6 Signs of Calf Wellness- Understanding Nasal Discharge

6 Signs of Calf Wellness- Understanding Nasal Discharge

A runny nose results from drainage from the nasal passageways. On very hot, dusty, windy, or even cold days or in response to allergens, the sinuses can become inflamed and discharge excess drainage out the nose, even if there is no infection.

When viruses and bacteria infect the sinuses, a head cold is produced and does not affect the lungs. Nasal discharge may be clear, mucus, or pus type. If no fever is present then do not use antibiotics and just let the condition run its course.

A runny nose in conjunction with a fever, cough, and labored breathing may be an indication of pneumonia. Thoroughly evaluate the animal and work with your veterinarian to establish a treatment protocol.

What Is Pneumonia

Pneumonia is an infection that causes inflammation in the lungs.  Most commonly this condition occurs in calves 4-5 weeks of age, however it can happen in younger and older animals. The airways in the calf’s lungs are relatively narrow and can become blocked easily. The lungs are heavily segmented and each segment only has one airway entry point. If one entry point is blocked, then the entire segment does not work anymore. The calf will first produce mucus to help clear the airway, which often results in a runny nose, and will produce a fever to fight the infection.

The cause of pneumonia is similar to that for Bovine Respiratory Disease (BRD) complex. Environmental stressors resulting in a compromised immune system allow an initial viral respiratory infection followed by a secondary bacterial infection of the lower respiratory tract. Pneumonia is the most under diagnosed illness as many animals show few signs of disease until they are severely ill.

Infectious pneumonia is more common in bottle fed calves than dam raised calves, and is a common problem in veal calves. Calves raised indoors often have a higher incidence of disease than those raised outdoors. Calves experiencing pneumonia will have decreased rates of gain, may experience permanent lung damage, produce less milk in the first lactation, and are more likely to be culled from the herd. 

Control and Prevention

Prevention of pneumonia can be difficult, however proper management can most definitely reduce the incidence of disease.

  • Begin by vaccinating cows 3-4 weeks prepartum against specific pathogens dealt with on your farm. This will help build colostral antibodies. Work with your veterinarian to determine which vaccines are best for you to use.
  • Feed the calf 5-6% of their body weight in high quality colostrum as soon as possible after birth.
  • House newborn calves individually if possible to prevent the spread of disease.
  • Vaccinate calves for respiratory viruses 3-4 weeks before comingling after weaning. When grouping calves before weaning discuss vaccination with your veterinarian, as early vaccination may interfere with passive immunity and an active immune response.
  • Keep the first grouping of calves small (<10), and only group animals of similar age.
  • Use all in-all out management when preparing housing for grouped calves.
  • Proper ventilation to reduce ammonia, and pathogen levels in the air.

In some cases, pneumonia can be caused by aspiration of milk rather than an infectious disease. To ensure calves do not develop aspiration pneumonia, DO NOT cut nipple holes. When nipple holes are cut, the milk flow is too rapid and does not match swallowing speed. The calf can then inhale the milk, which may result in aspiration pneumonia. Instead of cutting nipples, enlarge the vent hole to allow more air intake into the bottle to improve milk flow. 

Also ensure that the calf can suckle the bottle comfortably with its nose below its eyes. When calves have to stretch for feed and raise their nose above their eyes, the epiglottis that covers the opening of the trachea becomes out of place, allowing milk to potentially spill into the respiratory tract. Offer bottles at a level that is easy for calves to reach, and place milk pails low enough to allow calves to reach the bottom of the pail without pinching or binding their necks. 

Record Keeping and Evaluation

It is very important to keep good observation and treatment records. Keeping a log of any signs of illness that an animal may be showing will aid in early detection of disease. Keeping a log of any treatments given is not only important for tracking withdrawal times, but also for identifying critically ill animals that need to be culled and evaluating success of the treatment protocol.

Work closely with your veterinarian. They can help with employee training, benchmarking, and any adjustments to protocols that may need to be made.


Written by: Mariah Gull, M.S.

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