Updated March 4, 2021
When a new cow arrives at your sanctuary, there are a number of critical steps that must be taken to ensure safety for the incoming resident, the existing residents, and yourself!
While 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.", in general, have certain diet, housing, and care needs, you must also consider if the new arrivals require any special accommodations based on their age, breed, health status, known history, or the circumstances of their recent living situation. Each new resident and situation will be different, but some things to consider include:
- If you’re taking in calves, you will have to learn how to properly care for them in terms of heat, food, and shelter, if you take in a pregnant cow, you will need to learn how to offer appropriate prenatal care.
- If you welcome a mother cow along with her nursing calf, you should not separate the two of them unless absolutely necessary for their health. If you separate them, allow them to be close enough to touch if they choose to!
- If you are taking in a female cow from a dairy production setting, you must work closely with your veterinarian to make sure you are not encouraging further milk production while ensuring she does not develop mastitis.
- If the new cow is from a starvation situation, you must work closely with your veterinarian to determine what to feed them. Offering unrestricted food sources to an individual who has been starved can result in serious health complications.
- If the new resident is a mature bull (unneutered male), you should take time to closely observe his behavior before entering his living space, and make sure staff who will work with him know what physical cues to be on the lookout for that may indicate he is frightened or feeling confrontational. Not all bulls are confrontational, but they do have the potential to behave quite differently than a neutered male and can cause serious injury if they slam or kick someone, so it’s important to thoroughly assess their response to human presence and interactions.
- Similarly, if the new cow is fearful or confrontational, be sure to keep human safety in mind when working with the cow. Being in a confined space with a fearful or confrontational cow has the potential to be quite dangerous. You may need to utilize a chute system to safely evaluate the cow. Make sure anyone working with the cow is trained in safe practices and is well-versed in cow body language and behavior.
- If the new cow is very agile and appears to be fearful, or if the new resident is assumed to have escaped from their previous living situation, be sure to assess if your quarantine space can safely contain them. A frightened cow may try to jump a fence, and you might be surprised just how high a cow can jump if they feel they need to. Not only do you want to avoid the new resident getting loose, they could also seriously injure themselves while trying to escape. Any time you take in fearful individuals, it is important to find gentle ways to help them become more comfortable around their caregivers. They may never become cows who crave human attention (though some individuals who arrive very fearful certainly do!), but you should be able to ease their fears and hence increase their comfort, even if they choose to keep their distance from humans.
Adhere To A Quarantine Policy
The new cow must be housed in a strict quarantine area on your premises away from all other residents (not even nose-to-nose contact through a fence), even if you know exactly where the cow came from! At a minimum, new cows must be kept away from other cow residents, but could potentially spread disease to other residents as well. Quarantine is absolutely crucial to protect everyone from possible infectious diseases that may not be producing visible symptoms in a healthy-looking arrival; an entire herd could be easily infected, and possibly killed, by certain diseases, and some diseases can contaminate pastures and live in the soil for over a year. Even if the cow was previously healthy, a new environment can produce stress that might cause an illness flare-up or make them more likely to shed certain diseases. Reciprocally, existing residents might be carrying a disease that the new resident isn’t healthy enough to fight off yet!
If you’re taking in a whole herd that was living together previously, you can probably quarantine them together since it’s likely that any diseases they have will be already spread throughout the herd, and staying together may put the new residents more at ease. However, if the herd includes a mix of females and unneutered males who are sexually mature, you will need to take steps to prevent breeding. If an individual cow seems very ill or behaving oddly, they should be isolated from the others until a veterinarian determines exactly what’s wrong. Monitor the herd to ensure that the current social situation is safe for everyone. Just because they came in together, doesn’t necessarily mean they get along well. If anyone appears to be getting picked on, find a way to split the group to reduce tensions while avoiding anyone having to live alone unless absolutely necessary.
Anyone coming into contact with the new 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." should wear gloves and full body covering or immersion suits and should either wear boot covers or use foot baths. This is true even for healthy looking cows, but is imperative if the cow is visibly ill, has diarrhea, or is producing undiagnosed discharge. These protective coverings should not be used outside of this The policy or space in which an individual is separately housed away from others as a preventative measure to protect other residents from potentially contagious health conditions, such as in the case of new residents or residents who may have been exposed to certain diseases. space or you will defeat the purpose of wearing them in the first place! The new cow should remain in quarantine for a minimum of 30 days, and until all blood work and fecal exams come back with a clean bill of health. Make sure any external parasites have been eradicated before discontinuing quarantine, taking into account the life cycle of the parasite to ensure enough time has passed since the last instances of live parasites being found.
