6 Signs of Calf Wellness- Understanding Coughing

6 Signs of Calf Wellness- Understanding Coughing

A cough is the body’s response to an irritant in the throat or airway. The irritant stimulates nerves that send messages to the brain. The brain then tells the muscles in the chest or abdomen to push air out of the lungs to force out the irritant. There are many reasons why a calf might cough. An occasional cough is normal and healthy. A calf exhibiting a persistent or forceful cough in addition to; nasal and/or ocular discharge, elevated body temperature, decreased feed intake, and depression, indicates respiratory disease and needs treatment.

Predisposing conditions

Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is the second leading cause of death in pre-weaned dairy calves. It is the leading cause of death in weaned dairy calves, and the costliest disease in beef cattle. Prevention and early detection of the disease are the most effective practices in ensuring the animal will recover.

  • Effective colostrum program
  • Keep animals clean and dry
  • Provide proper nutrition
  • Proper ventilation
  • Use low stress handling techniques
  • Vaccinate to target viral and bacterial pathogens
  • Appropriate use of antibiotics labeled for control of BRD
  • Minimize dust
  • Avoid overcrowding
  • Provide adequate rest, feed, and water to cattle, especially before shipping
  • Minimize pen movements
  • Select wormers that control lungworm in areas where needed


Daily evaluate calves to determine any that may be exhibiting any signs of respiratory disease.

  • Take a rectal temperature, normal body temperature is 101-102°F (38.3°-38.9°C). Calves fighting BRD will often have rectal temperatures of 104°F (40°C) or higher. Often calves may have a high temperature without any other obvious signs of disease.  Be proactive and temp calves that show even the smallest signs that they may not feel well.
  • Appearance of nasal discharge.
  • Coughing and increased respiration rate.
  • Slow feed intake.
  • Appearance of discharge from the eyes.
  • Sagging or flipping of ears. This is a sign they have mycoplasma, which causes fluid build-up in the ear.


Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) is a “disease complex”. Meaning it is caused by a variety of pathogens, both viral and bacterial. 



Bovine Respiratory Syncytial Virus (BRSV)

Pasteurella multicide

Parainfluenza 3 (PI3)

Mannheimia haemolytica


Histophilus somni

Bovine Viral Diarrhea Virus (BVDV)

Mycoplasma bovis

Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR)



Always work closely with your veterinarian to choose a treatment program that will target the unique challenges of your operation. Animals that are experiencing a clinical case of respiratory disease are likely dehydrated and in pain. Treatment protocols should address pain and dehydration before administration of an antimicrobial as dehydrated animals do not respond well to antimicrobials.

One of the biggest failures in treating calves is to remove or reduce the amount of milk. Keep calves drinking milk. Removing milk only reduces the amount of energy provided to the calf and the calf will lose weight and become weaker.  Some calves may benefit from smaller and more frequent meals. Offer electrolytes as needed for additional hydration.

Record keeping is important and helps communicate the treatment status of an animal to anyone who might be involved in monitoring the animal. Accurate records are also important to ensure proper withdrawal times are followed, and to identify chronically sick animals.

Work closely with your veterinarian to evaluate and measure the success of your treatment protocols. They can help with any changes that might need to be made, if treatments are not as successful as they are hoped to be. 

The Dairy Calf and Heifer Association (DCHA) has established some great benchmarking standards in calves. Evaluate incidence of respiratory treatment on your farm and see how your rates match up to the standards below.


DCHA Gold Standards for Rate of Respiratory Disease





Postweaning-120 days


121-180 days



Written by Mariah Gull, M.S.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published