Preventing and Treating Frostbite in Baby Calves
A pasture or lot with plenty of grass or bedding and windbreak is important when calving in the cold.
If a calf can be born in a dry, sheltered area and hasn’t gotten too chilled (mom has licked him dry, he was able to get up and nurse and has a belly full of warm colostrum), he is off to a good start, but still needs protection from cold, wet weather and wind for another day or two. Wind chill makes the impact on body tissues equivalent to a much colder temperature than the thermometer says.
Newborns have a harder time than adult cows regulating their body temperature and also don’t have as much body mass and fat for insulation, so they chill more quickly — even when they are dry.
You don’t want mama to take her baby out to the far corner of the pasture and hide him in a snowbank. A cow with a new calf instinctively wants to park him somewhere safe, away from the herd, and in winter that may not be the best place for that calf. It’s handy to have a few pens where you can put pairs for another day or two, where they have windbreaks and bedding. After a couple days the cow also won’t be as likely to take him to the far corner when you do turn them out to the pasture.
A young calf spends a lot of time lying down, and if he’s lying on cold, frozen ground or in the snow he chills quickly. “These calves will lose a lot of their body heat into the ground,” says Dr. Robert Cope, a veterinarian in Salmon, Idaho.
“They need some insulation between them and the cold ground. If you can put them in a place where there’s deep straw or shavings, those calves can snuggle down into that bedding and stay pretty warm even in really cold weather. If they are lying on frozen ground they lose a lot of heat in a hurry and will suffer hypothermia,” he says.
A calf that is dry (his hair fluffed up, with tiny air spaces between the hairs serving as insulation) and with a belly full of colostrum can handle quite a bit of cold as long as he is out of the wind and has good bedding. Colostrum has almost twice as much fat as regular milk, and gives a calf more energy for keeping warm, Cope says.
ASSESSING AND DEALING WITH FROSTBITE – When a calf gets too cold (rectal temperature below 100 degrees), he has trouble keeping his extremities warm. If he gets severely cold, blood circulation gets shunted to the body core to try to keep vital internal organs warm. In this situation a calf is much more likely to freeze his ears, tail and feet. Frozen ears or a frozen tail will be stiff and solid. A calf can live with short ears and/or tail, but cannot survive if he loses his feet.
If the calf was born outside in cold weather, and you didn’t find him immediately, or if he was sick with scours and got dehydrated—which also results in poor circulation to his extremities—he may suffer frostbitten or frozen feet. A dehydrated calf will freeze his ears, tail and feet much quicker than a healthy calf with good blood circulation. “The sick, dehydrated calf has poorer circulation and may also become shocky. Once the calf starts going into shock, there will be peripheral circulatory shutdown,” Cope says.
Frozen feet result from a combination of cold temperature and lack of blood circulation. “There is a difference between frostbitten and frozen. Frostbite only involves damage to the outer layers of skin, and there is still a chance of getting the blood circulation back,” Cope explains.
The three stages of frostbite are like the three stages of a burn: first degree affects the outermost layer, second degree is deeper and the skin will blister (and the dead outer layer will later peel away), but the inner layer is still intact and the damage will heal. With third degree, all layers of the skin are affected, causing permanent damage. Fourth degree involves deeper tissues under the skin “Once the feet are frozen all the way through, a calf will almost always lose his feet, and you’ll lose the calf,” says Cope.
The first step in trying to reverse the freezing and see if there’s a chance to save the feet is to bring the calf out of the cold, into a warm area. Warm him up, and do what you can to restore blood circulation to the extremities. Immersing frozen feet in warm (but not hot) water can help—standing the calf in buckets of warm water if he can stand, or applying warm wet towels to the feet, continually changing the towels as they cool off. Do not use hot water, and do not rub/massage cold tissues or this may create more damage to the already damaged skin.
“I sometimes put DMSO (Dimethyl sulfoxide, used to reduce joint inflammation) on the feet and lower legs to help restore circulation, but once they are severely frozen the feet cannot be saved; if they are frozen enough to produce dry gangrene, it’s hopeless. If you can maintain circulation, however, you have a chance at saving the feet,” Cope says
There are ways to assess the feet, to see if there is any circulation at all, or any feeling. “You can check the feet for sensation, by pinching between the toes to see if the calf reacts. A pin prick just above the hoof can also let you know if the calf is able to feel anything, or if there is any blood supply,” he says. If you warm the calf and the feet are still cold (no body heat) that’s a clue that there’s no blood circulation to the feet.
With these signs, it’s not very hopeful, but you can still try to restore circulation with warm water and DMSO on the feet. “You’ll know within a few days if the foot is dead. After a certain point it becomes more humane to euthanize the calf,” Cope says. If the tissue has died there will be subsequent infection, the feet will eventually slough off, and the calf cannot survive.
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