted vomiting but never seems to bloat. Our veterinarian suggested a prophylactic surgery for dogs which would prevent him from bloating. Is this an appropriate idea?

–Sandra Bryant
Bangor, ME

Gastric dilation and volvulus (GDV) syndrome frequently affects large breed dogs such as German Shepherds, Mastiffs, and Great Danes. Several etiologies are suspected, but the end result is that the inflow and outflow of the stomach becomes closed, gas dilates the inside of the stomach, and a twist in its longitudinal axis occurs so that gas, fluid, and contents are trapped in a distended, painful organ.

The stomach distension is not the biggest problem that occurs, however. Secondary to the distension, the blood vessels and mesentery (tissue that suspends the stomach) become twisted, often dragging other organs such as the spleen, pancreas, and intestine along with the already damaged stomach. The vessels become engorged, and blood return to the heart and lungs is impaired. The resultant shock from the damaged blood vessels and lack of blood flow can actually kill the animal unless proper medical attention is given immediately.

Surgery is often the only treatment for a true volvulus. Several different surgeries are suggested to prevent the stomach from retwisting once the original twist is untwisted. In these surgeries, the stomach is attached to the body wall in an attempt to adhere it in the right place. This precludes the untimely torsion (twist) and prevents the life threatening shock that occurs following the twist. In certain breeds predisposed to this syndrome (like your Great Dane), veterinarians suggest this prophylactic surgery at time of spay and neuter. However, regrettably, as we are finding out from long term follow up studies of dogs with prior GDVs, the surgery may often simply lessen the severity of the second torsion or twist rather than prevent another episode.

Are there certain factors that make a horse more prone to navicular disease?

–Joyce Hunt
San Juan, PR

Navicular disease is a degenerative process gone awry in a small boat shaped bone at the back of the foot. The bone acts as a fulcrum, keeping the flexor tendon’s attachment to the coffin bone at a constant angle. It is the “fall guy” for any abnormalities in the most distant part of the horse’s body. But the progressive demands of exercise and training on the bone cause it to strengthen itself by a succession of destruction and reconstruction. The degenerative process takes over when local bone loss exceeds replacement for long enough to tear through the whole architecture of the bone. As a result, the body tries to heal the bone, bringing new blood vessels and nutritive products to it. Unfortunately, the healing tissues increase swelling and blood pressure in the foot, and in the long run circulation is decreased. Pain and lameness ensue, and the rest of the foot is in a constant threat of total breakdown.

Although it may appear to strike sporadically, there are certain factors that place a horse at risk. Long toed show horses, quarter horses, and thoroughbreds seem to be predisposed to this disease. All these breeds tend to have feet that receive a high level of what’s known as cyclical loading and are in a stop and go exercise mode. Any horse that has long toes and low heels or has a hoof axis broken backwards constantly puts the navicular bone in a squeeze. The horse with particularly small feet for large weight puts extra pounds per square inch on the navicular bone. These factors make navicular disease more likely.

Innately lethargic horses, possibly apathetic due to adrenal, thyroid, or other lameness, are much more likely to suffer from navicular disease. Animals turned out alone who tend to either stand or graze (vs. exercise) are more at risk. Likewise, the horse who stands in the middle of the stall or on a concave floor so his toes are elevated is just as likely to have a navicular problem as the long toe, low heel counterpart in the show ring.