This resource has been A member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff has given this resource a full review and provided updates where necessary. by a member of The Open Sanctuary Project’s staff as of August 23, 2022.
Much like the common advice given to humans, it’s important to regularly check the health of While "cows" can be defined to refer exclusively to female cattle, at The Open Sanctuary Project we refer to domesticated cattle of all ages and sexes as "cows." with a routine physical examination rather than waiting until a While "cow" can be defined to refer exclusively to female cattle, at The Open Sanctuary Project we refer to domesticated cattle of all ages and sexes as "cows." is showing signs of distress or illness. Not only will this help you get to know what all aspects of a healthy cow look and feel like, but familiarizing a cow with human handling might help them stay calmer in stressful situations. Be prepared to check them over every six to eight weeks*! For more information on why regular health examinations are important, check out our resource here.
Before conducting a health examination, it’s helpful to gather any supplies you may need and have them arranged nearby for easy access. Having everything you will likely need nearby can make the examination go more smoothly and, in the event that the individual must be restrained in some way for part or all of the exam, will reduce the amount of time they must be restrained. If you are performing an exam on someone with a known health issue, you may need additional supplies besides those listed below. Otherwise, supplies to have on hand during cow health exams may include:
- Recordkeeping supplies
- Gauze squares (non-sterile is typically fine, but there may be times when sterile gauze is necessary)
- Exam gloves
- Cow-safe topical disinfectant (such as dilute chlorhexidine)
- Saline flush
- Cow-safe ointments or creams such as a triple antibiotic ointment or silver sulfadiazine cream 1% (SSD)
- Cotton-tipped applicators
- Headlamp, penlight, or flashlight
- Thermometer and lubricant (good to have on hand in case you suspect someone is ill based on exam findings)
- Fly treatments or deterrents (during fly season)
Conducting The Exam
Before beginning individual exams (and, if possible, before entering your residents’ The indoor or outdoor area where an animal resident lives, eats, and rests.), it’s a good idea to take a few minutes to observe the group. Make note of their behavior, activity level, and general appearance. If residents are up, observe how they are standing and moving and whether or not they are actively eating. If they are lying down, make note of how they are positioned, whether or not they are chewing Food matter that returns from the first stomach compartment back to the mouth for further chewing, and whether or not they are away from the herd or are the only one lying down.
If you use some form of restraint for health checks, now is also a good time to observe the respiratory rate of individuals in the herd since this may become elevated once residents are moved and restrained. While you can certainly assess the respiratory rate for each individual, for starters, you may simply spend a few minutes observing the group, checking to see if anyone appears to be breathing more rapidly or with more effort than the other residents. You could then take their respiratory rate and further evaluate them during their exam (or, depending on other signs they are presenting, you may opt to call your veterinarian). To assess a cow’s respiratory rate, watch their chest movements, counting how many times their chest expands/contracts over one minute. The normal resting respiratory rate for an adult cow is 12-36 respirations per minute and the normal resting respiratory rate for a calf is 30-60 respirations per minute. Note that these are resting rates. Individuals who are active will have an elevated respiratory rate. In addition to being an indication of illness, an elevated respiratory rate can also be indicative of a cow being stressed, hot, or in pain.
During this general observation of the group, watch for anyone who stands out as looking or acting differently from the rest of the herd. While this may not necessarily be an indication of a health concern, it certainly warrants further observation and assessment during the exam. For example, if you notice that only Gertrude is lying down while the rest of the herd is up grazing, you’ll want to keep an eye on her and gather more information to determine whether or not there’s a problem brewing.
For the individual exam, some residents may allow you to check them without being restrained (perhaps while lying down, while eating, or while being brushed), but you may find that you cannot perform the entire exam in one “session” when doing it in this way. For example, while checking an individual who is lying down, you will be unable to thoroughly check one side of their body and will not be able to observe how the individual looks while standing (but you might get a great view of the bottom of their feet!). In this case, you would want to be sure to check their other side and assess their comfort standing and walking before considering their health examination “complete.” Be sure to take good notes so you can keep track of the areas that still need to be checked.
Get Serious About Safety!
Before we talk about how to conduct a cow health exam, there are some important safety considerations to discuss. While touch plays an important role in health exams, generally, when it comes to cows and other large mammals, such as horses, you may have to rely on visual evaluation in order to avoid putting yourself or others at risk of severe injury. Below, we’ll mention some of the more common safety risks that come up when performing certain parts of the exam, but please be aware that these are far from the only possibilities. We’re not saying this to scare anyone or to discourage folks from rescuing or caring for cows. We know from personal experience that it’s not uncommon for caregivers to focus solely on the resident’s safety while making concessions about their own. Because sometimes the same folks who dedicate their days to caring for others need gentle reminders about caring for themselves, we’re here to remind you that caregiver safety is just as important as resident safety.