Ideally, you should have designated tools used only to clean the new cow’s space that are not used in other living areas. If this is not possible, all tools and cleaning supplies must be thoroughly disinfected before being used in other areas. It’s best to keep all bedding from quarantined areas away from other residents and their living spaces, especially if the arriving cow seems to be in poor health, has unexplained discharge, or diarrhea. If you typically spread old bedding on your sanctuary’s pastures, wait to do so with bedding from quarantined spaces until new residents have been evaluated by a veterinarian. Depending on their evaluation and any testing they recommend, they may advise you continue to keep bedding separate pending certain test results.
Evaluating A New Cow’s Health
When welcoming a new resident to your sanctuary, it is imperative that you assess their overall health to ensure you are addressing any issues as soon as possible. This is accomplished through initial observations, an intake examination, diagnostic testing, ongoing observation, and possibly a veterinarian’s assessment of the individual, especially if the new cow shows any signs of concerns.
Whenever you welcome a new resident to your sanctuary, it is crucial that you spend some time observing the individual upon arrival to determine any immediate needs they may have. If you or your staff picked up the individual and transported them back to the sanctuary, this observation process will actually begin before the new resident sets foot on sanctuary grounds. Through thoughtful observation, you may be able to identify signs of concern that warrant immediate veterinary care or further assessment on your part. This part of the intake process will also help determine if an intake examination must happen immediately or can wait for the new resident to settle in a little bit. In instances where you are taking in multiple new residents, this process will also help you prioritize individuals who appear to require more urgent assessment.
If you are taking in cows who look very similar, you must have a system of identifying and documenting individuals while you are getting to know who is who. For more docile individuals, the use of properly fitting collars with name tags can be helpful for staff or volunteers who are working on learning everyone’s name and can also be a good way to make sure information is being recorded for the correct individual. Collars do come with potential risk if residents get them caught on something, so if you can find a breakaway style, that would be your safest bet. Regardless of the style, collars may not be a good option for a more skittish or confrontational cow, as it may be difficult to safely put on and regularly check the collar. Be careful using collars on cows who are still growing. They will need to be checked often and refitted as needed. Every individual will have their own unique characteristics, so if collars are not an option, you could take lots of pictures and write out thorough descriptions for staff and volunteers to refer to while learning everyone’s names. If a cow arrives with an ear tag, record their tag number if applicable (and consider taking a photo as well), and as long as it is not causing issues currently, we recommend you not remove it for at least 30 days and until you are sure you won’t be adopting the individual out of your region (to avoid having to ear tag them again in the future). Keep any removed tags with their records.
Prioritizing An Intake Examination
It’s important to perform an intake examination on all new residents, ideally within 24 hours of arrival, though some may need more immediate assessment. An intake exam includes conducting a full health examination to evaluate their overall health and to learn more about the individual, as well as gather important information for their permanent record. Be sure to follow quarantine procedures while conducting the intake exam. To learn more about the intake examination process, including how to prioritize assessing and addressing a new resident’s needs, check out our resource here! If, for whatever reason, you are unable to perform a full health examination shortly after their arrival, you will need to closely observe new residents for signs of concerns and take steps to address those concerns appropriately.
An intake examination is conducted in much the same way as a routine health examination- you should check every inch of the cow, looking for any signs of concerns, and providing any necessary treatments. Be sure to consider the individual when conducting the exam. Depending on the cow’s age, breed, and previous living situation, they may be more likely to arrive with certain diseases. For example, cows rescued from a dairy production setting should be thoroughly evaluated for mastitis, since they are more likely to have or develop this condition than cows who were not recently exploited for milk. Calves also have their own set of common health challenges. You can find more information about health challenges that commonly affect calves here. Other conditions that are fairly common in newly rescued cows include:
- Hoof Issues– Because sanctuaries often take in individuals who may have had their needs neglected, very often new cows arrive with overgrown hooves. Be sure to evaluate their feet and check for any signs of hoof rot, hoof abscesses, or other abnormalities. Schedule a visit from your farrier or veterinarian to trim their feet and address any issues. Some types of bacterial hoof rot are highly contagious and must be aggressively treated. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to diagnose any issues and establish a treatment plan.
