Early disease detection: What should you look for? PDF Print E-mail
El Lechero Dairy Basics - Herd Health
Written by Damian Lettieri   
Friday, 11 November 2011 15:52

el_english_badgeOne important challenge that will determine the success of any treatment we provide to our cows is the early detection of the diseases that affect them. The following questions always come up when I am training dairy personnel: How can I know sooner that a cow needs to be treated? What do we have to check in order to know whether a cow has a problem?

Experience is irreplaceable and one thing that helps a lot is the desire to learn and improve. Always look for the chance to check the cows with someone who has more experience. Ideally, this person will be able to answer our questions while we check the animals.

The goal is simple – to separate what is normal from what is abnormal. I recommend taking advantage of every chance to work with cows to increase our own experience. In time, we will learn to recognize the behaviors or differences that will allow us to know, early on, what is happening with them.

How to detect sick cows and find the problem ones
Pay attention to cows that withdraw from the rest of their group or that do not get up to eat. Cows with leg problems or laminitis are more easily detected when we move them to the milking parlor or the chutes.

It is important to observe the cows’ body condition in order to detect chronic or nutritional problems among groups or individuals.

Most large dairies have areas designated for chores like insemination, vaccinations, moving cattle and taking inventory. When we observe cows in the chute, especially those in the fresh cow pen, it is better if one person checks the cows from the front and another one from behind.

What to look for from the front?
When we check the cows from the front, we can observe their general attitude. Cows with severe ketosis will appear nervous and they will lick the posts and wires. Sick cows look droopy or sad and sometimes have a hard time getting up.

Droopy and warm-to-the-touch ears are a possible indication of fever and discomfort. Ears that are cold to the touch can indicate hypocalcemia or “milk fever.”

Determine whether the cow has eaten. Just as we lose our appetite when we do not feel well, the same happens to cows. If she has not eaten, we must look for displacement of the abomasum (DA), ketosis, bloat or any other disease.

How do her eyes appear? Sunken eyes indicate dehydration. If you suspect dehydration, you should perform a neck skin-fold test where you pinch a fold of skin on the neck like a tent and then release it.

The skin must return to normal within one to two seconds. If it doesn’t, then there is dehydration and she must be treated accordingly.

Increased nasal and ocular secretions occur in cases of pneumonia or respiratory disease. How fast (respiratory frequency) is she breathing?

A cow’s normal breathing pattern is when the thorax (ribs) and abdomen move at the same time. When cows feel pain in the thorax or abdomen, they change their breathing pattern.

When a cow’s breath smells like acetone, it is a sure indication of ketosis. Excessive salivation can be observed when there is respiratory disease, heat stress, ingestion of harmful materials or just a simple pain in the mouth.

One thing I always recommend is to compare signs and symptoms with other cows nearby. How do her eyes appear compared to another cow’s eyes?

What to look for from behind?
The person checking the cow from behind should observe the consistency and color of the manure. Feces that are pasty may indicate dehydration, ketosis, DA or another disease. Watery feces usually indicates diarrhea and bubbles may indicate ruminal acidosis.

It is important to notice if some secretions or odors come from the uterus for an early detection of metritis. Look for any placental retention. Check the condition of the udder for differences in the size of any quarter or if there is any secretion that may indicate mastitis.

Check the legs to see if the cow is putting more weight on one side than the other or if there are any abscesses or any other lesions on the legs.

For the people in charge of treatments, a thermometer and a stethoscope are essential tools. It is very important to know the normal range of the vital signs as well as knowing where to take their measurement.

If we know what is normal, it will be very easy to detect any abnormality. The most important thing when evaluating a cow is usually taking her body temperature.

To train our eyes to observe all these signs is a challenge that takes time. It is essential to know all these basic principles, as they are a starting point to adequately treating our animals.  EL



Damian Lettieri
Veterinarian, Udder Health Systems
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