While cows are not inherently dangerous, it is important to consider the size and strength difference between some full-grown cows and humans. This size difference, plus their speed, powerful swinging head (not to mention horns in some cases), and ability to kick, can result in serious injury. Particularly if you do not have a lot of experience working with cows or are working with a new cow resident whom you do not yet know well, it may be that you must rely more on visual assessment than you would for other species. You’ll also want to consider the individual cow and how they react to restraint and human touch. That said, it’s important to note that even folks with a great deal of experience working with cows may not be able to safely perform more than a visual inspection during certain parts of an exam, and cows who are generally very amenable to human touch may react very differently if they are startled or are in pain.
In addition to the considerations listed above, whether or not you can touch certain parts of a cow’s body will be impacted by different restraint methods. While some cows may be able to be safely examined without restraint, others may require restraint, such as being tied off with a halter or being guided into a chute system. Make sure you are properly trained in whatever restraint method you use and that you are aware of the resident and caregiver safety risks of each so you can prevent injury. For example, some chute systems have panels with horizontal bars, and this may seem like it makes touching the cow much easier than if the panel was solid. However, reaching through the bars can result in serious injury to your limb if the cow moves (which, among other things, could result in your limb being crushed between their body and the bar) or if the individual kicks (which could result in a much more serious injury than what the kick alone would cause since you have the added force of your limb being thrust into the bars). Proper training is imperative to avoid putting yourself or your residents in situations that increase the risk of injury.
Up next, we’ll go over important components of a health examination. Please note that while these “steps” do not have to be completed in the order listed below, it is helpful to have a set order you follow consistently so as to avoid accidentally missing a step.
It is not uncommon for sanctuary cows to be above the “ideal” body condition. Obesity can predispose individuals to health issues such as foot and leg problems, so it’s important to provide residents with a diet that does not lead to excessive weight gain. However, it’s also important to consider that because sanctuary residents are often considered “over conditioned” and have a higher than “ideal” body condition score, in the event that you are worried that an individual has lost weight, these concerns may not always be taken seriously if the individual in question appears, by industry standards, to be at an ideal weight. This is one of the many reasons why tracking body condition scores and, whenever possible, the resident’s weight is helpful. It gives you more information to share with your veterinarian regarding what is normal for the individual in question.
If a resident is losing weight, be sure to work with your veterinarian to determine the cause. You’ll also want to discuss how the individual is doing overall. Losing weight despite a healthy appetite will suggest different possibilities (such as Johne’s disease) than weight loss accompanied by inappetence. Particularly in elderly cows, weight loss might be the result of dental disease and may require permanent alterations to the individual’s diet.
Look at their head for any sign of asymmetry or a head tilt. If a resident has a head tilt or one side of their face is drooping, this is cause for concern, and your veterinarian should be consulted. If an individual has a very dirty face, this may be an indication that they have trouble getting up and are using their head to assist them in this process. It’s a good idea to pay close attention to how these individuals move and to observe them while rising.
If the individual has horns or scurs (horn-like tissue that, unlike a true horn, is attached to the skin rather than the skull), be sure to check that these are not growing in such a way as to cause injury or irritation to the face. Work with your veterinarian to determine the best course of action if a horn or scur is causing a problem.
Feel along the neck for any lumps or lesions. To check for dehydration, pinch the skin on their neck and observe how long it takes for the skin to return to its normal position. In a well-hydrated cow, the skin will bounce back into place within one second. In a dehydrated cow, the skin will hold the tent shape before slowly returning to normal.
Check for ocular discharge, which could be a sign of illness, injury, or irritation (such as from flies). Speaking of flies, during fly season, be sure to watch for early signs of pinkeye (and talk to your veterinarian about vaccinating your cow residents for this contagious condition). Signs of pinkeye include runny and squinty eyes, redness and swelling, holding an affected eye closed, and, as the disease progresses, thick ocular discharge and a cloudy/opaque cornea.
Also, pay attention to how the eye is sitting in the socket. If a cow’s eyes appear sunken into the head, this often indicates dehydration.
