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Spotting and Treating Pneumonia in Cows

Updated: Jan 3

Dry bedding and open-air barns are by far the best prevention for respiratory illness in animals, but even under the best of conditions, rapidly changing weather, dust in the bedding and other immune-system stressors can take a heavy toll on ruminant animals. (This picture was taken in Reverence Farms‘ barns in Feb. 2021, and the calves are separated from their moms over night and then return to be with them in the morning.)

Respiratory problems and life-threatening pneumonia in farm animals …. it can happen any season but most often in damp and chilly weather. Pneumonia makes every single breath difficult. If there’s difficulty breathing, then all other activities — like eating — quickly lose importance. But why do respiratory problems happen in the first place? And how can we treat respiratory problems and pneumonia with natural treatments instead of antibiotics? In this five-minute read, I will explain how to beat pneumonia before a train wreck develops.

This picture was taken in Latvia in 2014, and shows perfect setup for respiratory distress. Damp,changing weather creates just the right conditions for pneumonia to develop.

Speaking as a dairy vet and a co-owner of a herd of dairy cows, pneumonia is an infection to be avoided at all costs, as it is quite damaging if a “let’s wait and see” approach is taken. If pneumonia does occur, taking action at the *earliest* signs will enable a farmer to reduce antibiotic use and possibly avoid antibiotics altogether.

Most respiratory infections start with animals that are somehow stressed – most commonly due to damp bedding, poor ventilation, and chilly weather. Then a virus gains the upper hand and starts punching holes along the respiratory tract. Then bacteria that normally live along the respiratory tract sense the upset and quickly multiply. The first signs are usually a dry hacking cough when the animals move about, then a wetter and productive sounding cough, then quicker and shorter breaths are also noticed, then less activity, reduced eating and poorer hair coat. This can all happen within a few days time.

In advanced cases of pneumonia, individual animals will be seen lying down a lot more than herdmates. You know pneumonia has advanced when you see any open-mouth breathing and/or straightening of the neck to make it easier to breathe. Advanced cases need antibiotics quickly to save the animal, if it’s not already too late.

BUT, if caught early, while the animal is still engaging in normal activities and only has a slight cough, using injectable vitamin, mineral and biological treatments can do remarkably well. Take temperatures of any animals that are coughing. If above 102.5 F (39.1C) this indicates a fever and that the animal is trying to respond to an infectious challenge.

At the first signs of coughing, BreatheWell is utilized to promote the clearing of phlegm from the lungs and soothes irritated airways. This blend has been used clinically with success especially in young stock experiencing early challenge of the respiratory system.

In young animals coming inside after being on pasture for the season, internal parasitism may be the root cause of respiratory problems in that the parasitism draws down their vitality and weakens their ability to withstand challenges of all sorts, but especially respiratory challenges. Both conditions must be dealt with appropriately.

Dry bedding and fresh air are critical to prevent and contain respiratory problems. Continuous exposure to damp bedding and drafts at ground level can quickly lead to the demise of an ailing animal. Many respiratory cases occur when there is freezing at night and then quite warm during the day.

Do not ignore animals that are coughing, even just a little bit! Pay close attention to what the animals are telling you. Stay alert if it’s just one animal being affected or if there are more and more animals starting to cough over the next few days. The first signs will often be coughing when animals are rustled up and moving about. You have to be discerning to tell if the coughing is due to eating something or dust in the air or if it’s the beginning signs of a respiratory true infection. Natural treatments like BreatheWell syrup work best at this point. Its mullein leaf, yerba santa, hyssop, licorice root, osha root and elecampane root provide a soothing and phlegm clearing mixture.

Nasal discharge can be one indicator of pneumonia.

When trying to reduce antibiotic use in general, here is a trusted and consistent protocol for animals that are coughing yet still have a normal temperature (less than 102.5F): Injection of vitamin E+A, D under the skin and MultiMin ®️ (follow label directions for dosing). These are allowed for certified organic use by 7CFR205.603(a)(21). Use of the intranasal vaccine, Inforce3 ®️, is especially helpful. While all vaccines are to be administered only to healthy animals, Inforce3 ®️, can actually be used and is helpful to animals already in the beginning stages of respiratory challenges. Along with stimulating specific antibodies along the respiratory mucosa within a few days (and not in the rest of the animal), it also stimulates interferon, a non-specific biochemical of the immune system which helps act as a "firewall" between the organism and the outside world.