- Mobility Or Joint Issues– You should assess the cow’s mobility by watching them walk and looking for any abnormalities in their gait or shifting of weight when standing. When checking their legs, pay extra attention to their joints, looking for any swelling and listening for crepitus (popping or crunching). If safe to do so, you can feel the joint for heat as well. Mobility and joint issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the cause and appropriate treatment plan.
- Respiratory Issues– Watch closely, both during the intake examination and during the quarantine period, for any signs of respiratory illness such as nasal discharge, coughing, an elevated respiratory rate, fever, or breathing that sounds wet, raspy, or wheezy. Your veterinarian can evaluate the cow’s lungs, recommend diagnostic testing, and ultimately offer treatment options.
- Pinkeye– If the cow arrives with eye issues, especially during fly season, be sure to consider if it could be pinkeye, or infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (IBK), which is highly contagious. All eye issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible, as early treatment of many issues is important to prevent permanent eye damage. Because pinkeye is contagious and is often spread by flies, be sure to use proper fly mitigation strategies as well as following quarantine procedures in order to prevent spread to other residents. Some cows may arrive with scarred eyes from old pinkeye infections.
- External Parasites– Checking for external parasites should be a part of all resident health examinations, but it is especially important for incoming cows. Lice infestations are especially common in cows, and new cows can easily spread these parasites to other residents.
In addition to looking for signs of concern, you should determine the following information. In some cases this will require veterinary involvement:
- Assess spay/ neuter/ pregnancy status: New males should be evaluated to determine their neuter status, though in some cases you may need a veterinarian to help with this if you are unsure. Intact males should be neutered as soon as your veterinarian deems appropriate. They will need time to recover after the surgery, which could delay their introduction to other residents if done towards the end of their quarantine period. Females who are sexually mature should be evaluated for pregnancy through an ultrasound and/ or BioPRYN blood testing. If laparoscopic ovariectomies are part of your cow care practices, work with your veterinarian to determine if they are healthy enough (and mature enough) to undergo the procedure. If an incoming resident is early on in their pregnancy, some sanctuaries choose to administer Lutalyse (or a similar product) to induce miscarriage. This decision ultimately depends on an individual sanctuary’s Philosophy of Care.
- Approximate their age by looking at their teeth: We are not talking about evaluating their dental health here- that definitely requires an experienced veterinarian. However, by observing how many adult teeth a cow has, you can estimate their age. For some individuals, it may not be safe to put yourself that close to their head, in which case you will need to skip this step for now. If you have never done this before, there are plenty of resources online that show how, but you should work with your veterinarian and have them show you how to to do so safely. While calves may be fairly easy to restrain safely, it can be difficult to prevent a mature cow from swinging their head, and being hit in the face by a large cow’s head can be quite dangerous. A veterinarian may also be better able to guess the age of a cow who has all their adult teeth by looking at how long or worn they are. Having a general idea of their age can be very helpful when considering their needs. When examining their teeth, never put your hand inside a cow’s mouth as they have very strong jaws and could seriously injure a hand or finger.
- Consider placing a rumen magnet: If you haven’t already, talk to your veterinarian about using rumen magnets to help prevent hardware disease, and work with them to establish an appropriate protocol for your residents. Depending on your protocols and the age of the new cow, either have the magnet placed during the intake process or schedule placement for a later date.
If you have not already done so, work with your veterinarian to determine appropriate incoming testing protocols for new cows you welcome to your sanctuary. While individuals showing signs of concern may require additional diagnostics, there may be certain tests your veterinarian recommends for all incoming cows. At a minimum, all new residents should have a fecal sample submitted to check for internal parasites and, if the cow is old enough, to test for Johnes’ disease. If they have diarrhea, you should also test for Salmonella. If the cow has internal parasites, your veterinarian will be able to recommend deworming treatments based on the fecal results. Be sure to submit another fecal sample 10-14 days after any deworming treatment to evaluate its effectiveness. In order to help prevent the ever-increasing resistance to available deworming medications, it’s important to only use dewormers when necessary and to work closely with your veterinarian if resistance to certain dewormers seems to be an issue. If the cow tests positive for Johne’s disease, but is not clinical, they can often go on to have a good quality of life for many years but can shed the disease in their feces. Younger cows seem especially susceptible to the disease, so you should house them away from Johne’s- positive cows and the pastures they have been on. Work with your veterinarian to determine appropriate protocols to keep everyone safe.
