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  • Writer's pictureSuzie Anne

When a Cow Gets Sick

Cows, just like humans, can get sick. They can even catch diseases with similar names and symptoms to ones humans can catch, though zoonotic diseases (ones capable of transferring from humans to animals or vice versa) rarely occur in the cattle industry. So what happens when a cow gets sick? It depends on the type of sickness, the severity of the illness, and previous experience and knowledge of the farmer as to what occurs.

The most common occurrence is the farmer diagnosing and treating the cow himself. I'll use mastitis, a disease that mainly affects the mammary system and milk of a cow, to explain what happens with each type of sickness.

The first thing to occur is recognition of illness. For normal cases of mastitis, this occurs during milking. The milk will look abnormal, chunks in the milk is the most common sign of mastitis, and there may be some hardness in the affected quarter. (A healthy cow's udder is soft and pliable after milking.) The farmer will withhold the milk from the treated cow, and will treat the infection with antibiotics until the symptoms are cleared up. However, mastitis can affect the cow more severely. When that happens, the farmer gives the cow more care than just antibiotics.

A cow with a more severe case of mastitis will, typically, still have chunks in her milk, but her behavior and the amount of milk she produces will also be affected. In these situations, the farmer will provide the cow with fluids, medicine, and nutrients through an IV that will spread throughout her body more quickly than the antibiotics do. The farmer may also help rehydrate the cow by pumping nutrient infused water directly into her stomach.

For both cases of mastitis, the cow will not be separated from the herd unless her physical capabilities to safely move around, find a place at the feed bunk, and interact with the other cows are greatly diminished. Cows are herd animals, and being away from the group—even if it's just a separation by a gate—can slow their recovery time.

When a cow doesn't respond to the normal course of treatment or presents symptoms that are outside the realm of a farmer's knowledge, the vet will be called. Treatment options are often discussed over-the-phone, and result in a successful recovery for the animal. In the rare situations where none of the above solutions restore the cow to health, or when the cow's health is rapidly deteriorating, the vet will make an emergency visit to the farm.

While sickness does occur, all farmers work to make it happen as little as possible. Preventative measures, like vaccines, are just one of the many ways farmers fight against diseases. They keep the bedding and equipment clean, remove hazards from the cows' enclosure, and regularly assess the cows for any signs of sickness.

So just like an experienced mother, farmers know a lot about how to provide the best care and comfort for their livestock. When a cow gets sick, they provide treatment right away, whether it's something they know to do or they need to seek advice from a more knowledgeable individual.

Have more questions? Post them in the comments below.

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