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Physical Examination of a Dairy Cow
This article was first printed in the March/April 2010 issue of the Organic Broadcaster, published by the Midwest Organic and Sustainable Education Service.
Successful livestock producers and herdsmen are blessed with good powers of observation. They know when their animals are doing well and when they are not. The ability to sense whether a change in feeding or management is having a positive or negative impact on the herd should extend beyond typical measures of production (like daily pounds of milk per cow). A good manager can see when the herd is being stressed even before it shows up in the bulk tank milk weight. Likewise, a positive change can show up as cows being more relaxed or healthy even though milk production remains unchanged. The ability to see beyond production numbers is to some extent intuitive (a God-given ability or gift), and different people do better with certain types of animals. However, if one applies him- or herself, one can often improve their powers of observation. We will outline here some of the things to watch for in cattle so you can notice whether a change is having a good or bad effect on your herd.
The hair coat should have a glossy appearance or sheen to it. Dull hair coats and faded colors often indicate nutritional deficiencies and/or parasitism. Patches of missing hair or skin sores point to even more serious health issues. Livestock that consume free choice kelp usually have very good, shiny hair coats. This may help them to resist infection problems from external parasites such as lice.
The last item to consider in the overview of the animal is the manure. Manure quality and quantity tell us much about the state of digestion and health of the individual. Scant, dry feces indicate a slowing of digestion and/or dehydration. Loose, watery manure or diarrhea often indicates indigestion or bowel irritation. Calves and other youngstock will frequently show soiling around the tail area if they are suffering from chronic diarrhea. This can be an indication of internal parasites, such as coccidia or worms. The manure condition of a group of cows can also be used as an aid to evaluate the feeding program for the group. Undigested feed particles (grain pieces or long fiber) indicate the digestion is not as complete or efficient as it should be.
Physical Exam- The Cow
Start with TPR
Normal (cattle) TPR
Some increase in heart and respiration rate is normal during certain times; a heifer that becomes excited and is afraid will have an increased heart rate, cows’ breathing also becomes more rapid (often doubles) in hot weather. One needs to take the situation into account when making these measurements. A heart rate of 100 or greater generally means serious trouble, especially when combined with other signs (such as sunken eyes or a hard quarter with watery milk).
Rumen Motility- feel the wave
Approach the cow from the left side to observe rumen motility. The rumen is the largest part of the cow’s digestive system and it occupies most of the left side. The paraumbar fossa (PLF) is the triangle formed behind (above) the last rib, its’ other two sides are the ends of the short ribs (loin) forming the top, and a line from the front end of the hook bone (large hip bone) back to the last rib.
Gently place your hand in the PLF and wait for a rumen contraction to be felt. The movement of the rumen will lift the hand momentarily and then drop it back as the smooth muscle contraction travels past. This process will repeat itself about every 30 seconds in a healthy cow. If the contractions are slow or weak the rumen is probably not working properly. A complete absence of contractions is cause for serious concern. If you are unsure whether the rumen motility of a cow is normal, check one or two cows that are eating and feeling well, repeating the exam described above, to get a good feel for what normal rumen motility is.
Auscultation- Listening In
Rumen, Stomach and Intestines
It has been often said that a cow has four stomachs. In reality there are 4 compartments that make up the first part of the bovine digestive system. The Rumen is the largest part (often holding 50 gallons or more in a large cow) where mixing and fermentation of feed occurs. Much of the energy content in the feed is absorbed through the rumen wall in the form of volatile fatty acids (VFAs). The Reticulum is a pouch on the front of the rumen that heavier feeds (and hardware) fall into, it is the place where the esophagus (food tube) empties into from the throat. The Omasum is the next compartment of the digestive tract. It absorbs extra water and some VFAs. The Abomasum is the fourth compartment and closely resembles the “true” stomach in other animals. The abomasum secretes acid for digestion and is prone to movement since it is not attached tightly to anything. The normal position of the abomasum is near the bottom of the abdomen (belly) on the right side. The rumen normally keeps the abomasum in place by not allowing the abomasum to move because the rumen is filled with a large volume of feed (forage). Any condition that decreases a cow’s appetite results in less rumen fill and this predisposes the cow to a displaced abomasum, or “DA.”
