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Potential Cow Health Challenges

Updated July 28, 2021

When it comes to cows, if you want to ensure that you treat any health challenges as early as possible, you’ll have to spend a lot of time with the herd, so slight changes and symptoms are more apparent to you. By conducting regular full body health examinations, you’ll be able to know what healthy looks and feels (and smells!) like, and when you should be concerned. Check out our guide to cow health examinations to familiarize yourself with the signs that something may be amiss in a bovine friend. For more information on health challenges that common affect calves, check out our resource here.

Animal Healthcare Disclaimer

This is not an exhaustive list of everything that can happen to a cow, but can help you get a sense of what challenges a cow under your care may face in their lifetime. If you believe a cow is facing a health issue, always discuss with a qualified veterinarian as soon as possible. Reading about health issues does not qualify you to diagnose your residents!

Issues By Body System

Circulatory: Anaplasmosis, Anemia, Anthrax, Bottle Jaw, Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Dehydration, ListeriosisMycoplasma wenyonii, White Muscle Disease

Gastrointestinal: Actinobacillosis (Wooden Tongue), Actinomycosis (Lumpy Jaw), Bloat, Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Coccidiosis, Gastrointestinal Roundworms, Grain Overload (Lactic Acidosis), Hardware Disease, Johne’s Disease, Slaframine Toxicosis (“Slobbers”)

Lymphatic: Actinobacillosis (Wooden Tongue), Anthrax, Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD)

Musculoskeletal: Arthritis, Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Foot Abscesses, Foot Rot, White Muscle Disease

Neurological: Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Cattle Grubs, Listeriosis

Reproductive: Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Leptospirosis, Listeriosis, Mastitis

Respiratory: Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Cattle Grubs, Lungworms, Pneumonia

Urinary: Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Leptospirosis, Urinary Calculi

Skin: Abscesses, Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Flies, Lice, Mange, Pigeon Fever (Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis), Ringworm

Eyes: Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD), Eye Cancer, Flies, Pinkeye

Abscesses

Abscesses are pockets of pus that can develop internally or externally. They can develop in any area of the body, but some common sites for cows include their feet, udder, face, and neck. Abscesses can form for a variety of reasons, including infections, poor wound management, and benign reactions to vaccinations or injectable medications. Abscesses can also form as a result of Pigeon Fever, a highly contagious condition (see more below). If you have a female cow resident who is currently nursing a calf and they develop an abscess on their udder, the calf should not feed on the udder until the abscess’ cause is diagnosed to ensure an infection is not transmitted. In the event of a suspected abscess, it should be first evaluated by a veterinarian or experienced caregiver- they can aspirate the lump to determine if it is an abscess or not. Depending on the location, size, and whether or not the cow is displaying other signs of concern, your veterinarian may decide to lance the abscess and submit a sample of the pus for culture. They will be able to advise you about any necessary treatments based on the cause of the abscess. If you have not been trained to identify and lance an abscess, you must work closely with your veterinarian. Not all external lumps are abscesses, and cutting into tumors or other masses could result in serious issues. Also be aware that any abscess on the neck or near major blood vessels should always be evaluated by a veterinarian. In these instances, it may be too dangerous to lance the abscess due to the risk of major bleeding.

Source:

Abscess | Veterinary Handbook For Sheep, Goats, And Cattle (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Actinobacillosis (Wooden Tongue)

Actinobacillosis is caused by Actinobacillus lignieresii, a bacterium found in the upper respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts of healthy cows. However, cows can develop actinobacillosis if they develop wounds in their mouth that allow the bacteria to gain entry. This results in localized infection, but bacteria can also spread to other parts of the body via the lymphatic system. While there are various ways this infection can manifest, the most common clinical presentation is wooden tongue. The onset of the disease is often sudden with affected individuals developing a painful, swollen tongue with yellow lesions. The tongue is often protruding and the individual will drool profusely and have trouble swallowing. Swelling below the jaw, resembling bottle jaw, and enlarged lymph nodes are also common. Though this disease is primarily prevented by ensuring cows have access to hay and forage that is unlikely to cause damage to the mouth, isolation of affected individuals is typically recommended, especially if they have active discharge. This condition can be fatal if left untreated, as individuals may be unable to eat or drink. Treatment is most successful when initiated early and may include antibiotics and sodium iodide or potassium iodide. Be aware that while iodide treatments are commonly recommended, they can result in iodine toxicity, so treatment should be administered carefully and you must watch for signs of toxicity. If lesions interfere with the individual’s breathing, surgical debulking may be necessary.

Sources:

Actinobacillosis | Merck Veterinary Manual

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

Lumpy Jaw & Wooden Tongue In Cattle | New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Actinomycosis (Lumpy Jaw)

Actinomycosis is caused by Actinomyces bovis, a bacterium that is part of the normal flora of a cow’s mouth. However, this bacterium can gain access to the underlying soft tissue and adjacent bone via wounds in the mouth (such as from hay that is especially stalky or contains sticks, or by coming into contact with other sharp objects). In younger cows, the eruption of their molars can also be a point of entry for bacteria. This disease results in inflammation and infection of the jaw bone. Individuals with lumpy jaw typically develop firm swelling along the jaw or in the sinuses. In some cases there may be areas with discharge. Though outbreaks of the disease are more often associated with food or other environmental factors that result in damage to the mouth rather than through spread from one individual to the next, isolation of residents with active discharge is usually recommended. Treatment is most effective when initiated early. While treatment will not result in the bony swelling going away, it may be able to stop the progression of the infection. If you suspect a resident has lumpy jaw, be sure to work with your veterinarian to have the individual  evaluated and to determine the best treatment, which may include long-term antibiotics and treatment with sodium iodide or potassium iodide. Be aware that while iodide treatments are commonly recommended, they can result in iodine toxicity, so treatment should be administered carefully and you must watch for signs of toxicity.

Sources:

Actinomycosis in Cattle, Swine, and Other Animals | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

Lumpy Jaw & Wooden Tongue In Cattle | New South Wales Department of Primary Industries (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Anaplasmosis

Also known as Yellow Fever, anaplasmosis is caused by the blood parasite Anaplasma. It is an infectious disease that is typically transmitted by insects such as ticks and biting flies, but can also be spread through any practices that may expose cows to infected red blood cells (such as by reusing needles or not sterilizing surgical equipment). It may be possible to also transmit the disease in the womb. Symptoms typically develop 3-6 weeks after infection, and older cows typically show more severe clinical signs than calves. Anaplasmosis presents itself as weakness, anemia, fever, and yellowing mucus membranes. An afflicted cow might also lose weight, and suffer from depression, dehydration, constipation, and lack of appetite. Anaplasmosis can be fatal, especially in older cows- early treatment is imperative. Treatment includes antibiotics and possibly a blood transfusion. A fully recovered cow will usually be an anaplasmosis carrier for life. If you suspect anaplasmosis, contact your veterinarian immediately. In addition to providing appropriate treatment, they will also be able to recommend preventative measures to help keep your residents safe.

