On a recent trip to Torreon, Mexico I came across a two day old calf whose breathing was rapid and shallow. It was still early in the day so environmental temperature wasn't a factor. As it turns out, the calf had a difficult birth. The calf manager didn't have details, but said the calf was breathing this way because it had fluid in its lungs. Although the calf could have aspirated some amniotic fluid during birth, I wasn't sold on that diagnosis and felt there was some other reason for the calf's breathing pattern.
I was curious about what was going on with this calf but didn't have the opportunity to explore it further. I took out my cell phone and recorded this short video so that I could review it later:
After watching, if you want to reset the video to the beginning without replaying it, double click the replay button in the lower left corner of the video player after the clip has finished running.
Back home, I sent the video clip to Dr. Sheila McGuirk at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, School of Veterinary Medicine, to see what she thought about the calf's condition, and possible reasons for its breathing pattern. Assuming the calf had a difficult birth that required assistance, Dr. McGuirk suggested several reasons for the calf's respiratory effort, resulting from a hard pull.
pneumothorax (air around lung) caused by rib fracture/punctured lung - can lead to collapsed lung
blood in the thorax
diaphragm injury - rupture or tear
These conditions result from trauma in the chest and lungs. The pain associated with major chest trauma can make breathing difficult and may compromise ventilation.
Timing can also be a factor. Dr. David Wolfgang at the Penn State University, Department of Veterinary and Biomedical Sciences, points out that if the calf is pulled too quickly it may miss out on important physical and hormonal stimulation. Uterine contractions and hormones associated with birth help prepare the lungs and get them ready for a life outside the uterus, centered on breathing air. If the lungs are not activated properly, this can result in reduced lung capacity at birth, making it difficult for the calf to fully inflate its lungs.
Patience during the birth process and judicious assistance according to the cow's schedule -- not the clock -- can help reduce the likelihood or severity of trauma and injury. This also applies to that critical time right after the calf is born. If there is concern about fluids in the calf's airways, it's best to lay the calf on its side on an elevated surface such as a bale, bag or elevated platform so you can drape the head and neck into a lower position for gravitational draining. Suspending or hanging the calf for drainage pushes all the abdominal organs against the diaphragm and compresses the chest. This puts a lot of unnecessary stress on the calf, especially if it has an injury, and increases blood cortisol -- or stress hormone.
Other possible causes of this breathing behavior include
The first type is meconium aspiration which can occur during birth. Meconium is the first feces passed by a newborn and can be excreted into the amniotic fluid during birth, often during stress. The calf may aspirate some of this mixture during birth or while still covered with amniotic fluid after birth. Meconium aspiration can cause breathing difficulties due to swelling (inflammation) in the lungs and may lead to pneumothorax. It is unclear how meconium triggers this inflammatory response; however, bile and liver enzymes have been suggested as possible causes.
A second type of aspiration pneumonia is from colostrum administration, typically from improper placement of an esophageal feeding tube.
vitamin E/Se deficiency
Dr. McGuirk also noted that every now and then, calves with a deficiency of vitamin E/Se can show a nutritional myopathy, or muscle disorder, which can affect the diaphragm, resulting in a rapid, shallow breathing effort.
Treating the calf. Perhaps the most important thing you can do for this calf is to treat it with a lot of tender loving care, TLC. That may not sound very interesting or innovative, but it can go a long way to helping the calf get through the first few days of life. Even nursing can be a challenge. Trying to take deep breaths or hold its breath while suckling and swallowing can be painful and quickly discouraging. Gently helping the calf to its feet and hand feeding with a bottle and nipple as many as six times/day may be needed to ensure adequate nutrient intake. Providing a heat lamp or calf blanket to keep the calf warm and comfortable can also help reduce stress. If things go as planned, the calf should be ready to be on its own in about 3-5 days.
You may be tempted to treat this calf with a product like Banamine (flunixin meglumine) in an attempt to make the calf more comfortable. This medication is a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) and is mostly used to reduce fever and inflammation. In this instance, though, you may want to steer clear. NSAIDs have been associated with inhibition of platelet aggregation, or blood clotting, which is not something you want to happen to an animal that may have an internal bleeding problem.
If you are uncertain about what to do or you feel the calf has a serious injury that may require veterinary assistance, it's better to act sooner rather than later. This can increase the calf's chance of survival.