Continuing to ascult the abdomen, one should next listen for “pings” on the left side. Place the end of the stethoscope 3” to 4” forward from the last rib in line with the center of the PLF. Strike (thump) the cow’s side firmly with a finger snap. One should hear a dull thud when performing this percussion, about 3” to 4” from the stethoscope end. A high pitched ping or ringing sound indicates a hollow space with an empty gas-filled area under slight pressure. The sound has a resonant quality that sounds like a cold basketball bouncing on concrete. Pings are one of the signs of a DA. Repeat the percussion at different points in a circular pattern around the end of the stethoscope. Move the stethoscope and repeat the percussion until the area has been covered from the PLF forward to about the middle of the ribcage and half way down the side from the top to bottom. When only dull thuds are heard using this method, it is considered normal. If pings are heard it is possible that the cow has a DA.
One should next listen to the right side of the cow for intestine sounds. Listen in the area of the right PLF. Usually there is little or no sound, this is normal. Sometimes one can hear gas bubbles and gut movements if the cow has indigestion. Repeat the procedure for “pinging” the cow as described for the left side. A right side ping can indicate a right DA (RDA). An RDA is a true emergency, one must take action (surgery) to correct the condition or ship the cow as they will deteriorate quite rapidly if left untreated. Often one will hear lower pitched “boinks” when pinging the cow’s right side, these are not the same as a ping. A ping, in contrast, has a high pitch with a resonant quality. Boinks often are heard when loops of bowel located near the right PLF have small pockets of gas in them. Remember to practice listening to healthy cows to get a feeling for what is normal.
Heart and Lungs
Next, move the stethoscope end upwards from the point of the elbow to the middle of the chest and listen for breath sounds. The breathing will be loudest just behind the muscles of the front leg near the middle of the chest. This is above the place where the windpipe enters the chest and divides into smaller and smaller airways much the way a tree trunk branches into many limbs. Listen to a few breaths and move around the rib cage area, taking notice of how the breathing sounds. Normal breathing is smooth and fairly quiet- it is even hard to hear in some cows with a large, thick chest. Loud raspy or crackling sounds are not normal and may indicate pneumonia. Wheezes and rubbing noises are also a bad sign. Spend some time listening to the breathing and heartbeat of several cows and you will have a much better feel for what is normal and what is not.
Udder and milk
Check the milk next by stripping some from each quarter into a strip cup or area that can be easily cleaned. Look for clots, chunks, blood, or a watery secretion. A California Mastitis Test (CMT) should be run to see how many quarters are affected and how they compare. Every dairy farm should have a CMT kit and use it on a regular basis. Early detection and treatment of mastitis is critical to achieving a high cure rate, especially when using organic methods.
External Lymph Nodes
Other organs that can be evaluated during a rectal exam include: the rumen, intestines, bladder and kidney. The rumen lies to the left side and often extends back into the pelvis. One should check the rumen size and the consistency of the contents (feed) during a rectal exam. A small, shrunken rumen with no obvious fiber mat present is an indication that the cow has not been eating for quite a while and needs some serious help to get the rumen functioning again. A cow with an overfilled rumen may indicate a blockage of the gut or damage to the nerves that make the gut work. Bloat of the rumen will also be quite obvious during a rectal exam. The intestines are located to the right of the midline and forward from the front of the pelvis. Normally they are not very obvious, as they tend to be soft and indistinct. Loops of bowel with gas and/or fluid under pressure can indicate a serious condition like an obstruction. Occasionally one can palpate a DA when doing a rectal exam (most often a right DA). Remember to palpate a few normal cows for comparison if you are unsure that what you are feeling is normal.
This completes the basic physical examination of the cow. We do not expect that every dairy farmer will have the desire to learn or master this material. Our intent is to give the animal caretaker or owner the tools they need to make well informed decisions concerning animal care. Always remember to work with your local veterinarian for disease prevention and treatment.Return to TOP