Sources:

Anaplasmosis | Merck Veterinary Manual

Anaplasmosis | The Cattle Site

Anaplasmosis In Beef Cattle | Virginia Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Anemia

Anemia in cows can be characterized by pale mucus membranes, but unlike sheep and goats its harder to assess anemia based on gum and inner eyelid color. An anemic cow might also be weak, lethargic, have a dull or shabby coat, lose weight, or stop eating as frequently. Anemia could be a result of parasites or parasitic disease (especially Anaplasmosis, or if in the Eastern Hemisphere, Theileria), lice, fleas, ticks, blood loss, or poor diet. Anemic individuals may also develop Bottle Jaw. Anemic cows can be treated with high protein food on a temporary basis, as well as additional minerals or iron supplements and vitamin B-12. However, it’s important to determine and address the underlying cause of the anemia. An extremely anemic cow may require a blood transfusion. Work with your veterinarian if you suspect a cow may be anemic prior to changing their diet or starting any treatments.

Sources:

Anemia | Veterinary Handbook For Sheep, Goats, And Cattle (Non-Compassionate Source)

Bovine Anaemia – Theileria| The Cattle Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Anthrax

Anthrax is caused by Bacillus anthracis spores, which can lie dormant in soil for many years. The bacteria is more common in temperate climates and can come to the surface after heavy rains, especially after periods of drought. Animals who graze are susceptible to the disease after eating contaminated grass. Symptoms include depression, incoordination, staggering, trembling, convulsions, excitement, high fever, bleeding, and unfortunately, typically death. If you suspect a cow has anthrax, you must contact your veterinarian immediately. The infected cow can quickly spread the disease to other animals, including humans. Confirmations of anthrax must be reported to government officials. If it is treated very early on with antibiotics, it is possible for cows to survive. There is also a vaccine available for anthrax.

Sources:

Anthrax Facts | AVMA

Zoonotic Diseases Of Cattle | Virginia Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Arthritis

There are many types of arthritis with different causes (including septic arthritis, which is quite common in calves who did not receive colostrum), but due to their large size, degenerative arthritis (osteoarthritis) tends to be quite common in cows as they age. Symptoms of arthritis will vary depending on the affected area and cause, but typically includes abnormal gait, shifting of weight, lameness, and reduced activity. Cows with arthritis may spend more time laying down. Cows with mobility issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the underlying cause. They will be able to recommend a treatment plan based on the specific cause, which should include some sort of pain management. Your veterinarian may recommend a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID), such as Meloxicam, Phenylbutazone, or Banamine and may suggest a Chondroprotective agent such as Adequan to help repair joint cartilage and soothe inflammation. For more information on managing arthritis in older cows, check out our resource here.

Sources:

Cow Care | Farm Sanctuary

Arthritis In Large Animals | Merck Veterinary Manual

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Bloat

In ruminants, a significant amount of gas is produced during the digestive process and is naturally released through eructation (belching). Bloat occurs if this gas is not able to be released for some reason. The build-up of gas causes the rumen to expand, which will displace and put pressure on internal organs and can make it difficult for the individual to breathe. Bloat should be considered a health emergency and must be addressed immediately. There are two types of bloat that affect mature cows- frothy bloat (or primary ruminal tympany) and free-gas bloat (or secondary ruminal tympany). Though they have different causes and require different responses, the signs of frothy bloat and free-gas bloat are vastly similar. The most obvious sign of bloat is distention of the left side of the abdomen, though their entire abdomen may be enlarged. In some cases, the rumen may be so distended that their left side bulges above the level of the spine, creating a hump. The left side of their abdomen will feel tight and, when tapped, may produce a sound like a kettle drum. Bloated individuals often develop labored breathing and may be observed grunting, open-mouth breathing with their tongue out, and extending their neck. Frequent urination and signs of discomfort and distress are commonly seen, and as the condition progresses, individuals may become recumbent. If not addressed, bloat can be fatal. Regardless of the type, be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect a resident is suffering from bloat. Encourage the individual to walk, or at least remain standing while waiting for treatments to be administered.

Frothy Bloat is the more common of the two types and occurs when a stable foam develops on top of the rumen liquid, preventing the gas from being released normally. This type of bloat is diet-related. Grazing on lush pastures containing large quantities of certain legumes (especially alfalfa and red and white clover) is one of the main causes of frothy bloat. Frothy bloat caused by pasture is most likely to occur in the spring and fall. When pasture is the cause, multiple residents are typically affected, though some individuals may be more prone to bloat, especially new residents who may not be accustomed to lush pastures (which is why they should be slowly introduced to pastures). If a resident shows signs of bloat, it is important to immediately prevent them from further grazing on the pasture. In the case of established residents developing bloat, be sure to remove all members of the herd from the pasture, even if not everyone is showing concerning signs. Frothy bloat can also be caused by high-grain diets (which we do not recommend for a variety of reasons), especially if the grain is finely ground.

In addition to removing everyone from the pasture (if that appears to be the cause), talk to your veterinarian about administering an anti-foaming agent such as vegetable oil or products containing dimethicone or polaxolene. These can be drenched or administered via stomach tube (which must be done by an experienced caregiver, as incorrect placement of the tube could have dire consequences). Placement of a stomach tube alone will not release gas build-up in individuals suffering from frothy bloat. Prevention is key- when introducing residents to new pasture types, be sure to do so gradually, over a period of a few weeks, with a small amount of grazing time per day until their bodies adjust, avoid giving residents access to high-risk pastures (such as those heavy on legumes), do not allow cows to graze on rich pastures when they are wet, and don’t put very hungry individuals on rich pastures- feed them hay first so they don’t gorge themselves on pasture. If you must supplement a resident’s diet with grain, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the safest way to do so and avoid finely ground grains (including pelleted food made from finely ground grains).

Free-gas bloat is much less common and can have a variety of causes. Anything that creates an obstruction or interferes with belching will result in the build-up of free-gas in the rumen. Potential causes include obstruction of the esophagus due to choking, lesions of the esophageal groove, or pressure from a mass or enlarged lymph node. Certain health conditions, such as grain overload or anaphylaxis, can cause secondary free-gas bloat. Individuals can also develop free-gas bloat if they become stuck in a position that prevents them from belching. This can occur if they stay in a laterally recumbent position (flat on their side) for extended periods of time (or worse, if they get stuck on their back). Bloat caused by a cow’s position is most likely to occur if they become stuck in a dangerous position, such as falling into a ditch or lying down on an incline that makes rising difficult, or if they are injured and, therefore, unable to rise. This type of bloat is also a concern when an individual is sedated for a medical procedure. Sedated individuals should be propped up to keep them in a sternal position (hay or straw bales can be used to do this) and should be monitored closely to ensure they do not end up in a dangerous position. Unlike frothy bloat, free-gas bloat typically only affects one individual rather than multiple members of the herd. Removal of gas is imperative and is typically done with a stomach tube, though in some cases, more aggressive steps may need to be taken, such as trocharization (inserting a trochar or cannula into the rumen through the abdominal wall). After alleviating the gas, be sure to investigate the underlying cause of the free-gas bloat.

Talk to your veterinarian about the emergency supplies you should have on hand to respond to both types of bloat. By having the right supplies on hand and a basic understanding of how to use them, in the event that your veterinarian cannot make it to the sanctuary in time, they may at least be able to talk you through certain life-saving interventions.

Sources:

Bloat In Ruminants | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

Bloat In Cattle | The Cattle Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Bottle Jaw

Bottle Jaw is the term commonly used to describe edema in the lower jaw which manifests as a visibly swollen area under the jaw. Bottle jaw is a symptom of numerous health challenges, and while it can have other causes, most often bottle jaw develops because of reduced oncotic pressure resulting from anemia or hypoproteinemia (low protein levels in the blood). Be sure to work with your veterinarian if one of your residents is showing signs of bottle jaw- it is important to diagnose the underlying cause in order to make treatment decisions. In cows, bottle jaw is most often associated with internal parasitism and Johne’s disease, but these are not the only possible causes.

