cows in field

Preventing and Treating Pneumonia

Hue Karreman starts his article with the best common sense, and least expensive, way of preventing pneumonia (and many other respiratory complaints), “Yes! Fresh air and dry bedding make for healthy animals.” This time of year, with very variable weather patterns and stress on housing, the problems with maintaining a healthy herd, especially among young stock, is always an immediate concern for livestock producers. For a comprehensive article on preventing and treating pneumonia.

As I write this it’s somewhere between 35-40 degrees, misty and lightly raining off and on - not exactly good weather farm animals to be outside. It’s late December and the ground outside is muddy, snowy or frozen. Hopefully animals in the northern climates are inside a barn somewhere with good ventilation or, if outside, have a shed with a roof and dry bedding at night. Did I say good ventilation and dry bedding? Yes! Fresh air and dry bedding make for healthy animals. Dry bedding makes all the difference in the world if an animal is in questionable air or moisture conditions. Moist air and moist bedding challenge the immune system of animals. Rain and soggy bedding along with poor ventilation make for sick animals. No vaccination program will overcome stale air and damp bedding. The best vaccination program – without even giving a single injection – is dry bedding, fresh air, high forage diets, sunshine and good grazing management. The closer we can come to approximating these in the barn the healthier our animals will be during the winter.

Respiratory problems are unfortunately too common during various stages of life. Especially at risk are weanlings and yearlings which were born during the previous winter or early spring, robust when on milk for a solid 3-4 months but then sent out on the same pasture lot in the summer that other calves have been on during previous years. Usually by early autumn those once great looking calves begin to look a bit rough coated, pot-bellied, and may have frank diarrhea. These symptoms are classic for internal parasitism. If then put inside when the weather starts to turn dreary and chilly, these animals often start to cough when introduced to barn air. If left in the same barn area for any length of time, the coughing can become worse. While the coughing and lung infection (pneumonia) can be treated, any treatment is at best a band-aid to the root cause of the problem: parasitism weakening the animal’s immune system. Once the immune system is weakened, a relatively weak challenge of stale barn air (or any challenge for that matter) creates a suddenly serious problem in the animal.

Very young calves which are not yet immune competent, even though on a robust diet including whole milk, can also be at risk for pneumonia, especially if housed in the same general area as older cows. Also at risk would be grouped calves inside or outside, even when still on milk, if on damp bedding and if the air is raw and chilly. The worst weather conditions for pneumonia to strike are when it is freezing at night and above freezing during the day. For some reason the bugs can really start to wreak havoc with delicate young animals.

However, pre-weaned and weaned calves aren’t the only animals at risk for pneumonia. Sometimes great looking first-calf heifers and are brought into the barn to join the milking string and come down with pneumonia. This is not totally surprising, as these animals have been outside at least a year or more and brought inside to breathe barn air, go through the birthing process which always suppresses their immune system, and also put onto a different ration. Their immune system is seriously challenged, just as parasitized calves or baby calves are and the barn air affects them almost the same exact way, with coughing and pneumonia developing if not addressed.

Early signs of pneumonia are wet rings around the eyes, a runny nose, a mild hacking cough when moving about and slightly increased breathing rate. Fever will be between 103 and 106 F. The higher temperatures of 105-106 usually are early on when the initiating respiratory virus is setting in, while the 103-104 range is when the more deadly bacterial stage is setting in. As it progresses, symptoms consist of more frequent coughing, sweaty hair coat, yellowish-white nasal discharge, and a shallow more rapid breathing, sometimes even “belly breathing” (abdominal muscles helping animal to breathe). Later the animal will often breathe with its mouth open at times as well as stretch out and straighten its neck out to make for the least resistance to get air in. At this point not even an antibiotic will work.

