Clostridium in Mini Jersey Calves

As I walked to the barn in the cool pre-dawn of a lovely autumn morning, I looked forward to bottle feeding our 5 day old heifer, Felicity.   Bottle feeding these little babies is something tFelicity 3 wkshat I truly enjoy and was anticipating Felicity’s normal robust feeding style.   My heart dropped to the floor when I rounded the corner of the barn and saw Felicity lying flat out on the soft bedding of her stall.  I ran to her side and found her completely unresponsive – but breathing!  Not having any idea what was happening, I grabbed her up into my lap and hugged her to me like a baby, firmly rubbing her all over.  Slowly she began to awaken and become aware of her surroundings, although she remained lethargic and barely able to stand.  Additionally I could see that she was running a high fever – I later learned that her temperature was 106 degrees!

Because my husband had already left for work, I had to complete the morning feeding and milking routine before I could rush Felicity to the hospital.  Upon arriving, our wonderful vet immediately administered IV antibiotics and Banamine for pain, assuming we were dealing with Clostridium – which as it turned out, we were.   In addition to the medications administered by the vet, we continued a protocol of oral and injected antibiotics plus Banamine for the next few days.   It wasn’t until the 2nd day of treatment that other symptoms developed, including severe bloody diarrhea which we treated by feeding her electrolytes to keep her hydrated.   I like to use Re-Sorb for the electrolytes as it can be mixed with milk – many electrolyte compounds cannot, and we believe that a scouring calf needs maximum nutrition and recovers more quickly if she is not deprived of milk while in her weakened condition.

The type of infection Felicity contracted is called Clostridium perfringens Type C.  This type of Clostridium is especially virulent in calves less than 10 days old, and often less than 5 days old, and death often occurs before the severe bloody diarrhea develops.  It can be exacerbated by excess milk in the abomasum (true stomach) from over-feeding or poor digestion. We were so blessed to have found Felicity in time to save her life, and within 3 days of her initial “event” she was bounding around her pasture, although it took over a week for her to regain the weight and strength she lost during her illness.

Every illness that our Miniature Jerseys contract, offer an opportunity to learn something.  Even though we vaccinate our cows for Clostridium to boost the value of the colostrum they produce, and we place new calves in a clean, freshly bedded stall, we knew we still had more to learn about this.  Since we bottle feed our calves from the moment they are born, we found special considerations to help prevent this from happening again in the future:

  • Adequate colostrum must be fed to the calf as soon as possible to maximize the immunity passed from dam to calf.
  • The temperature of the milk must be close to the calf’s body temperature (~101ºF).
  • If using milk replacer, it needs to be mixed thoroughly.
  • Feeding schedules must be regular and consistent.
  • Calves need to drink their milk slowly – if you feed with a bottle do not make the nipple opening too large (we tossed all the old nipples that we had opened up to making feeding quicker!). 
  • More frequent, smaller meals – we feed 3 bottles per day instead of just 2 for the first month.
  • Careful equipment hygiene (buckets, bottles, nipples, etc).

We are thankful for lessons learned, and precious lives saved.

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