Source:

Bottle Jaw | Veterinary Handbook For Cattle, Sheep & Goats

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Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV)

Bovine Leukemia Virus is an oncogenic retrovirus that has the potential to cause lymphosarcoma (malignant lymphoma) in cows. The prevalence of this virus varies worldwide, but the U.S. has a higher rate of infection than Australia, New Zealand, and many European countries. In the U.S. the rate of infection is higher in commercial dairy settings than in those raising cows for their flesh. Only about 5% of BLV-positive cows will develop lymphosarcoma; about two-thirds of infected cows will show no signs of disease, and the remainder will show no outward signs but will have persistently elevated lymphocytes. Transmission of this virus is most often horizontal, often through practices that expose non-infected cows to infected blood, though large biting flies, such as horse flies, may act as vectors. Once infected, a cow is infected for life, even if they never show signs of clinical disease. Practices that could result in transmission include using the same needle on more than one individual, not disinfecting surgical equipment between uses, and using hoof knives or other hoof trimming equipment that has been contaminated with blood. Vertical transmission (from mother to baby) is also possible, but is less common. BLV can be spread in colostrum and milk, but colostrum also contains large amounts of antibodies, and some sources state that the benefit of the colostrum outweighs the risk of infection. However, we always recommend discussing specific situations with your veterinarian. Lymphosarcoma caused by BLV infection is often referred to as enzootic bovine leukosis (versus sporadic bovine leukosis). Signs of clinical disease vary depending on the location of the tumor(s). Common sites include the uterus, heart, spine, abomasum, and the area behind the eye. Individuals may also have enlarged lymph nodes. Enzootic bovine leukosis is most often seen in cows between 4 and 8 years old. Some sanctuaries test all incoming cow residents for BLV as part of their incoming protocols, but this will only indicate that an individual has the virus, not whether or not they will develop lymphosarcoma (remember, this only occurs in about 5% of infected cows). Knowing an individual is BLV-positive can be useful information to have, especially if they eventually develop symptoms that could be related to lymphosarcoma, but individuals can be tested at any time, so some sanctuaries may choose to only test when an individual is presenting signs of concern.

Sources:

Overview of Bovine Leukosis | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Bovine Leukosis Virus | Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD)

BVD is a contagious viral infection caused by Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus (BVDV). While cows are the natural host for this virus, other ruminant species as well as other species like pigs and camelids can also be affected. Though the name suggests gastrointestinal disease, BVDV can affect multiple body systems, resulting in respiratory, reproductive, circulatory, musculoskeletal, immune, organ, or neurological health challenges as well as gastrointestinal issues. The virus is also able to affect multiple body systems at one time.

BVDV can cause subclinical disease or acute illness, but the most concerning characteristic of this virus is its ability to create persistently infected (PI) individuals. Persistent infection occurs if a cow becomes infected with BVDV while pregnant and spreads the virus to her calf in utero. Not all in utero BVDV infections result in persistent infection, with the outcome depending on multiple factors, including when during pregnancy the infection occurs. Infections occurring later in pregnancy may result in the birth of healthy calves, but the virus can cause various issues beyond persistent infection, including abortion and congenital abnormalities.

The ability of the virus to create persistently infected individuals poses a significant challenge in terms of managing and preventing this disease. Persistently infected individuals typically have the virus present in all of their organs and tissues which, except in rare cases, results in them shedding large amounts of the virus in all of their bodily fluids, including their urine, feces, nasal and ocular secretions, saliva, semen, milk, and colostrum for the duration of their life. While some persistently infected calves are born very weak and die shortly after birth, others appear completely healthy. Persistently infected calves have a greater than 50% mortality rate during their first year of life and are at risk of developing mucosal disease, which is often fatal, but some individuals live into adulthood. If allowed to breed, persistently infected cows always give birth to persistently infected calves. Estimates suggest that less than 1- 2% of the entire cow population are persistently infected with BVDV, but cases often occur in clusters within industrial settings, so a particular farm may have a higher incidence of persistent infections.

In addition to vertical transmission (from mother to baby), infection can also occur via horizontal transmission. The most common cause of horizontal spread is inhalation or ingestion of BVDV from direct contact with bodily fluids from a persistently infected individual. Like persistently infected individuals, cows with acute infection also spread the virus in their bodily secretions, but unlike persistently infected cows, acutely infected individuals only shed the virus for a limited time and shed lower quantities of the virus, so they tend to play a lesser role in transmission. However, the amount of virus shed and the duration of shedding during acute infection depends on the virulence of the strain.

It is estimated that up to 90% of cows acutely infected with BVDV remain asymptomatic, but the infection causes immunosuppression, putting them at risk of developing other infections. Clinical signs of acute BVD include depression, nasal and ocular discharge, increased respiratory rate, inappetence, fever, oral lesions, diarrhea, and, if lactating, a drop in milk production. More virulent strains cause more severe clinical signs and can also result in life-threatening illness, including hemorrhagic syndrome. There is no treatment for BVDV infection, but depending on the severity and clinical signs, individuals may require supportive care and broad-spectrum antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections.

There are multiple genotypes, subgenotypes, and biotypes of this virus, and mutations are common which makes prevention through vaccination challenging. Be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the best vaccination protocols based on your region and the specifics of your sanctuary. Because this viral infection poses a significant risk to a developing fetus, in the event that you welcome a pregnant cow to your sanctuary, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about how to best protect them from BVDV. You should also work with your veterinarian to establish incoming BVDV testing protocols. While identifying all incoming infections is important in order to protect your other residents, be sure your protocols include diagnostic tools (or a combination of diagnostics) to accurately identify an individual with a persistent infection. Because of the risk to multiple species commonly cared for at a farmed animal sanctuary, caring for a persistently infected individual, while protecting other residents, is challenging. If you find yourself in this situation, be sure to work with an experienced veterinarian for guidance.

Sources:

Large Animal Internal Medicine 5th Edition | Bradford P. Smith (Non-Compassionate Source)

Control Of Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus In Ruminants | Consensus Statements Of The American College Of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) (Non-Compassionate Source)

Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus: An Updated American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine Consensus Statement With Focus On Virus Biology, Hosts, Immunosuppression, And Vaccination | Consensus Statements of the American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM) (Non-Compassionate Source)

Bovine Viral Diarrhea | Cornell Animal Health Diagnostic Lab (Non-Compassionate Source)

Intestinal Diseases in Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Cattle Grubs

Cattle grubs are the larvae of heel flies (also known as warble flies), obligate parasites that need to parasitize their host in order to complete their life cycle. These flies look like honey bees, and while they do not bite cows, they cause significant agitation when attempting to lay their eggs on a cow, typically on the hair of their legs or lower body. Cows may be seen kicking at themselves to keep heel flies away and may even try to run from them. After the eggs hatch, heel fly larvae pierce the cow’s skin and then migrate through their body for months. There are two species that affect cows, Hypoderma bovis and Hypoderma lineatum, and each species has its own migration pattern, with the common cattle grub traveling to the mucous membrane of the esophagus, where they spend the winter, and the northern cattle grub traveling to the spinal column. Ultimately, both species travel to the cow’s back, where they puncture breathing holes through the skin (called “warble pores”) and then encyst, causing swelling that is often referred to as a “warble.” The larva remains here for 1-3 months before the mature grub (which is about 30mm long) emerges through a breathing hole and falls to the ground to pupate. 

