Warming a Cold Calf with Fluid
When calves get severely chilled, with body temperature subnormal, there are multiple ways to warm them, but in severe cases it can be helpful to administer warm IV fluids and/or warm colostrum (to a newborn) or warm milk (to an older hypothermic calf).
How much fluid to give intravenously depends on whether the calf is dehydrated as well as cold. Dr. Robert Cope (veterinarian, Salmon, Idaho) says you should be careful not to run too much IV fluid into these calves. “They might end up with pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs, making it difficult to breathe) if you overdo it,” he says.
“If they’re scouring and dehydrated, I start with 1 liter of lactated ringers, and put that bag in a microwave for about 3 minutes to warm up. You don’t want it hot, but it should be calf body temperature, about 102 degrees; it should feel warm to your touch,” he explains.
Some ranchers are good at giving IVs, while others have only watched it being done. “There’s a little trick to it, but the biggest thing is that you need to learn to feel the vein. If you can feel the vein, you can feel the needle pop into the vein. If you can’t feel it, you can’t hit it,” he says.
“Most people clip or shave the area over the vein, to make it easier to find, but the main thing is to rely more on touch than sight. You usually know when you hit it. There may be blood come back out your end of the needle, but not necessarily—if the calf is dehydrated and has low blood pressure. The main thing is to feel it and know it’s in the right place; that’s more accurate than seeing the blood,” he says.
How much fluid to give depends on degree of dehydration, so it’s important to be able to judge this. Signs of dehydration include sunken eyes, several seconds for a pinched-up tent of skin to sink back into place, cold legs and feet, cold mouth, slow capillary refill (pressing the gum —pressing blood out of that area–takes several seconds for the white spot to go away), etc. If the calf is chilled, mouth will be cold and rectal temperature subnormal.
“Dehydration causes low blood pressure and poor circulation, cold mouth and skin turgor (lack of elasticity, slow to go back to its original shape),” explains Cope.
“Generally if the calf is pretty dehydrated, I give at least 2 liters of fluid, and if severely dehydrated I put in 3 liters. Then I usually back off because we don’t want to reach the point where it starts producing pulmonary edema,” he explains.
“If you are not really sure the calf need the IV, you are better off to just put him in a hot box and provide energy so he can start generating more body heat. You can give warm oral fluids by stomach tube or esophageal feeder probe, and I like to put a little honey in that warm fluid,” says Cope. It provides quick energy, and is better for the calf than sugar—and the warm fluid helps warm the calf internally as well as having external heat via heat lamps and hot box.
If the calf is a newborn, the fluid you provide should be warm colostrum. “It should be body temperature. If you’ve taken frozen colostrum from the freezer, don’t put it in a microwave. That will destroy the antibodies. Warm the frozen bag of colostrum in a pan of hot water. When it’s thawed and warm, it should feel warm to your touch but not hot. Check it like you would a baby bottle—put a little on your wrist,” he says.
A newborn with good suckle reflex can be fed warm colostrum with a bottle, but if he’s so cold he can’t suck, put it into him with a nasogastric tube or esophageal feeder.
There are two ways to “tube” a calf–with an esophageal feeding probe (down the throat and into the esophagus about 16 inches–attached to a container that holds fluid), or with a smaller-diameter flexible nasogastric tube that goes into the nostril and down into the stomach.
With an esophageal probe, the rounded bulb on the end protects the throat from being scraped and helps prevent backflow of fluid up the esophagus. It also helps the tube bypass the larynx and small opening into the windpipe.
If the calf is lying down, lift his head to insert the tube. If he struggles, lift his front end so he’s sitting on his haunches. If he’s standing, back him into a corner and hold his head/neck between your legs. Pull his head up with one hand under the lower jaw and insert the tube with your other hand.
Gently put the tube into the side of his mouth then aim it straight, slide it over the tongue to the back of the mouth and into the throat. The calf must swallow it as you move it a bit and apply gentle pressure. Don’t forced it or it may go into the windpipe; the calf must be given a chance to swallow it. Feel the outside of his neck to determine where the tube is going. You can feel or see the bulb slip down the throat.
If you can see or feel the bulb, it’s in the proper place and safe to continue pushing the tube down. If you can’t see or feel it, or the calf coughs, or puffs of air come out your end, it’s in his windpipe. Be sure it’s in the esophagus and fully inserted (bulb close to the stomach) before you administer fluid. Hold the calf so he can’t struggle—or the tube may come partway out and spill fluid into the windpipe.
According to Dr. Lora Bledsoe, a Hugo, Colorado rancher and DVM, it is important to clamp off the tube so no fluid is leaked into the calf prematurely. She says to feel the calf’s neck to feel the tube-like structure that is the trachea. The trachea has ridges of cartilage whereas the esophagus does not. If the tube is passed correctly, Bledsoe said the individual tubing the calf will feel the tube passed into the throat next to the trachea, leaving the throat feeling like there are two tubes. If only one “tube” can be felt, the tube is in the trachea and must be reinserted. Once the tube is in the correct place, the fluid can be allowed to flow at a rate that allows the calf time to swallow.
It is important to note that disposable tubes and bags may be a bit more awkward, but the cleanliness is far superior to traditional tubes and bottles, especially if they’re not sanitized between uses, she said.
“If there are any bacteria growing in the tube or bottle, the colostrum antibodies are going to bind to the bacteria and not be absorbed by the calf,” she said. “Cleanliness is paramount. Reusable drench bottles need to be cleaned and then either placed in boiling water or had boiling water run through them before they are stored in plastic bags.”
There are times a nasogastric tube is better to use than an esophageal probe, according to Dr. Cope. “Most feeder probes are stiff tubes about 16 inches long, which work best for small calves. Some esophageal feeders have a longer, flexible tube, but the typical stiff probe doesn’t work very well for larger, older calves because the probe is too short,” he says.
The nasogastric tube is also preferable to the short probe when you want to put something clear into the stomach, as when administering mineral oil or castor oil; it’s not as risky for possible backflow up the esophagus and into the windpipe. “You don’t want to inadvertently get any oil in the windpipe,” says Cope. Even a few drops in the wrong place can be lethal, since oil can’t be coughed up and worked up out of the airways like water can, and is more apt to cause aspiration pneumonia.
“If a calf’s throat is sore and swollen, which happens sometimes with diphtheria in a young calf, or if you’ve irritated the throat with multiple applications of fluid using a probe, the nasogastric tube is better,” he explains.
Adult cows can be given fluid and medications via nasogastric tube (with a longer and larger-diameter tube). “A tube into the rumen is also a way to get gas out of a bloated animal—which the short feeder probe cannot do,” says Cope. Knowing how and when to use this handy tool for calves or cows is very helpful.
To insert a nasogastric tube, tuck the calf’s nose down toward his chest before inserting the tube into a nostril. If his head is pointed up or stretched forward, it may go into the windpipe. Put the smoothed end of the tube into one nostril, pushing it quickly to the back of the throat, then gently and slowly so the calf can swallow it. If he fails to swallow, it will go into his windpipe instead of the esophagus.
Don’t administer fluid or colostrum until you’re sure it’s in the right place. If the calf coughs as you try to put the tube down, this usually means it’s in his windpipe. If it goes easily, with no resistance—and goes in at least 2 feet or more in a small calf—it’s in the stomach. Check by blowing on your end. If you hear burbling or smell stomach gas coming out, it’s in the stomach. If blowing makes the calf cough, it’s in the windpipe. Take it out and start over. Once you’re sure it’s in the stomach, attach a funnel and administer fluid or colostrum.
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