Veterinary Viewpoints: Calf 911: Resuscitation Basics

calendar icon 1 July 2024
clock icon 5 minute read

Calf resuscitation refers to the process of reviving a newborn calf that is experiencing difficulty breathing or is unresponsive after birth. It is a critical procedure that aims to provide the calf with immediate care to improve chances of survival.

A calf resuscitation kit typically includes essential tools and supplies needed for reviving and providing immediate care to a newborn calf. Having this kit on hand can potentially be the difference between a live or dead newborn calf. Some common items found in a calf resuscitation kit are:

  1. Resuscitator bag: A bag valve mask or a resuscitator bag is used to provide artificial ventilation to the calf. It consists of a bag, a mask or nozzle, and a valve system that allows for controlled inflation of the calf's lungs.
  2. Airway clearing tools: A suction bulb helps in clearing mucus from the calf's airway.
  3. Towels or blankets: Clean towels or blankets are useful for drying the calf, stimulating circulation and providing warmth during resuscitation.
  4. Navel dipping solution. Common options include iodine-based solutions or chlorhexidine. Follow the manufacturer's instructions for dilution if necessary.
  5. Rectal thermometer.

General steps involved in calf resuscitation:

  1. Position: Immediately after birth, place the calf on its chest and pull its hind limbs forward on either side of the body (similar to a dog sitting position). This position promotes proper drainage of fluids from the calf's airways, helps facilitate breathing and prevents the calf from flopping around and falling back on its side. Avoid hanging the calf over a gate or by its hind limbs. This position usually allows for fluid to drain from the stomach rather than the lungs and, because of gravity, the abdominal content pushes on the diaphragm which can make the calf’s first breath very challenging, especially if the calf is not vigorous from the get-go.
  2. Airways: Stimulate breathing. Clear mucus from the mouth and nose manually by using a finger swipe or with suction. Rub the calf vigorously to stimulate and encourage breathing. You can place a finger in its ears or nose, splash cold water over the head or squirt a small amount (1 oz) in the ears. These stimulation tips help to trigger the calf's natural instinct to breathe.
    1. If the calf is not breathing well or not breathing on its own, you may need to perform artificial respiration. This can be done by using a resuscitator bag or a resuscitator kit specifically designed for calves such as the “McCullough calf resuscitator”. Mouth-to-mouth and mouth-to-nose resuscitation is not effective at helping the calf to breathe and it increases the risk of contracting zoonotic diseases (those that can be transferred from animals to humans).
    2. If a calf resuscitator bag or kit is not available, consider stimulating the acupuncture resuscitation point called “Governing Vessel 26”. This can be done by inserting a needle, tip of a pen or even a finger nail in the middle of the calf’s muzzle, lined up with the bottom of the nostrils. Stimulating this acupuncture point helps release epinephrine naturally and can improve calf circulation (increased heart rate), respiration and overall oxygenation of the body.
    3. If the calf is not breathing and does not have a heartbeat, it is likely not viable. If the calf fails to breathe adequately after several attempts but still has a heartbeat, it is crucial to seek immediate veterinary assistance. Your veterinarian can provide further assessment, oxygen therapy or other necessary interventions to support resuscitation efforts.

When assessing the vital signs of a newborn calf after birth, there are several key indicators to monitor.

Normal vital signs to consider:

  1. Heart rate: The normal heart rate for a newborn calf can range from 100 to 120 beats per minute.
  2. Respiratory rate: The normal respiratory rate for a newborn calf is typically between 30 and 40 breaths per minute. The calf's chest should rise and fall evenly with each breath.
  3. Body temperature: A newborn calf's body temperature should be around 101.5 to 103 degrees Fahrenheit. Hypothermia or hyperthermia can indicate health issues and require immediate attention.
  4. Capillary refill time: Assess the capillary refill time by pressing gently on the calf's gums or inside the lower eyelid. In a healthy calf, the pink color should return to the area within two seconds after releasing pressure.
  5. Activity and responsiveness: Observe the calf's level of activity and responsiveness. A healthy calf should show signs of alertness, be able to stand and walk within a short period and have a strong suckling reflex.

Umbilical dipping is a common practice in calf management aimed at preventing infections and promoting the healing of the calf's umbilical cord stump.

How to dip the umbilical cord stump:

  1. Prepare the disinfectant solution: Use an appropriate disinfectant recommended by your veterinarian.
  2. Dip the umbilical stump: Dip the entire umbilical cord stump into the disinfectant solution up to the base. Ensure the solution fully covers the stump. Hold it in the solution for the recommended duration, usually around 30 seconds to one minute. After dipping, let the umbilical stump air dry naturally.

Keeping a newborn calf warm is crucial for its well-being, especially during the first few hours after birth when its body temperature regulation is still developing.

Tips to help keep a calf warm:

  1. Dry the calf: Use clean towels or cloths to dry the calf thoroughly immediately after birth. Removing moisture from its body helps prevent heat loss.
  2. Provide a warm environment: Place the calf in a draft-free and well-insulated area, such as a clean and dry pen for calf warming. If necessary, you can use heat lamps or infrared heaters to provide supplemental warmth. Ensure the heat source is positioned in a way that allows the calf to move away from it if it becomes too warm.
  3. Provide bedding: Use clean and dry straw or bedding material to provide insulation from the cold ground. A thick layer of bedding helps maintain warmth.
  4. Consider calf jackets: In colder climates, or when temperatures are particularly low, consider using specially designed calf jackets or blankets to provide additional insulation and warmth. These can help retain the calf's body heat and promote thermal comfort.

For successful resuscitation of at-risk calves, herd staff should practice good calving supervision, prompt calf viability evaluation and early aggressive intervention (i.e., active management of calving and calf resuscitation). Please consult with your veterinarian if you need assistance with developing a good calf resuscitation standard operating procedure tailored to your farm.

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