The cow’s tissues can be damaged during the migration process, and they can develop an inflammatory response if the larva dies in their body, which is why treatment and preventative measures must be timed appropriately. If treatment is administered when common cattle grubs are in the esophagus, the esophagus could swell causing the individual to develop bloat or even suffocate and die. If cattle grubs are killed while near the spinal cord, the cow may develop weakness in their back legs or even hind end paralysis, though individuals with paralysis often recover. Be sure to work with your veterinarian regarding the proper prevention for cattle grubs to ensure any treatments are administered at the correct time for your region to prevent adverse reactions. Also be aware that cattle grubs can affect other animals, including humans and horses. In some countries, cattle grub infestations are a reportable condition.

Sources:

Cattle Grub Management | University Of Florida IFAS Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Common Flies of Cattle | Kansas State University  (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Coccidiosis

Coccidiosis is caused by coccidia, single-celled parasites which can damage a cow’s intestinal lining, resulting in diarrhea. While there are numerous species of Eimeria that can be present in a cow’s intestinal tract, E. zuernii, E. bovis, and E. auburnensis are the species most often associated with clinical disease. While coccidia may be present in a healthy, mature cow’s intestinal tract, these individuals rarely become clinically ill due to some degree of immunity from previous infections. Clinical disease is most often seen in calves between 1 month and 1 year old, though occasionally an older cow may develop clinical disease during times of extreme stress. Coccidia is spread through the fecal-oral route- food, water, and parts of the body may become contaminated with infected feces. Calves who are with their mother may become infected if her udder becomes contaminated from laying in infected feces. Signs of coccidiosis include slowed growth and watery diarrhea, though calves with mild infections may continue to have normally formed feces. In severe cases, calves may develop diarrhea that contains blood or mucus, and they may also develop a fever. Some calves with coccidiosis develop neurological symptoms, though it appears unclear if these symptoms are, in fact, caused by the coccidiosis or not. Coccidiosis can be confirmed via fecal testing which will detect the presence of coccidia oocysts. Be sure to consult with your veterinarian if a resident is showing clinical signs of disease. If you have not already done so, you should work with your veterinarian to establish testing protocols for new arrivals as well as a schedule for routine fecal testing of your established cow residents. We always recommend working with an experienced veterinarian to determine whether or not treatment for internal parasites is required or not- for residents who have coccidia, but are not clinically ill, your veterinarian may not recommend treatment depending on which species they are infected with and the number of oocysts present. In addition to watching for signs of coccidiosis, it’s important to take preventative measures to reduce the likelihood of residents developing the disease. Keeping spaces clean and dry, avoiding overcrowding, and regularly moving outdoor hay feeders can help protect residents from coccidiosis.

Sources:

Coccidiosis of Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Clinical Coccidiosis In Adult Cattle (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Dehydration

Cows need a lot of water to stay properly hydrated, especially in the summer. The amount of water your residents need varies based on their size, the temperature, and whether or not they are eating hay or grazing on pasture, but in general, non-lactating cows will consume 1-2 gallons of water per 100lbs of body weight. Water consumption will increase as temperatures rise, and individuals eating hay will need more water than those grazing on pasture due to the much lower moisture content of hay compared to fresh vegetation. If you are caring for a mother cow who is nursing her calf, she will require much more water than a non-lactating individual. If cows don’t have access to clean water or are suffering from illness or a mobility issue that makes it difficult for them to readily access water sources, they may become dehydrated. Individuals with diarrhea are also at risk for becoming dehydrated- this is especially concerning in young calves. Signs of dehydration included “sunken” eyes, dark urine, dry gums, a fever, depression, and if you pinch their skin, it doesn’t quickly return to its original state. In some cases, ensuring the cow has easy access to water can resolve the issue, but if a cow is very dehydrated, has diarrhea, or is reluctant to drink due to illness, they could require fluid therapy, so you should contact your veterinarian for guidance.

Sources:

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

Water Requirements And Quality Issues For Cattle | University Of Georgia Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

How Much Water Do Cows Drink Per Day? | UNL Beef (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Eye Cancer

Eye cancer in sanctuary cow residents is actually fairly common and can be successfully addressed if caught early. Eye cancer (typically squamous cell carcinoma) often begins on the cow’s third eyelid. Pay close attention to this area, regularly looking for raised lesions or discoloration. In the early stages of the disease, raised lesions resemble a grain of rice but will grow over time and may become more stalk-like. Any abnormalities should be evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible. If caught early, in most cases the cancer has not spread past the third eyelid, and surgical removal of the third eyelid is all that is needed. If left untreated, the cancer can spread to the eyeball and beyond. In some cases, surgical removal of the eye (enucleation) will be advised; however, if the cancer has spread beyond the eye, the prognosis may be very poor. Though lighter-skinned breeds are believed to be particularly susceptible to eye cancer, anecdotally, it seems to affect many breeds regardless of color.

Sources:

Cow Care | Farm Sanctuary

Common Health Problems Of Cattle | Texas A&M (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Flies

Flies can be more than just a nuisance to cows- fly infestations can result in painful bites, disease spread, and other health challenges depending on the species of the fly. While flies can be an issue in other resident species, cows will require special attention to protect them and keep them comfortable. For more information on the common fly species that affect cows as well as fly mitigation strategies, check out our resource here.

Source:

Common Flies of Cattle | Kansas State University (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Foot Abscesses

Damage to the foot can allow bacteria to enter, resulting in the formation of painful foot abscesses (pockets of pus). Damage may be the result of trauma from stepping on a sharp object or from walking on abrasive surfaces. Hooves that are overly soft due to constantly being wet, as well as hooves that are dry and brittle (and prone to cracking), can be more vulnerable to damage. As the abscess forms, it will create painful pressure inside the foot, resulting in sudden lameness. Individuals may be reluctant to put any weight on the affected foot or they may place their foot in a way that reduces pressure on the affected claw (such as turning out a back foot and bearing most of the weight on the inner, rather than outer, claw). However, once the abscess is opened and allowed to drain, either by trimming the foot or from the abscess rupturing on its own, the individual will be much more comfortable. Foot problems should be addressed immediately, so be sure to contact your veterinarian right away if one of your residents is suddenly lame. They can evaluate their claws and open up the abscess, allowing it to drain, which will immediately relieve pressure in the foot. In some cases, the application of a lift or block to the non-affected claw is helpful to keep pressure off the affected claw while it heals. Your veterinarian can also recommend additional treatments such as antibiotics and analgesics. Be sure to have your cow residents’ hooves evaluated by a professional regularly- this way you can potentially catch and address foot issues before they become more serious. It’s also important to keep cow living spaces clean and free of overly abrasive surfaces or objects that could result in injury to residents’ feet.

