Frequent Problems Associated with Poor Adaptation to Life Outside the Uterus

Inactivity -
Delayed standing and suckling behavior. Both of these activities are critical in maintaining body heat and obtaining needed nutrients and immunological support against disease.

What to do -
Rub the calf with warm towels, encourage the calf to stand and move around, provide colostrum with a bottle and nipple or tube feed the calf if it does not suckle within 2 hours after birth.

Low body temperature (hypothermia) -
The body temperature should be 1-2 degrees above the dam's rectal temperature immediately after birth. It will then drop to about 102 degrees within 15-30 minutes and should maintain that temperature. A typical sign of poor adaptation is a falling body temperature. Calves that are very cold may not shiver.

What to do -
Dry the calf with a hair drier or by rubbing it with warm towels, provide warmth with heat lamps or heating blankets, and provide shelter. Feeding the calf warm colostrum will also help increase the body temperature.

Low blood oxygen (hypoxia) -
This may be difficult to determine. If you notice a blue color to the mucus membranes, the calf is experiencing extreme hypoxia; however, mild to moderate hypoxia will not cause the blue color to the mucous membranes. The calf's nose will look slightly blue at birth but a normal calf should pink up almost immediately after birth. Other signs of hypoxia are not specific. Keep in mind that all calves are slightly hypoxic at birth but those that experience dystocia may have more severe hypoxia and may not be able to recover as easily as a normal calf.

What to do -
In severe cases or in calves that experience dystocia consider providing oxygen through a nasal tube, your veterinarian can provide you with an oxygen delivery set up in your hospital.

  • The oxygen flow rate should be about 5 to 10 liters/minute as measured by the flow meter on the oxygen tank or a gentle breeze on your face.
  • Measure the tube from the tip of the nose to the corner of the eye. Do not insert the tube past this measured point.
  • The nasal tube not only provides oxygen but it also may irritate the calf enough to cause a sneeze response which will help clear any fluid from the upper airways.
  • A gentle squeeze on the windpipe can encourage the calf to cough allowing it to clear the airways.
  • Respiratory stimulants (i.e. Doxapram) may be used in addition to other procedures, but should not replace them. It is better to try other procedures first than to wait and see if the drug will work.
  • If the calf is not breathing well or not breathing at all, it is best to manually breathe for the calf. Mouth to mouth resuscitation is not advised, because people can get sick if the calf is infected or contaminated by some bacteria. It is much better to use a mechanical resuscitator. Several types are available for a modest price ( less than $100). Please see Calf Resuscitation

Increased metabolic and/or respiratory waste products (acidosis)
All calves will have some degree of acidosis but calves that have experienced dystocia may have more severe acidosis and they may not be able to recover as easily as a normal calf. The signs of acidosis are nonspecific, but include inactivity.

What to do -
Improved breathing will decrease the respiratory acidosis and consuming colostrum will decrease the metabolic acidosis. Movement will also help decrease the acidosis. Usually supportive care will help the calf overcome the acidosis. This includes warming the calf, encouraging it to move around, and feeding the calf.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) -
This does not occur as frequently as the other problems do. The signs are nonspecific, but like all of the other problems include inactivity and inability to maintain normal body temperature.

What to do -
Usually feeding the calf will increase the blood sugar.

Poor colostral transfer -
This can occur three ways 1) delayed consumption, 2) decreased consumption, or 3) decreased absorption through the gut. Calves that have experienced dystocia are slow to stand which will delay their time to consumption, they may be weak and tire easily which will decrease the amount that they consume, and they may have acidosis which will decrease the absorption through the gut.

What to do -
Along with all other supportive care (warming, encouraging movement), the caretaker should make sure that the calf receives approx. 3 liters (3 quarts) of colostrum as soon as possible, but not more than 2 hours after birth. In cases of dystocia the amount given should be increased and given over a prolonged period of time. It has been shown that even though the absorption rate in dystocia calves is decreased the time the colostrum can be absorbed is increased.


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