Knowing the signs of a weak calf early can make the difference between life or death

If an animal is weak or sick, especially a young calf that is already vulnerable, naturally a producer wants to address the situation as quickly as possible to get the calf back on its feet.

Making sure to know the signs that a calf is weak or sick, or beginning to fall ill, can help save the life of a valuable critter.

One of the first signs that a calf is in a weakened state is lethargy. A calf that does not feel well will not be very active.

“One of the biggest visual signs is the calf is not up and running around with his herd mates,” said Eldon Cole, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension.

If a producer notices from a distance that a calf seems lethargic, it warrants a closer look – even if it just turns out to be a healthy calf taking a nap.

Upon closer examination, weak or sick calves will most likely appear dehydrated from not nursing properly. Dehydrated calves will have bellies that appear thin (not full and plump like a healthy, well-functioning calf) and their gums will be “tacky” and dry, said the University of Washington Extension.

They will also likely have a dry muzzle, cold feet and eyes that appear sunken. Sick calves may also have scours.

If a calf is born to a cow that suffered from Dystocia (a difficult birth), this can have some adverse effects on the calf and trigger “weak calf syndrome.”

“Such calves do not have normal respiratory efforts. They do not have strong gasping and panting efforts. They do not have rapid respiration or heart rates necessary to distribute oxygen to the tissues and carbon dioxide back to the lungs. Lactic acid and carbon dioxide levels remain quite high. These calves are depressed, they do not sit up well, they do not shake their heads and ears, and if weather is cold they do not shiver to warm themselves. Shivering increases metabolism, which increases heat. These calves have poor metabolism to begin with and their body temperature consequently drops. Even those that first appeared to breath and sit up normally soon become depressed, are slow to rise, and are slow to nurse. Many do not nurse without assistance and die within 12 to 24 hours,” explained Glen Selk, professor emeritus with the University of Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service.

If a calf exhibits any of these symptoms, they should be taken to a warm location and given fluids while the producer contacts their veterinarian.

Taking note of all the symptoms exhibited and describing them over the phone to the veterinarian can prompt more specific instructions and give the vet an idea of potential treatment.

Knowing the signs of a weak or sick calf can help animals that fall ill receive the proper care quickly and efficiently.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here