Sources:

Foreign Body In Sole Of Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual

Foot Abscesses | Veterinary Handbook

Prevention And Control Of Foot Problems In Dairy Cows | Penn State Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Foot Rot

Foot rot (sometimes spelled footrot, and also called “foul in the foot”, Interdigital Phlegmon, or Interdigital Necrobacillosis) is an infection that originates in the skin and tissue between the claws (interdigital space) of the foot. Fusobacterium necrophorum, which can be found in feces and can survive in damp soil, is considered the major cause of foot rot, though other bacteria can be involved.  The bacteria gains entry into the foot through damage to the interdigital skin. This may occur due to injury, such as from walking on stones or sharp brush, and skin can also be damaged if a cow’s feet are constantly wet due to muddy conditions or improper cleaning of living spaces. Most often, a mature cow will only have one foot that is affected, and back feet are more often affected than front, but calves will sometimes develop foot rot in multiple feet. Initial signs of foot rot are reddening and swelling of the skin between the claws and at the coronary band. Often the claws of the affected foot will become noticeably separated and the swelling will extend into the pastern and fetlock. As the condition progresses, the interdigital skin may begin to ooze and become necrotic. A distinct foul odor will be present. This condition is painful and results in varying degrees of lameness- individuals may bear weight on their toe or may hold the foot off the ground due to pain. Affected individuals may develop a fever and be less interested in food. Foot issues should always be addressed immediately- contact your veterinarian as soon as you see any of the signs above. When addressed early, the infection should resolve with antibiotic treatment, though depending on the severity of the infection, surgical removal of necrotic tissue or other interventions may be necessary. Individuals with foot rot should be isolated in a clean pen, both to prevent spreading the infection and also to help keep the foot clean and dry. To help prevent foot rot, ensure cow living spaces are regularly cleaned and indoor living spaces are dry. Outdoors, ensure high traffic areas, such as around water tubs or hay feeders and along walkways, have proper drainage and are regularly cleaned.

Sources:

Interdigital Phlegmon in Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual

Foot Rot/ Foul In The Foot | The Cattle Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Gastrointestinal Roundworms

Cows can be infected with numerous types of gastrointestinal roundworms, but Ostertagia ostertagi (brown stomach worm or medium stomach worm) is typically considered the most important in commercial settings. Other gastrointestinal roundworms that can affect cows include Haemonchus placei (barber pole worm, large stomach worm, or wire worm), Trichostrongylus axei (small stomach worm), Bunostomum phlebotomum (hookworm), and Nematodirus spp. (most commonly Nematodirus helvetianus, or thread-necked worm). It is important to become familiar with the types of gastrointestinal roundworms common in your area. In addition to identifying the concerning worms in your area, work with your veterinarian to establish a schedule for fecal testing and to establish deworming protocols (which may include prophylactic treatment or selective deworming, depending). In general, these roundworms share a similar life cycle: cows infected with these parasites shed eggs in their feces. Larvae hatch from these eggs and develop into infective third-stage larvae. Cows then become infected by ingesting these infective larvae while grazing. Clinical signs of infection will vary based on the parasite, but may include diarrhea, anemia, weight loss, a rough coat, and weakness. If you suspect gastrointestinal roundworms, collect a fecal sample for diagnostic testing. If an individual is showing severe clinical signs, consult with your veterinarian right away- they may recommend a deworming treatment before the fecal results are back and can also evaluate the individual to see if they require additional treatments or supportive care.

Sources:

Gastrointestinal Parasites of Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual

Intestinal Roundworms of Cattle | Albert Agrifacts

Common Internal Parasites of Cattle | University Of Missouri Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Grain Overload (Lactic Acidosis)

Grain overload, or grain poisoning, occurs when a cow eats large quantities of carbohydrate-rich foods when they are not used to eating such diets. In a sanctuary setting, it is most often caused by residents accidentally gaining access to grain storage areas, but could also occur if residents who require grain supplementation are fed too much or are not slowly transitioned onto this diet. Despite commonly being called grain overload, grain is not the only food source that can cause lactic acidosis, though most of the other problematic foods would not typically be available to sanctuary residents in the amount needed to cause an issue. These include sugar beets, grapes, potatoes, and bread products. However, sanctuary residents have developed acidosis from gorging themselves on fallen apples in their pasture. How much of a particular carbohydrate-rich food is needed to cause illness is dependent on the type of food, what the individual is used to eating, and other factors. Ingestion of grains with a smaller particle size typically results in more severe illness (compared to the same amount of grain of a larger particle size) because it will be broken down more quickly. 

Ingestion of large quantities of carbohydrate-rich foods by individuals who are not used to such diets will result in a change in the rumen microflora and a lower than normal pH (more acidic). These changes result in certain acid-tolerant bacteria, especially Streptococcus bovis, to increase, which in turn results in more lactic acid being produced. Rumen motility slows, resulting in stasis and mild bloat. Lactic acidosis can be fatal- prompt intervention is imperative. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if a resident is showing signs of lactic acidosis or if they got into large amounts of grain (or other concerning foods), even if they are not showing signs of illness yet. If you have activated charcoal products such as Universal Animal Antidote, ask if administration is advised. 

Early signs of grain overload include restlessness and colic (including kicking at their abdomen). Affected individuals may develop ataxia and have trouble rising due to weakness. Individuals will not want to eat and may extend their neck, grind their teeth, and have a distended abdomen. Breathing is often shallow and rapid. At first they may have an elevated rectal temperature, but as the condition progresses their temperature will drop below normal. While they may show no sign of diarrhea for the first 12-24 hours, they will then develop profuse diarrhea, often with a sweet- sour odor. In some cases, removal of rumen contents through rumenotomy (surgical incision into the rumen) or lavage (using a stomach tube) will be required. Both carry risk and your veterinarian will determine the best course of action given the specifics of the situation. Transfaunation (ruminal fluid transfer) to restore healthy microflora, and fluid therapy to address dehydration and metabolic acidosis are important. Your veterinarian may also prescribe antibiotics (Penicillin is commonly used) and thiamine or multivitamin injections depending on the severity of the illness. Prevention is key. Make sure all grain is stored out of reach and secured from residents, and talk to your veterinarian about safely introducing supplemental grain to a resident’s diet if needed. Also be aware of other risks on your property such as large numbers of apple trees in or overhanging cow pastures.

Sources:

UAA (Universal Animal Antidote) Gel | Drugs

Grain Overload In Ruminants | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Hardware Disease

Hardware disease, also called traumatic reticuloperitonitis or traumatic gastritis, refers to the consequences of cows eating things they shouldn’t, like nails, screws, bolts, glass, and wire. These objects could puncture a cow’s reticulum which can lead to contamination of the peritoneal cavity with bacteria or digestive matter, resulting in peritonitis. Signs of hardware disease include a lack of appetite, decreased fecal production, slight fever, arched back, a reluctance to move, and breathing that is shallow and rapid. The individual will often appear anxious and show signs of pain, especially grunting or groaning, when moving, defecating, urinating, and when their rumen is contracting. Be sure to contact your veterinarian if one of your cow residents is showing signs of hardware disease. Surgical removal of the object is often necessary. Talk to your veterinarian about placing a rumen magnet into each of the cow residents in your care to catch ingested metallic objects and prevent hardware disease complications. See here for more information about Hardware Disease.

Sources:

Traumatic Reticuloperitonitis | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Johne’s Disease

Also known as paratuberculosis, Johne’s disease is a fatal contagious gastrointestinal disease caused by the bacteria Mycobacterium avium subspecies paratuberculosis (MAP). It is believed that all species of ruminants and camelids are susceptible to this infection, with young individuals being most vulnerable. The primary mode of transmission is the fecal-oral route, but it can also be transmitted via colostrum and milk. For more information about this challenging disease, including information regarding diagnostics and ways to mitigate disease spread, check out our full resource on Johne’s disease here.

