VET’S DIARY: It’s the closest thing to a miracle that we see

I’m sure many of the general public think that being a vet must be great – full of joyous occasions when suffering of animals is instantly relieved and diseases cured by the work that we do, writes Pam Brown.

I bet most of these ‘dreams’ involve being out in bright sunshine in lush grassy fields in the summer, or in a nice warm surgery in the case of small animals. Unfortunately, in reality, these situations are few and far between; nursing sick farm animals out on the top of a hill in the rain is far more common!

There are a few sick animal scenarios where a quick cure is possible, such as calvings, lancing of abscesses and so on, but my strong favourite will be the feeling of satisfaction when a cow that is unable to get up in a field almost miraculously gets up after treatment and (sometimes literally) runs away! Autumn calving seemed to start early this year accompanied by the odd case of ‘milk fever’. This is caused by insufficient calcium levels in the blood due to the sudden increased demand for milk at calving. Early cases are rarely seen, but at this point the cow appears over-excited. We much more commonly discover cows more severely affected, usually unable to get up and looking dull.

Although the treatment is to inject calcium solution into the vein, with more under the skin for later use, it’s always hard to explain to farmers that excess calcium in the run-up to calving can be the problem. This is because the cow is then not used to dealing with decreased calcium levels in the blood so cannot mobilise her own reserves when needed. Prevention relies on a suitable mineral for cows pre-calving (with reduced calcium levels), avoidance of sudden changes in diet, and in emergency situations, injection of calcium under the skin to cows as they calve.

More recently we have seen cases of ‘staggers’. This is caused by low magnesium levels in the blood which happens most commonly when cows are stressed (e.g. at weaning time or when the weather changes) or in cows grazing lush grass with little nutritional content. This is even more of an emergency than milk fever but presents in a similar way, although is often associated with trembling too. Treatment is injection of magnesium (along with calcium). Prevention involves minimising stress, providing straw for cows to eat when the grass is very lush, and bolusing all cows with a magnesium bolus at turnout, or providing magnesium buckets in the field.

We occasionally diagnose cases where phosphorus is the only deficiency, especially on certain farms.

These cows also present similarly to the above, but respond to an injection of phosphorus into the vein or muscle, usually along with calcium. Prevention again relates to minimising diet changes and providing a suitable pre-calving mineral.

When we attend downer cows, we always collect a blood sample before we begin treatment just in case the cow doesn’t respond as expected, and this can be tested in our lab at the surgery before further treatment is given. However, out on the farm, an educated guess has to be made as to the cause as these cases are true life-and-death situations.

In most cases, cows with any of the deficiencies mentioned above will look brighter almost immediately and many will get to their feet before we leave the farm – the closest thing to a miracle that we see in an average day!