The cow’s lips should not be loose, and their tongue should not be hanging out of their mouth. Also, check for excessive drooling, which can indicate an issue. Checking inside a cow’s mouth is challenging (and should not be performed unless you know how to do so safely!). An exam of the inside of their mouth may be best to save for when your veterinarian assesses your residents. However, while we’re on the subject of a cow’s mouth, we want to point out that cows do not have upper front teeth which is sometimes alarming to new caregivers! Instead, they have a dental pad.
If the cow has eaten recently, the paralumbar fossa will be about flush (give or take a little) with the last rib. If they have not been eating, this area will be depressed with a clear outline of the triangular area. If the paralumbar fossa is distended significantly past the last rib and/or feels tight, this indicates bloat, a potentially life-threatening condition. Other signs of bloat include labored breathing, grunting, open-mouth breathing, extending their neck, frequent urination, and other signs of discomfort. As the condition progresses, the cow may become recumbent. When you tap on the paralumbar fossa of a bloated cow, it may produce a kettle drum-like sound. Contact your veterinarian immediately if a resident is showing signs of bloat, as prompt intervention is imperative.
A healthy rumen should feel doughy with some resistance when pushed. You can also listen for healthy rumen contractions by placing a stethoscope or even just your ear against this area. You should hear a rumen contraction (sometimes described as sounding like a thunderstorm, dull roar, spinning washing machine, or flushing toilet) approximately 1-2 times per minute. You can listen to a normal rumen contraction here. If you note long gaps between contractions or weak contractions, please consult with your veterinarian.
Be sure to check for pressure sores, particularly in the areas that typically make contact with the ground when the cow is lying down. Early signs of pressure sores include hair loss and irritated or thickened skin before becoming open sores or scabbed areas.
When checking male residents, also check (often just visually) their prepuce for any signs of swelling, scabbing, oozing, or prolapse. If they urinate during the exam, watch that they are not straining and that they have a normal stream of urine. Straining, dribbling urine, or producing a weak stream of urine could be signs of urinary blockage, and your veterinarian should be contacted immediately. Check the udder of female residents, looking for signs of mastitis such as heat, swelling, firmness, pain, or discharge. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect mastitis.
Please note that some adult cows have a noticeable navel which will appear as a lump on their underside (in males, it will typically blend into the prepuce). Folks sometimes confuse this with a sign of concern or mistakenly think it is the prepuce and end up thinking that a female resident is male.
When checking a cow’s back, make note of any arching when the individual is standing. Their back should be fairly flat. Arching could be a sign of hardware disease or another issue. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you suspect hardware disease.
In addition to checking the appearance of the legs, also check for any signs of pain by observing how they stand and move. They should bear weight evenly, and there should be no crepitus (cracking or crunching sounds) when they move. Osteoarthritis is quite common in cows as they age, so it’s important to keep a close eye on their mobility and discuss any concerns with your veterinarian. An appropriate pain management plan is an important part of caring for arthritic residents.
Pay attention to how the individual is standing and walking. A cow with an abscess in their foot may refuse to put any weight on the affected claw, which can be quite alarming. However, once the abscess is opened, either by a veterinarian or by rupturing on its own, the cow will be much more comfortable. If you are concerned that a cow has a hoof abscess, have your veterinarian out right away to assess.
Be sure to contact your veterinarian immediately if a resident is showing issues with their feet. To help ensure cow resident hoof health, be sure to have their hooves evaluated and, if needed, trimmed by a professional at least every 6 months (though some individuals may need more frequent trimming than this).
Check that their rectum is not prolapsed. When checking females, be sure to check their vulva, looking for prolapse, discharge, discoloration, or scabbing.
You can read more about considering alternative living arrangements in response to a health issue here.
Though it may seem like an overwhelming amount of factors to be aware of, once you’ve gotten to know a cow and what good cow health looks like, you’ll be an excellent cow health ally in no time!
Writing It All Down
As you may know, regular documentation is a critical part of responsible sanctuary animal care. In order to maximize the value of your cow health examinations, we’ve developed a free printable cow health exam form for sanctuaries and rescues!
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Healthy Cow Check-Up – How To Perform A Physical Exam | eOrganic (Non-Compassionate Source)
Identifying Sick Another term for farmed animals; different regions of the world specify different species of farmed animals as “livestock”. With Dr. Lisa Lunn | UAF Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
The Genetics of Horned, Polled and Scurred Cattle | National Cooperative Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)
The Basic Clinical Exam: Key To Early Identification Of Sick Animals | AgriLIFE Extension (Non-Compassionate Source)