But what can we do early on - and what about prevention in the first place? Yes, preventing pneumonia is best but sometimes it creeps up bit by bit over time just as young stock slowly become parasitized over time. And sometimes surprising how quickly an animal can develop it, like with a just-fresh heifer. And other times it happens as the result of an innocent mistake of a well-intentioned farmer drenching a volume of liquid down the throat but getting it instead into the lungs and causing aspiration pneumonia (nothing works well for that).

True prevention means feeding young stock really well during their first season out on pasture – supplementing them so that they stay ahead of the inevitable parasite challenges. And they certainly can stay ahead – if fed well. As far as the just-fresh heifer scenario, prevention would mean getting them accustomed to the barn situation little by little and not all of a sudden when they have just calved and their immune system is majorly suppressed.

If there has been a problem on the farm historically – despite dry bedding, fresh air and good feeds – using a vaccine may be useful. The best against pneumonia are the intranasal vaccines such as Inforce 3®, Nasalgen® or TSV-2®. These are effective within a couple days of administration and can even be given to animals that are already coughing to some degree. But never, ever give injectible vaccines to animals which show any signs of illness. Some research by Ron Schultz at the University of Wisconsin has shown that giving a modified-live vaccine to heifers that are between 6-8 months old may provide life-long protection. Where there is otherwise really good management but a constant simmering of respiratory or reproductive problems, talk to your veterinarian about the possibility of a BVD PI (persistently infected) animal. No vaccine can overcome the presence of a PI animal.

Treatment of pneumonia must be done early in the course of disease, whether it is on an organic farm or a conventional farm (where antibiotics are easily used). At the very first sign of coughing, if the weather is good, put the animal(s) outside. This can stop the problem right in its tracks. Next would be to quickly give one of the intranasal vaccines. They provide antibodies along the respiratory tract very quickly. Homeopathics such as antimonium tart, bryonia alba, belladonna or aconitum are also helpful and can be put into the water or dosed individually (better). These measures work best when the animal(s) are still eating well and only have a mild hacking cough when rustled up.

If not responding to the above, botanicals such as garlic, ginseng, goldenseal, echinacea and barberry with sulfur, berberines and immune stimulant compounds are indicated. Older veterinary books recommend giving 5ml/young calf, 10ml/yearling and 15-20ml/adult cow, dosed orally 2-3 times daily for about 4 days. When an animal is having respiratory difficulty, do NOT drench with volumes larger than 30ml (1 oz). It is way too easy to get liquids into the lungs. Indeed, it is saddening when I get a phone call and a farmer says they have been drenching a cow with 120-240ml (4-8 oz) of a liquid and now she is all of a sudden worse. There unfortunately is no good treatment for liquid in the lungs.

I’ve found over the years that the best effective treatment, short of antibiotics, is by providing injectible antibodies and immune stimulants. Bovi-sera® and Multi-serum® and similar products provide immediately usable antibodies which work for about 7-10 days with just one dose. For an adult cow, I give a whole bottle (250ml) intravenously. Follow dosages on the label for younger animals. I also use ImmunoBoost® (1ml/200 lbs) IV or under the skin, which stimulates the animal’s own interferon production. I also use 250 ml vitamin C IV and 60-90 ml GetWell (garlic, goldenseal, ginseng, echinacea, barberry) in 500ml dextrose. This treatment is what I have come to rely upon for pneumonia, hot coliform mastitis, salmonella and when I can’t specifically diagnose an illness.

Pneumonia. The word strikes fear into the hearts of most farmers. And it should, as it can and does cause a miserable death if not treated early and effectively. It is one of the very few conditions which I will still consider an antibiotic for treatment. Having your veterinarian listen to the lungs and knowing the extent of disease can help guide proper therapy. Obviously prevention is best. Keep animals outside as much as possible - including milk cows. That is where they would like to be on sunny days to breathe crisp, clear air – just like we should be. When it comes to respiratory health, what’s good for us is good for the cows!

Hubert Karreman is a veterinarian for the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA and owner of CowMaster, LLC (formerly Bovinity Health, LLC), and can be reached at 717-405-8137.