Watch for signs of pneumonia in dairy cows this summer

Donald Stotts
Oklahoma State University
For a wide swath of the country, the unusually mild summer is heating up and drying out, bringing with it the need to watch for signs of summer pneumonia in adult dairy cows.

For a wide swath of the country, the unusually mild summer is heating up and drying out, bringing with it the need to watch for signs of summer pneumonia in adult dairy cows. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service research indicated pneumonia is responsible for 11% of all deaths in adult dairy cows, said Dr. Barry Whitworth, Oklahoma State University Extension veterinarian and food animal quality and health specialist. 

“Say ‘summer pneumonia’ and most cattle producers will think of the name given to bovine respiratory disease in nursing calves [of all breeds], but dairy producers need to be vigilant with adult animals as well,” he said. “The disease tends to strike with little warning and has been seen more frequently in recent years.” 

Signs of pneumonia in adult dairy cattle may include: 

  • Reduced appetite 
  • A fever of more than 103 degrees 
  • Increased respiratory rate 
  • Lethargy 
  • Decreased milk production 
  • Cough
  • Excessive nasal discharge 

Producers should work with their large animal veterinarian to develop the best possible protocol for their specific operations, Whitworth said. It may also be a good idea to consult a cattle nutritionist, if available, as numerous studies have shown proper nutrition contributes to good immune function in cattle.  Additional management techniques proven to be useful include: 

  • Test and quarantine new additions to the herd 
  • Reduce cow stress  
  • Institute an annual pneumonia vaccination program 
  • Keep detailed animal-health records 

Animal-health records are important management tools in evaluating whether a different antibiotic may need to be selected or if more aggressive treatment may be required, Whitworth said. Again, a good producer-veterinarian relationship where the veterinarian is familiar with the specific operation will provide dividends. 

“Also, remember that pneumonia can be pretty good at disguising itself as the cause of death,” he said. “If a cow dies unexpectedly, ask your veterinarian to perform a necropsy and verify the cause of death. Finding out for sure is just good risk management for any operation.” 

Viruses involved with summer pneumonia in cattle include bovine rhinotracheitis virus, bovine viral diarrhea virus, bovine respiratory syncytial virus and bovine coronavirus. Environmental characteristics that increase the likelihood of pneumonia are hot, dry and dusty conditions. The larger the herd, the greater the chance of animals contracting summer pneumonia.