Sources:

Advanced Topics In Resident Health: Johne’s Disease (Paratuberculosis) | The Open Sanctuary Project

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Leptospirosis

Leptospirosis is a contagious bacterial disease that can affect cows as well as many other mammals. This zoonotic disease can also affect humans. There are multiple serovars that can affect cows, though not all cause clinical disease. Chronic leptospirosis can cause serious reproductive issues, but this will not be obvious in a sanctuary setting because residents are not bred. Though not especially common, calves can develop an acute infection from some serovars resulting in a high fever, red urine, anemia, jaundice, and possibly even death. Adults with acute infection will develop less severe clinical signs than calves, primarily a fever and lethargy. Infected individuals shed the bacteria in their urine, sometimes for years, which can contaminate water sources and the environment, exposing other herdmates to the disease. Affected individuals should be isolated to prevent further risk of transmission. Leptospirosis can be treated with antibiotic therapy. If your residents are not currently vaccinated for Leptospirosis, talk to your veterinarian- there are vaccines available that protect against the most common strains.

Sources:

Leptospirosis In Ruminants | Merck Veterinary Manual

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

Zoonotic Diseases Of Cattle | Virginia Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Lice

Like other sanctuary residents, cows are susceptible to lice infestations. There are multiple species of lice that can affect cows- Linognathus vituli (long-nosed cattle louse), Haematopinus eurysternus (short-nosed cattle louse), Solenopotes capillatus (little blue cattle louse), and Haematopinus quadripertuses (cattle tail louse) are blood-sucking lice and Damalinia bovis (cattle biting louse) is a biting louse. In some cases, cows may be infected by more than one species at the same time. The most common signs of lice infestations are itchiness, constant rubbing, and hair loss. Individuals with lice may develop rough looking coats and, in some cases, may rub their skin until it is raw. Mild infestations can be easily overlooked and do not usually cause significant harm to affected individuals, though some species of lice can be vectors of disease, such as anaplasmosis. Individuals with heavy infestations or those who are dealing with other health challenges can be more adversely affected and may develop anemia and have trouble maintaining a healthy weight. Severe lice infestations may also slow recovery from other diseases an individual is suffering from. If an individual has a much more severe infestation than the rest of the herd, this could indicate other health issues that make them more vulnerable- be sure to talk to your veterinarian about further assessment to evaluate their health and look for underlying health issues.

Even if only a few residents are obviously affected, in most cases, you will want to treat the entire herd. There are various lice treatments available including injectable, pour-on, spray, and dust formulations. Talk to your veterinarian about the best treatment options for your residents. Some drug formulations (such as injectable ivermectin) work well for  sucking lice but are less effective against biting lice. If you do not have protocols in place to prevent cattle grubs, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about any lice treatments and if they could cause an issue if cows are also affected by grubs (since killing grubs during migrations can result in various health issues). Not all treatments are effective at killing eggs and will therefore need a follow-up treatment 2-3 weeks later.

Sources:

Lice In Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual

Lice On Beef And Dairy Cattle | Entomology At The University Of Kentucky (Non-Compassionate Source)

Lice In Cattle | The Cattle Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Listeriosis

Listeriosis is the result of an infection caused by the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes. This bacteria can be found in soil, water, and vegetation. Many species of animals can be affected by this disease and can shed the bacteria in their feces, even if they are not showing clinical signs of disease. This disease occurs more frequently in the winter and spring, and cows typically become exposed by ingesting plants contaminated with infective soil or feces. Feeding poor-quality silage (partially fermented forage) has been implicated in many outbreaks of listeriosis in cow herds (because of this, listeriosis is sometimes called “silage sickness”)- this is just one of many reasons that we recommend avoiding silage. Not all infected individuals will show clinical signs of disease, but when clinical signs are present, they typically manifest in one of the following ways: abortion, encephalitis, or septicemia. Calves who have not started to ruminate are more likely to get the septicemic or visceral form, while adults are most likely to get the encephalitic form. Initial signs of the encephalitic form include depression and inappetence. Individuals often appear disoriented and may walk in circles towards their affected side (which is why listeriosis is sometimes called “circling disease”). They may develop facial paralysis on the affected side with a droopy ear and eyelid, and loose lips. They may drool excessively and there may be food stuck in their cheek on the affected side because chewing is difficult. In severe cases, the individual may show more severe neurological signs, in which case the prognosis may be poor even with treatment. If you think a cow is suffering from listeriosis, it’s critical that you get a veterinary evaluation, as prompt, aggressive antibiotic treatment is imperative for successful recovery. While there are multiple antibiotics that can be used, penicillin is often the drug of choice. High doses of antibiotics are typically necessary. If the individual is unable to eat or drink normally, supportive care will be necessary. Individuals with listeriosis should be isolated from other residents. Listeriosis is a zoonotic disease, though most healthy humans are resistant to the disease. Humans most at risk of listeriosis are newborns, the elderly, and those who are pregnant or immunocompromised.

Sources:

Overview of Listeriosis | Merck Veterinary Manual

Listeriosis | The Cattle Site

Zoonotic Diseases Of Cattle | Virginia Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Listeriosis In Ruminants And Human Risk | Purdue University College Of Veterinary Medicine (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Lungworms

Lungworms are parasitic roundworms that affect the respiratory tract. Infected cows spread lungworm larvae in their feces. Other cows become infected by ingesting infective third-stage larva while grazing on contaminated pastures. Clinical signs are most often seen in calves because cows typically develop some degree of immunity after infection (though reinfection is necessary to maintain this immunity). Initial signs of lungworm include an increased respiratory rate and coughing fits, especially following exercise. In more severe cases, the coughing fits will become more frequent and are seen even at rest, cows may stand with their neck extended and their head down, and they may breathe with their mouth open. Lungworm infections can lead to secondary bacterial pneumonia and even death. Talk to your veterinarian if you suspect one of your residents may have a lungworm infection. They can help with the diagnosis, which can be more difficult than with some other types of internal parasites. The Baermann technique is typically recommended over fecal floatation. Individuals with lungworm will need an anthelmintic treatment, and may also require antibiotics if there is a secondary infection, and possibly an NSAID treatment. In areas where lungworm is endemic, vaccination may be recommended.

Sources:

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

Control Of Lungworms In Cattle | COWS (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Mange

Mange is a skin condition caused by a mite infestation. There are multiple types of mange that can affect cows, including sarcoptic, psoroptic, chorioptic, demodectic, and psorergatic mange. Diagnosis may involve a skin scraping and microscopic identification of the mite, but in some cases your veterinarian may recommend a certain treatment based on clinical signs alone and will monitor their response to treatment in order to help confirm the diagnosis. Treatment depends on the type of mange, and in some cases, the severity of clinical signs, and typically comes in pour-on, injectable, and topical formulations.

Sarcoptic mange, also known as scabies, is caused by the burrowing mite Sarcoptes scabiei var bovis and is highly contagious. Sarcoptic mange is spread through direct contact or via fomites and causes intense itching, hair loss, and thickened, crusty skin. Lesions typically start on the head, neck, and shoulders and then spread to other areas of the body. Without treatment, a cow’s entire body can become affected in about 6 weeks. While it is not the same mite as the one that causes scabies in humans, it can be transmitted to humans, resulting in skin irritation, but will be self-limiting.