If you're not into vaccine use, think of using a proven immune stimulant like AmpliMune ®️, which quickly stimulates the animal’s own interferon. This is an allowed biologic for certified organic use as per 7CFR205.238(a)(6)

If the animal is showing a little more coughing than others and has a fever but still runs along with the group, use of biological antibody products like BoviSera ®️ will provide immediate specific antibodies against germs that cause pneumonia. These are allowed for certified organic use by 7CFR205.238(a)(6). These products are the closest thing to antibiotics without actually being antibiotics. The injected antibodies will be at peak when initially injected and decline over a period of days but provide help to the animal to overcome the situation. BoviSera®️can be re-administered the following day or two (as per label) but there is a chance of allergic reaction. So have epinephrine ready (also allowed for certified organic use as per 7CFR205.238(a)(6). All these products are available online.

If symptoms don’t change or get worse in the next day or two, quickly switching to an antibiotic will be the best chance to save the animal’s life and also still be a productive member of the herd in the future. If you are certified organic and resort to using an antibiotic to save the animal’s life - legally required as per 7CFR205.236(c)(7) - keep in mind that you will be selling animals every year anyway due to reproductive problems, udder problems and lameness issues, and that this one will be one to go as well. Perhaps it’s almost too ridiculous to say because it’s so obvious, but a live animal is better than a dead organic animal.

Once the injectable vitamins, minerals and biologics are given, it’s good to follow up with an oral garlic-based tincture the next few days: give twice daily for 3-4 days in a row. The one I developed during vet practice is called GetWell and is a strong combination of garlic, echinacea, ginseng, and barberry. Dosages are: calves 5cc, yearlings 10cc, adults 15-20cc each dose orally. Avoid giving anything more than 15-20 ml in the mouth. For instance, giving a cup (8oz = 240ml) or pint (16oz = 480ml) of whatever fluid can too easily land in the animal’s windpipe – and that would be the exact worst thing you could do in trying to help the animal. When dosing an animal in the mouth, never have the nose pointing up to the sky. Always have the mouth slightly above parallel to the ground and give any fluids little by little, allowing the animal to swallow correctly or spit it out if it starts to tickle the windpipe.

You can also give multiple cloves of a garlic bulb to an adult (or a fraction thereof to younger stock) twice daily for a few days. When chewing cud they will activate the sections of garlic by chomping them which then releases garlic’s natural antibiotic qualities.

At our farm, we’ve had to do this protocol occasionally with groups of calves, normally when weather goes from unseasonably warm/cold to the other extreme, and if we’ve had any mold in the bedding. Even with our very open barns with only knee high walls (see top photo), smaller animals are closer to the ground and more sensitive to less-than-the-freshest bedding. It’s very satisfying to avoid using antibiotics as much as possible even when not under the strict USA certified organic rule.

If not treated early and appropriately, pneumonia can lead to permanently damaged lungs, if not death. In fact, pretty much any animal who has had a severe respiratory challenge will potentially have life-long damage to some degree if let go too long, so early treatment is vital, regardless of whether you start with natural treatments or not.

Cows near calves indoors can lead to pneumonia.

There are many antibiotics for pneumonia. I only use antibiotics for those animals that have a wet cough with the slight or no exertion and have a fever and whose lungs sound like "sand paper" or have pops, wheezes or crackles. Having a veterinarian listening to lungs and staging the degree of pneumonia is essential in sorting out those need antibiotics from those that don't.

If the lungs are just "raspy" or "heavier" sounding when listening with a stethoscope and the animal is otherwise fine, then I just use botanicals like BreatheWell, GetWell and biologics like Inforce 3®️. But if the lungs are “wet” and wheezy or I hear ”pops”, “whistles” or crackles, then the animal gets antibiotics right away. If the lungs only have sounds from the windpipes and no actual expansion, it’s too late for even antibiotics to save the animal. Please have your vet out to at least listen to the lungs so you a good idea of what is going on and can decide on how to treat for the best outcome of the animal while minimizing potential antibiotic use.

Treatment decisions should be based on observation and a stethoscope to see if an antibiotic is truly needed or not. Many cases of coughing animals do NOT need antibiotics IF treated early. Be attentive as conditions change and commit yourself to hands-on therapy for a few days. Animals treated for pneumonia without antibiotics take about a week to normalize. I’ve treated many outbreaks of pneumonia over the years. When sorting out clinical presentations of animals along and immediately jumping on non-antibiotic treatments, it’s easy to reduce reliance on antibiotics, if not eliminate reliance upon them altogether. Antibiotics save lives. But if they are not needed then they should not be used.

Prevention is always the best treatment for pneumonia and that is always by providing dry bedding and fresh air year-round to your animals. Young animals with respiratory challenge should be assessed for internal parasitism as well.

This article reflects my opinions as a clinical practitioner having ben immersed in management systems that are not allowed to used antibiotics without penalty of removing the animal from production. Any strategies or products mentioned and/or dosing are only for consideration and are not prescriptions. Always have a local veterinarian invloved in herd health issues to provide the best care for animals. Prescriptions are only to be made within a valid veterinary-client-patient- relationship (VCPR).

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