by: Heather Smith Thomas

In some herds, calves die nearly every year from enterotoxemia caused by bacterial toxins. The calves are usually about a month old, but may be as young as a few days or as old as two to three months. They are generally healthy, fast-growing calves that suddenly develop acute gut pain—kicking at their belly (sometimes running frantically around the field trying to get away from the pain), throwing themselves to the ground and thrashing, like a colicky horse. They may stagger and collapse, and lie there kicking.

Or, a calf may suddenly become dull and bloated. In either case, these calves were happy and healthy--right up until the acute infection started creating toxins. One theory is that the proliferating bacteria (whatever kind they may be) start to damage the gut and it shuts down, perhaps causing sudden buildup of gas in a certain area, and hence the acute pain. If the calf is not treated immediately, toxins leak through the damaged gut wall, into the blood stream, to create toxemia--toxins throughout the body that start attacking various body organs. The calf goes into shock and soon dies—unless this condition can be reversed by appropriate treatment, including IV fluids.

In a typical scenario, the calf does not have diarrhea. This infection comes on so quickly that the gut shuts down before the calf scours. There are several types of infections that can affect the gut this quickly, and the most common was Clostridium perfringens before the advent of vaccine for types C and D.

This serious disease has been called enterotoxemia, over-eating disease, purple gut, toxic gut, and other names. Dr. Lee Meyring, a veterinarian near Steamboat Springs, Colorado says this is one of those interesting diseases that has been around for a long time. “Any time you have a disease that has multiple names, you know it's been a problem for a long time, in different regions, and this one has been a nemesis of stockmen forever,” he says.

“Clostridial organisms are a very diverse group of bacteria and there are many of them. We have good vaccines for some, and yet there are many herds in various regions that still battle this type of gut infection in calves. We then find out that one of the different genotypes is the more prevalent problem in those herds and we have to come up with a different program to try to prevent it,” he says.

There is a commercial vaccine produced for C. perfingens type A. “I also know of some producers who have been battling this disease until their vets did some pathology work on calves that died, and came up with different genotypes and had an autogenous vaccine created—against that specific type. Some producers have had good luck with that approach, for prevention,” says Meyring.

There are also some treatments that work. If a calf can be treated early—at the first signs of acute gut pain or bloat—there is a good chance of saving that calf. The infection can be halted with the proper antibiotic, and the shutdown gut can be stimulated with castor oil to start things moving through again. Once the toxins get into the bloodstream, however, the calf quickly goes into shock and internal organs begin to shut down. At that point it's more challenging to save the calf.

“I am always cautious about prognosis, because of how quickly this disease can be fatal, but my first line of treatment—if I suspect Clostridium perfringens type C or D is to give the calf antitoxin. You can give it by various routes, including orally and IV. You can also give the calf Banamine for the endotoxemia,” says Meyring. It helps reduce the inflammatory reaction and eases the pain.

“I usually give the calf oral penicillin, since this drug is very effective against clostridial organisms and is most effective for this disease if put directly into the gut. I also give the calf intramuscular Naxel,” he says. Some of the other antibiotics that are helpful in treating toxic gut infections include oral doses of neomycin sulfate solution.      

“In most of these cases, if you do a necropsy on calves that die, it's amazing how much of the intestine is dead. The bacteria multiply quickly and release massive amounts of toxin.” This shuts down the gut almost immediately, and it's scary how fast it can kill a calf.

“If a calf is bloated, I usually give him some oil, to help get things moving through—if he's not so ‘full' that there's no room for the oil,” says Meyring. “I try to give oil for a laxative effect and get those toxins out of there.”

Castor oil works better than mineral oil, partly because you don't need as much volume (which is a plus if the calf is already bloated and full) and it also stimulates the gut to move. Mineral oil merely works as a lubricant. The usual dose for castor oil is two to three ounces for a small calf, up to five or six ounces for a big two to three-month old calf. You can't really overdose on castor oil, and it may help save him—by absorbing some of the toxins and stimulating the shut-down gut to move things on through.

Some calves are severely bloated, and some just have extreme gut pain, without bloating. “It would be interesting to be to culture the organisms and find out exactly what you are dealing with. Some of these bacteria are tremendous gas-producers and some less—and this may be part of the difference,” says Meyring. At any rate, the castor oil stimulates things to move through.

Once the calf is in shock, however, the only chance for saving him is to give large amounts of IV fluids, along with medication to combat shock. If you can reverse this condition before vital organs are completely shut down or seriously damaged, the calf may survive. If the organs have shut down, you are too late. If you can reverse shock, however, and get enough fluid into the circulatory system to get the kidneys working, passing urine, the calf has a chance.

“Sometimes, however, you get the calf rehydrated and starting to look a little better, and then the gut absorbs more toxins and the calf relapses and die. It can be a heartbreaking disease to try to treat,” he says.

Prevention is the best path, if you can do it, and close monitoring of calves to notice any cases very early on, before they go into shock or you find them dead.

Don't forget to BOOKMARK  
Cattle Today Online!