Psoroptic mange is caused by the non-burrowing mite Psoroptes ovis. Psoroptic mange is spread through direct contact with infected individuals, via fomites, or from a contaminated environment. P. ovis can live without a host for over two weeks in certain conditions. This type of mange causes intense itching, hair loss, and crusty, oozy skin, with lesions typically starting on the shoulders and near the tail and then spreading to the rest of the body. In severe cases, secondary bacterial infections are common. While other species of farmed animals, including sheep, can get P. ovis, there appears to be some degree of host-specificity, but the relationship between the different variants is not fully understood.

Chorioptic mange, also known as leg mange, foot and tail mange, symbiotic mange, or barn itch, is caused by the non-burrowing mites Chorioptes bovis and C. texanus. C. bovis is the most common cow-affecting mite in the U.S. and can also affect sheep, goats, and horses. Chorioptic mange is spread through direct contact with infected individuals, but can live without a host for over 3 weeks, resulting in spread through contaminated fomites or living spaces, as well. This type of mange frequently results in subclinical infections, but can also cause mild itching and hair loss, and oozy, thickened, crusty skin. The legs, tail base, udders, and scrotum are often affected. Clinical signs typically appear in winter and often resolve in the spring and summer.

Demodectic mange, also known as follicular mange or bovine demodicosis, is caused by three host-specific species of DemodexD. bovis, D. ghanensis, and D. tauri, with D. bovis being the most common. D. bovis lives in the hair follicle and associated glands, but rarely causes clinical disease. Affected cows may develop small raised lumps on their body that, when squeezed, release a thick, waxy, yellow to dirty-white substance that contains microscopic mites. Lumps typically start on the face, neck, and shoulders, but can spread to the rest of their body. In some cases, these lumps can become pus-filled and multiple lumps can meld into one another, forming a large abscess. Demodectic mange may cause small patches of hair loss or more extensive hair loss but does not appear itchy. D. bovis is spread through close contact.

Psorergatic mange, or “itch mite”, is caused by Psorobia bos (formerly Psorergates bos). This small mite lives in the superficial layers of a cow’s skin and rarely causes disease. However, in rare instances it can cause mild itching and hair loss. These mites are spread through direct contact.

Sources:

Mange | OIE Terrestrial Manual 2019

Sheep Scab | Iowa State University College Of Veterinary Medicine

Ectoparasites Of Cattle | NADIS (Non-Compassionate Source) 

Mange In Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source) 

Mange In Cattle: Demodectic Mange | Alberta Agriculture, Food, And Rural Development (Non-Compassionate Source) 

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Mastitis

Mastitis is inflammation of a cow’s udder, usually as a result of an infection, but sometimes as a result of injury. Infectious causes are usually bacterial, but can be the result of other types of pathogens as well. Mastitis is a significant problem in the dairy industry, but can also occur in a sanctuary setting, and even cows who have never lactated can develop this disease. In a sanctuary environment, established residents may develop mastitis as a result of environmental factors such as poor sanitation. If you take in a lactating cow, be sure to talk to your veterinarian about the best protocols to put in place to prevent mastitis and to monitor her closely for signs of the disease, as she will be more vulnerable to the disease than your other residents. A cow can have either clinical mastitis or subclinical mastitis. Clinical signs of mastitis can vary depending on the pathogen involved, but the most common sign of mastitis is a discolored, swollen, hard, painful, and hot udder (they may have one affected quarter or multiple quarters may be affected). Severe infections can cause fever, lack of appetite, dehydration, and other signs of systemic illness. Cows may develop abscesses that rupture and ooze, and in some cases, the tissue of the udder may become necrotic and slough off. If you see signs of mastitis in any of your residents, be sure to contact your veterinarian. Treatment depends on the severity of the disease and also the pathogen causing the infection, with some types being especially difficult to treat. Diagnostic testing will be necessary to determine the causative agent and proper antibiotic treatment. Antibiotics can be administered in an intramammary or injectable formulation, and in some cases, both may be recommended. An NSAID treatment can also help reduce fever and manage pain. In some cases, a mastectomy may be recommended.

Sources:

Mastitis In Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Mycoplasma wenyonii

Typically transmitted by bloodsucking arthropods, Mycoplasma wenyonii is a blood infection that can affect cows. In most cases, the immune system will take care of the infection and the individual will show no signs of disease, but younger, elderly, and immunocompromised cows can be dangerously infected. Symptoms may include anemia, hind end and scrotal edema, painful swollen udders, depression, diarrhea, rough coat, and fever. Though this infection does not always require treatment, you should consult with your veterinarian for guidance.

Sources:

Hemotropic Mycoplasmas | Merck Veterinary Manual

Mycoplasma wenyonii | Vetstream

Severe Anemia Associated With Mycoplasma wenyonii Infection In A Mature Cow (Non-Compassionate Source) 

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Pinkeye

Pinkeye, or Infectious Bovine Keratoconjuctivitis (IBK), is a painful and highly contagious disease of the eye, often caused by the bacteria Moraxella bovis. The disease is easily spread from cow to cow by flies that congregate around the eyes, though it can also be spread through other forms of contact with infected secretions, both direct or indirect. Early symptoms include runny and squinty eyes, and eyes that are red and swollen. Because the eye is painful, cows often keep the affected eye closed. They may develop thick discharge, and as the disease advances, their cornea will become cloudy or opaque. If left untreated, they can develop corneal ulceration, and in extreme cases, the eye can rupture. Early treatment is important. All eye issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible. If they suspect pinkeye, they will be able to administer antibiotic treatment, or in instances where the eye is too severely damaged, they may recommend enucleation (removal of the eye). It’s important to take steps to prevent pinkeye- talk to your veterinarian about a vaccination protocol for your residents, and be sure to employ measures to mitigate fly issues. Offering lots of shady areas for cows to get out of the sun and keeping their living space free of eye irritants can also be helpful in preventing the disease.

Sources:

Pinkeye (Infectious Bovine Keratoconjuctivitis) | North Dakota State University (Non-Compassionate Source)

Infectious Bovine Keratoconjunctivitis Cattle Pinkeye | The University of Tennessee Institute of Agriculture (Non-Compassionate Source)

Common Health Problems Of Cattle | Texas A&M (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Pigeon Fever (Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis)

Pigeon Fever, also known as Dryland Distemper, is the term most commonly used to describe Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis infections. Cows can become infected with both “biovar ovis” (which causes Caseous Lymphadenitis in sheep and goats) and “biovar equi” (which causes disease in equines). In cows, Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis infections cause raw, inflamed areas on the skin, ulcerative lesions, and abscesses on the skin. While internal abscesses are possible, they appear to be less common than in other species. Other symptoms of Pigeon Fever can include anemia, lack of appetite, weight loss, and fever. If a cow has an abscess or lesions on their skin, you should separate them from other cows and sanctuary mammals, and have your veterinarian perform diagnostic testing. If the cow tests positive for Pigeon Fever, the pus in their abscesses can contaminate the environment and spread the disease to other residents. Certain fly species can also spread the disease. It is possible (though very rare) for Pigeon Fever to spread to humans, so it’s important to maintain good biosecurity when handling cows suspected of having Pigeon Fever.

