Veterinarian’s Corner: Lung Ultrasound – Another Tool to Combat Calf Pneumonia

Posted on November 13, 2019 in Starting Strong - Calf Care
By Dr. Kendra Wells, Valley Veterinary Clinic
We’ve all seen her. The calf that gets up, drinks her milk and instantly lies down again. You make a mental note to complete a more thorough exam after feeding the rest of the group. Sure enough, she has a fever, so you treat her for pneumonia. You look at her again and question, “Is it truly pneumonia?”

Respiratory disease in calves can be very tricky to diagnose, especially because most cases are subclinical, meaning the calf does not show any sign of disease. Therefore, when we question whether it’s pneumonia, we are actually asking, “Is there any other way to diagnose pneumonia?” – and there is. We can use an ultrasound.

Isn’t ultrasound just for repro?
No, not anymore. Another practical use for your vet’s ultrasound tool is scanning lungs to search for pneumonia. It is possible to view lung lesions in a calf and determine how badly it is affected. Once diagnosed, the calf shouldn’t necessarily be treated, but the information could be used by a producer to monitor and make decisions for his or her youngstock. I have utilized lung ultrasound in a variety of settings, but the most effective implementation has been a monitoring program.

Why should we monitor?
We have adapted well to a preventive fertility care program for our cows in the system of herd health checks where we determine a cow’s reproductive status and assist her in one way or another to achieve pregnancy. The same method can be applied to calves via utilization of routine lung ultrasound to help them achieve their best growth and health.

I work with a dairy that has implemented a quarterly lung health assessment. We evaluate a sub-group of preweaned calves, monitor treatments, and evaluate disease diagnosis abilities. Remember, a majority of pneumonia cases go undetected, so when you begin to look, you usually find more than you were anticipating. Initially, we found that pneumonia rates averaged about 43%, which is fairly high. A few changes were implemented, and the pneumonia rate decreased to 39%.  Three months later, after another change, it had fallen to 17%.

Decreasing from 43% to 17% is incredible. We successfully monitored how changes within their calf-rearing system affected the calves themselves. Also, we now have a baseline to monitor calf health to determine if it maintains, improves or worsens. It takes a good deal of bravery to begin a new program and learn that your calves truly aren’t as healthy as you thought, but it can pay huge dividends in the end.

Overall, routine lung ultrasound could easily benefit any calf-rearing system and provide more information on calf health. Just like monitoring reproduction or milk weights, changes in pneumonia rates could determine whether an underlying problem should be further investigated. And, when you are faced with the question – “Is this truly pneumonia?” – you will always have an answer for it.

Category: Animal health
Starting Strong - Calf Care
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