Pneumonia: An underestimated threat among adult dairy cows

Boehringer Ingelheim
The best advice for producers struggling with ailing animals is to work hand in hand with a veterinarian for a diagnosis and a treatment protocol.

Pneumonia is like a thief in the night. It’s hard to detect, but it steals from your bottom line and the losses can be devastating.

“Once animals get past 6 to 8 months of age, we typically think they are at a much lower risk of contracting pneumonia,” said Jennifer Roberts, DVM, Boehringer Ingelheim, “but it can still be a serious health concern for adult animals.”

Pneumonia is the culprit behind 11% of all mortalities in adult dairy cows.1 “To me, that number says we’re still struggling to identify and treat cows with pneumonia in a timely manner,” noted Dr. Roberts. “Thankfully, there are practices we can implement to better manage this threat and improve overall cattle health.”

Confirm the break-in: Diagnostics

“Diagnostics is hands-down the most important aspect of pneumonia management,” Dr. Roberts said. “Instinctively, cows are very good at masking illnesses from us. If we’re not paying close attention, we can lose animals without recognizing the severity of the disease.”

The sooner clinical signs are identified (see below), the more likely cattle are to respond to treatment.

  • Reduced appetite
  • Fever – a temperature greater than 103 degrees
  • Increased respiratory rate – more than 40 breaths per minute
  • Lethargy
  • Decreased milk production
  • Cough
  • Nasal discharge
  • Arched back

Pneumonia can be extremely nonspecific; cows can show any combination of symptoms. If a cow dies unexpectedly, or after having non-specific signs of illness, it is important to ask your veterinarian to perform a necropsy (animal autopsy).

Call for backup: Treatment

Once you’ve determined pneumonia as the perpetrator, it’s time to call for backup and select the right treatment.

“I tend to see producers getting stuck in a cycle of treating cows over and over again for pneumonia,” observed Dr. Roberts. “You treat her, the cow doesn’t respond, and then what do you? Do you keep giving her antibiotics? Where do you go from there?”

Her best advice for struggling producers is to work hand in hand with a veterinarian on a treatment protocol that includes:

  • An antibiotic that targets the specific pathogens impacting your operation.
  • A protocol that closely follows the antibiotic’s label. “A treatment plan is irrelevant if the label isn’t followed,” stressed Dr. Roberts. “How we administer an antibiotic will impact efficacy and the withdrawal period.” Ensure the antibiotic is dosed appropriately, use a clean needle and give the injection in the neck versus the hindquarter of the animal.

“Once a cow has been treated with an antibiotic, producers often ask me whether or not it makes sense to put the animal in a hospital pen,” Dr. Roberts continued.

On one hand, cows are monitored more frequently and have less competition for feed and water in the hospital pen — but cows have a social hierarchy, and it takes them a few days to reestablish that hierarchy anytime there’s a pen move.

“Generally, the extra attention and space outweigh the concerns related to pen moves or disruption of the cow’s social standing, but this is a conversation that’s best had with your veterinarian,” advised Dr. Roberts. “They understand your operation’s needs and can offer the best advice.”

Implement a security system: Prevention

Prevention is the security system that stops the pneumonia break-in from happening in the first place. Talk through these five areas with your veterinarian and nutritionist:

  1. Implement a sound vaccination program. Administer an annual modified-live virus vaccine that’s labeled to protect your cows against the most common respiratory viruses.
  2. Ensure cows are getting a well-balanced diet. Proper nutrition contributes to proper immune function.
  3. Maintain strong biosecurity. Consider testing or quarantining new additions to the herd. The viruses or bacteria that most often cause pneumonia circulate among cows, just as viruses that cause the common cold circulate among people.
  4. Reduce cow stress. Stress can lead to immunosuppression — especially around calving. A focus on cow comfort and other management practices, including avoiding overcrowding, using low-stress handling techniques, and good calving management can help reduce stress and improve cow health.
  5. Keep detailed treatment records. Review these records with a veterinarian to evaluate whether or not a different antibiotic needs to be chosen, or if more attention needs to be paid to earlier diagnosis and more aggressive treatment.