Sources:

Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis Infection Of Horses And Cattle | Merck Veterinary Manual

Pigeon Fever | Cornell University College Of Veterinary Medicine

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Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a respiratory disease caused by inflammation in the lungs. There are numerous causes of pneumonia, from environmental factors to a variety of organisms including bacterial, viral, fungal, parasitic, or a combination of any of those. While pneumonia, in general, can be very serious, bacterial pneumonia is incredibly serious. The underlying cause and resulting complications will dictate the severity of the disease. Signs of pneumonia include increased respiratory rate, labored breathing, coughing, fever, and discharge from the eyes and nose. Cows with pneumonia may become depressed, lethargic, and inappetent and may stretch out their neck and stick their tongue out to get more air into their lungs. Because there are many pathogens that cause pneumonia, treatment will depend on the specific cause. Your veterinarian can recommended diagnostic testing to determine the underlying cause and can also use an ultrasound to evaluate the lungs. In a sanctuary setting with proper biosecurity and incoming quarantine procedures, a common cause of pneumonia in mature cow residents is an excessively humid indoor living space, often resulting from an attempt to keep the space warm in cold weather.

Sources:

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

Common Health Problems Of Cattle | Texas A&M (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Ringworm

Ringworm is a fungal infection that can affect all mammalian species and is one of the most common causes of skin issues that affect cows. Ringworm causes skin lesions that sometimes look like a ring but may take on other shapes. The infected area loses hair and appears crusty. Typically, ringworm infections affect a younger cow’s face (especially around the eyes), ears, and back, or an older cow’s chest and legs. It is most often spread through direct contact with infected cows, but spores can live in the environment for years in certain conditions. Ringworm typically resolves on its own, but can take many months. In some cases, your veterinarian may recommend cleaning off the crusts and applying a topical antifungal cream or other topical treatment. Exposure to sunlight also helps to kill ringworm. Affected individuals typically develop immunity to future ringworm infections. Keep in mind that ringworm can spread to humans, so anyone coming into contact with affected individuals should wear protective gear. 

Sources:

Ringworm In Cattle | The Cattle Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

Ringworm | Vermont Beef Producers Association (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Slaframine Toxicosis (“Slobbers”)

Slaframine Toxicosis is caused when cows ingest forage infected with the fungus Rhizoctonia leguminicola (Black Patch disease). This fungus primarily infects red clover but can infect other legumes as well. Cows eating infected pasture, hay, or silage typically show signs of slaframine toxicosis within an hour, with the first symptom being excessive salivation (hence, “slobbers”). Slaframine toxicosis can also cause diarrhea, eye watering, inappetence, bloat, frequent urination, and stiff joints. In most cases, early detection and removal of infected food sources results in symptoms resolving within a day or two. Higher concentrations or more prolonged exposure to slaframine can result in dehydration, and in very rare instances, death. Plant and forage samples can be tested for Slaframine, but this test tends to be expensive. Instead, it may be easier to look for black patches on the red clover leaves and stems in your pasture or hay. Detoxification of infected pasture and hay is not possible, but there may be strategies you can implement to reduce the levels of slaframine present. Your local cooperative extension office or veterinarian should be able to offer recommendations.

Source:

Slaframine Toxicosis Or “Slobbers” In Cattle And Horses | University Of Kentucky Cooperative Extension Service (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Urinary Calculi

Urolithiasis, or the formation of urinary calculi (stones or crystals) in the urinary tract, is more commonly seen in sheep and goats, but can affect cows as well. Both males and females can develop urinary calculi but resultant urinary obstruction is more common in neutered males and can result in a life-threatening urinary blockage, though this is seen far less often in cows than in sheep and goats. Urinary calculi often form as a result of dietary issues. There are different types of calculi that can develop depending on the mineral composition of the cow’s diet, including struvite and calcium carbonate stones. Be sure to talk with your veterinarian about the risks associated with your region and pasture/ forage make-up, because there are other types of stones that can be caused by eating plants containing high levels of certain compounds (such as silica) that may be common in your region. One of the more common causes of urinary calculi is an imbalance of calcium-to-phosphorus in their diet. Your veterinarian may have specific recommendations regarding what ratio is best for your residents, but generally, you should strive for a 2:1 calcium-to-phosphorus ratio. To help prevent urinary calculi, avoid feeding cereal grains (for example oats and corn), legumes (alfalfa and clover), and grain concentrates as much as possible.

Signs of a urinary blockage include straining to urinate, posturing as if to urinate but not actually doing so, lethargy, inappetance, and signs of pain such as vocalizing, kicking at their belly, and teeth grinding. Bloat and rectal prolapse may also occur. This is a very painful condition, but some individuals will mask their pain until they are no longer able to do so; therefore, it is important to catch the more subtle signs of concern. If you ever have concerns that a resident may have a urinary blockage, as long as they are currently stable and alert, you can spend time watching to see if they are able to urinate. If they seem to struggle or strain to urinate, have bloody urine, or are seen dribbling only a small amount of urine at a time, these are signs of concern. If you suspect a urinary blockage, contact your veterinarian immediately. Left untreated, urinary blockage can lead to rupture of the bladder or urethra and associated complications.

In addition to avoiding foods that are known to cause urinary calculi, make sure the minerals you provide offer the proper ratio of calcium-to-phosphorus and consider having your water analyzed so you know the mineral composition. Be sure to look at their food sources, minerals, supplements, and water make-up holistically, working closely with your veterinarian to determine if changes need to be made. If an individual develops urinary calculi, be sure to have the stone analyzed so you know what type of stone you are dealing with and can take appropriate measures to prevent future issues, both for the individual and their herdmates.

Sources:

Urolithiasis in Large Animals | Merck Veterinary Manual (Non-Compassionate Source)

Cattle Medicine | Phillip Scott, Colin D. Penny, and Alastair Macrae (Non-Compassionate Source)

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White Muscle Disease

White muscle disease is a degenerative disease that can be found in cows, sheep, goats, pigs, and llamas. It is caused by a nutritional deficiency of selenium, Vitamin E, or both. White muscle disease can affect heart muscle, skeletal muscle, or both. When the skeletal muscle is afflicted, a cow will have an arched back, appear to be hunched over, and move very stiffly. Cows with severe white muscle disease may not be able to stand or even sit upright.  Affected cows will also have a much weaker immune system and may develop bottle jaw. Vitamin E deficiencies are typically a result of insufficient grazing nutritional quality, and selenium deficiencies are typically found where the soil lacks selenium in appropriate quantities for grazing cows. Treatment involves giving cows vitamin E and selenium injections, which should show positive results within a day. There have been a few instances of sanctuary cows suffering from an allergic reaction to this treatment. We recommend talking about this potential risk with your veterinarian and having a plan in place to administer emergency treatment if one of your residents shows signs of anaphylaxis. If you suspect a cow is suffering from white muscle disease, contact your veterinarian for evaluation and to discuss appropriate supplementation. The best prevention is to ensure that cows have access to nutritional sources that are rich in both vitamin E and selenium throughout the year, routinely monitor your residents’ vitamin E and selenium levels through blood testing, and to provide appropriate supplementation, such as loose minerals and selenium boluses, as needed!

Sources:

Selenium Deficiency In Cattle | Iowa State University

Common Diseases Of Grazing Cattle | Penn State Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)

Selenium Deficiency In Adult Dairy Cattle | The Cattle Site (Non-Compassionate Source)

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Non-Compassionate Source?

If a source includes the (Non-Compassionate Source) tag, it means that we do not endorse that particular source’s views about animals, even if some of their insights are valuable from a care perspective. See a more detailed explanation here.

Updated on July 28, 2021

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