3 tips for tackling pneumonia on the dairy farm. Spoiler alert: Start early

Boehringer Ingelheim
Pneumonia is one of the most common and expensive diseases in weaned dairy calves.

Pneumonia is one of the most common and expensive diseases in weaned dairy calves – a single case is estimated to cost at least $282. This disease not only creates short-term problems for producers, but it has costly long-term effects as well.

“The impact pneumonia can have on a dairy heifer calf is nothing to take lightly,” said Curt Vlietstra, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim. “Along with the risk of death and decreased growth rates, the producer can also expect to see costly impacts on both production and reproduction as the heifer grows and eventually enters the milking herd.”

One of the most important (but often overlooked) aspects of pneumonia management is correctly identifying and treating the disease as early as possible. “The sooner we can spot and treat these calves, the more likely we are to see treatment success,” emphasized Dr. Vlietstra. He recommends producers focus on these three areas with guidance from a veterinarian:

1. Implement early diagnostic tools

Early diagnosis of pneumonia can be a challenge. Calves are a prey species, so they’re good at hiding behind their pen mates and masking illness, making it difficult for caretakers to identify sick animals. The following tools can help producers identify animals suffering from an infection earlier and more accurately:

  • Calf health scoring charts: There are two charts available that score the severity and incidence of pneumonia: one published by the University of Wisconsin and the other by the University of California, Davis. These visual scoring systems help producers diagnose calves efficiently and objectively.
  • Lung (thoracic) ultrasounds: An ultrasound can be used to detect subclinical respiratory disease cases when producers can’t see visible symptoms, or to evaluate the success of pneumonia management changes. Many veterinarians are trained in how to perform an ultrasound on lungs and can help producers identify pneumonia cases earlier.
  • Lab diagnostics: In the unfortunate circumstance of a calf dying from pneumonia, the producer should take advantage of having a veterinarian perform a necropsy on the dead calf. However, relying solely on a necropsy report to identify the bacteria or viruses responsible can be misleading. It’s likely the culprit involved in the initial stages of the disease has changed by the time the calf died. This is due to the original pathogens causing the infection to weaken the calf’s immune system and open it up for secondary invaders. So it’s also important to perform diagnostic tests such as deep pharyngeal swabs on live calves that may have preliminary stages of disease.

2. Develop a treatment plan

“There tends to be a mentality that all treatments are interchangeable, but antibiotics can target different bacteria and have different modes of action,” noted Dr. Vlietstra. “This is why a pneumonia treatment plan starts with consulting your veterinarian. He or she can help you choose an antibiotic that best fits your herd’s needs.”

When discussing antibiotic options, consider the following:

  • Look for an antibiotic that has broad-spectrum coverage against the major pneumonia causing pathogens: Mannheimia haemolytica, Pasteurella multocida, Histophilus somni and Mycoplasma bovis.
  • “The treatment should act fast in order to get to the site of infection and last up to 10 days,” noted Dr. Vlietstra. “The diagnosis may already be a few hours behind, so we want that antibiotic to kick in as soon as possible.”
  • Following the product label is a critical step in any disease treatment plan. It contains valuable information, such as the correct dosage amount for the animal’s weight and the proper route of administration.

When producers know that calves are about to experience a stressful event such as shipping, metaphylaxis is an option to explore. Metaphylaxis is the method of administering antibiotics to a group of at-risk animals to reduce sickness and death.

“Metaphylaxis can be an emotional conversation for veterinarians and producers, because there’s this perception that metaphylaxis is an admission of failure and that we can’t control the disease without antibiotics,” said Dr. Vlietstra. “But when we utilize metaphylaxis, we can help calves stay healthy and reduce the amount of pneumonia cases significantly.”

Before getting started with a program, it’s critical to recognize how metaphylaxis works and to establish a well-laid-out treatment program with your herd veterinarian.

3. Keep accurate records

Most farms do a nice job of having written treatment protocols for treating mild, moderate and severe pneumonia cases, but what’s often missing are the records that analyze whether or not the treatment is working. If more than 25% of calves treated for pneumonia need a second treatment, that tells producers they’re not finding those calves early enough, or their treatment isn’t effective.

Producers should review these records with a veterinarian to evaluate whether a different antibiotic needs to be chosen, or if more attention needs to be paid to earlier diagnosis and more aggressive treatment. Sometimes, it feels easier to fix things with a syringe and a needle than to go out and fix tough management and facility issues. But that may not be what’s best for the animal or the success of an operation in the long run.