Incoming cows should also be tested for Bovine Viral Diarrhea (BVD)– your veterinarian can help determine what blood test to request based on the age of the cow. It can also be a good idea to test for Bovine Leukemia Virus (BLV), as the presence of this virus can explain certain health challenges that may pop up later in the cow’s life. Your veterinarian may recommend other testing based on the specifics of your region. Certain disease confirmations may require an official report to your local government- if testing for screening purposes only, you may want to have a conversation with your veterinarian about what a positive result would mean for the individual and the sanctuary.
Some health conditions may take time to show outward symptoms. While all residents should be observed closely each day, extra attention should be paid to new residents during their quarantine period to ensure any potential issues are caught and addressed as soon as possible.
Work with your veterinarian to establish a vaccine protocol for your cow residents based on the specifics of your resident population and your region. When new cows arrive, your veterinarian can help determine if they are healthy enough for vaccination, which will depend on the vaccine. It may be best to wait to administer certain vaccines if the cow is sick, but with others it may be recommended that even cows who are ill receive the vaccine as soon as possible. Make sure you know about any age restrictions as well. Some vaccines are not meant for calves under a certain age.
Introducing The Newcomer To Other Cows
If the new resident is a young calf who is much less mature than the existing herd, you may want to let them grow up a fair bit before introducing them to the rest of the herd to ensure that they have built up enough immune system strength to handle any disease that might be lurking in the herd. Also, newly neutered cows are still fertile for weeks after the operation, so make sure to wait until they’re completely sterile before they’re around any impregnable herdmates!
Once you’ve ensured that the new cow is healthy enough to join the resident herd, it can be a good idea to give the cows time to get used to each other by living in separate, but adjacent, spaces. Consider letting the new cow live in the same barn as the resident herd without having full physical access to one another- sniffing or grooming each other over a fence is a good way to get to know each other! This will give them an opportunity to meet without too much drama. You should consider giving the cows at least two weeks of this transition period before attempting to put them together, though every introduction is different.
When you’re ready to introduce the new cow to the herd, be sure to have multiple trained humans on hand to monitor their introduction in case you need to intervene! There may be minor fighting at first, as everyone figures out their place in the social hierarchy, but as long as no one is getting injured or overdoing it, it’s generally best to let them sort things out for themselves. However, if things get out of hand, you’ll need to break up conflicts quickly. Watch closely to make sure no one is causing injury and that no one is exhausting themselves or showing signs of overheating. If things escalate and you are worried a cow resident is going to be injured, you will need to intervene, but this must be done extremely carefully. It is not safe for a human to try to physically intervene during an altercation between mature cows. Instead, try to create a diversion to distract the cows. This may be done by making loud noises or creating another type of distraction. When the altercation is interrupted, you can encourage them to move away from one another. Always be very careful when working around cows who are agitated. This is why it’s important to have multiple people who can be on the lookout and can alert others to a dangerous situation that may be headed their way. Typically, negative interactions start out with scuffing and rubbing their face on the ground, but can escalate to chasing, mounting, and head slamming. One major point of caution is if one cow has horns where the other does not; even a friendly greeting can potentially be quite dangerous in these circumstances! If you have to separate the cows due to dangerously confrontational behaviors, don’t try to introduce them again that day. It can take a little bit of time for them to become comfortable with each other and figure out the social order.
With all introductions, monitoring their first few days together is especially critical to make sure everyone is getting along. You may need to offer additional food and water sources away from where the herd typically eats and drinks if the new cow is getting pushed away or seems wary of the others. If the herd needs to be closed in a small space for any reason while everyone is still figuring out their place in the social order, you may need to offer the new cow their own space during these times since conflicts may be more likely to arise in confined spaces.
Other good techniques to help the cows get along include changing out bedding material with each other’s scents in order to familiarize cows with one another (after the new resident has completed quarantine), ensuring plenty of open space where the cows socialize, eat, and drink (especially ensuring equal food and water access), and providing lots of space for newly introduced cows to avoid each other. If the cows are having constant trouble with each other, don’t give up hope yet! It may take a few introductions before they all get along. However, if it seems like the cow will never be fully accepted into the herd or if they are too rough for some of their herdmates, it would be better to create a second herd with a few individuals who get along well with each other, being careful not to separate bonded companions. A herd with a constantly bullied cow is an unacceptable living situation for the individual cow.
It may seem like a lot of extra steps than just releasing a new cow into the pasture, but if you follow the above guidelines, your new friend will have a much greater chance at a happy, healthy life with you and the herd!