What is calf respiratory disease?

Calf respiratory disease or pneumonia is an infection in the lungs. It can affect calves of any age and is generally the result of pathogens normally present in the respiratory tract that become an issue when the calf’s immune system is compromised.


What factors can result in pneumonia in calves?

One of the most common factors resulting in a compromised immunity and therefore development of pneumonia is inadequate colostrum intake – remember the 4 Q’s! Quality, Quantity, Quickly and sQueaky clean.

Other factors that could contribute to development of respiratory disease is:

  • Mixing calves of different ages,
  • Overcrowding of calves,
  • Poor quality nutrition,
  • Stressors such as cold weather
  • Lungworm
  • Poor ventilation in the shed or wet/soiled bedding materials (build up of ammonia)
  • Bacteria
  • Viruses
  • Inhalation of liquids into the lungs
  • Often it is a combination of more than one of these factors resulting in pneumonia.


What does a calf with pneumonia look like?

  • Fever (greater than 39.5°C, and often greater than 40.0°C)
    • o Temperature can increase before any of the following signs start showing so taking rectal temperatures once daily for the first 10 days can help identify sick calves early, increasing the chance of effective treatment
  • Coughing
  • Increased breathing rate and/or shallow breathing
  • Drooling/wet chin
  • Nasal discharge
  • Decreased appetite
  • Spending more time sitting
  • Head and neck extended, open mouth breathing


How to prevent calf pneumonia:

  • Colostrum (4 Q’s!)
  • Adequate ventilation, but avoid draughts
  • No mixing of different ages
  • Maintain clean bedding (to reduce bacterial/viral build up and ammonia levels)
  • Avoid overcrowding
  • Ensure staff are adequately trained in tube feeding calves
  • Vaccination
    • o IBR
    • o PI3

Treatment of calf pneumonia:

Calf pneumonia results in fluid and inflammation build up in the lungs, restricting oxygen intake, as well as fever and decreased appetite resulting in dehydration and risk of other diseases. There are numerous contributing bacteria and viruses that can be involved so a broad spectrum antibiotic like oxytetracycline is a good first choice (alamycin 10 – daily is better), other options include draxxin or call and discuss with our veterinarians the best option for you.

Supportive fluid therapy with electrolytes is very important if the calf is too sick to drink then veterinary administered IV fluids or SC fluids can be used, otherwise administer oral electrolyte solutions via stomach tube.

With the high fever and large amount of inflammation, an anti-inflammatory like metacam or tolfejec is very important and can help significantly, however this is processed by the kidneys so it is best to check, and correct any dehydration first so the kidneys do not get overwhelmed. (Dehydration is shown with sunken eyes, skin tent on the neck, not urinating, or only urinating dark, small amounts).

Best to keep the calves in well-ventilated, draft free environments and prevent them from being exposed to extreme cold or extreme heat.