Spotting and Treating Pneumonia in Cows

Dry bedding and open-air barns are by far the best prevention for respiratory illness in animals, but even under the best of conditions, rapidly changing weather, dust in the bedding and other immune-system stressors can take a heavy toll on ruminant animals. (This picture was taken in Reverence Farms‘ barns in Feb. 2021, and the calves are separated from their moms over night and then return to be with them in the morning).

Respiratory problems and life-threatening pneumonia in farm animals …. it can happen any season but most often in damp and chilly weather. Pneumonia makes every single breath difficult. If there’s difficulty breathing, then all other activities — like eating — quickly lose importance. But why do respiratory problems happen in the first place? And how can we treat respiratory problems and pneumonia with natural treatments instead of antibiotics? In this five-minute read, I will explain how to beat pneumonia before a train wreck develops.

This picture was taken in Latvia in 2014, and shows perfect setup for respiratory distress. Dampness and changing weather creates just the right conditions for pneumonia to develop.

Speaking as a dairy vet and a co-owner of a herd of dairy cows, pneumonia is an infection to be avoided at all costs, as it is quite damaging if a “let’s wait and see” approach is taken. If pneumonia does occur, taking action at the *earliest* signs will enable a farmer to reduce antibiotic use and possibly avoid antibiotics altogether.

Most respiratory infections start with animals that are somehow stressed – most commonly due to damp bedding, poor ventilation, and chilly weather. Then a virus gains the upper hand and starts punching holes along the respiratory tract. Then bacteria that normally live along the respiratory tract sense the upset and quickly multiply. The first signs are usually a dry hacking cough when the animals move about, then a wetter and productive sounding cough, then quicker and shorter breaths are also noticed, then less activity, reduced eating and poorer hair coat. This can all happen within a few days time.

In advanced cases of pneumonia, animals will lie down more of the time than herd mates. You know pneumonia has advanced when you see any open-mouth breathing and/or straightening of the neck to make it easier to breathe. Advanced cases need antibiotics quickly to save the animal, if it’s not already too late.

BUT, if caught early, while the animal is still engaging in normal activities and only has a slight cough, using injectable vitamin, mineral and biological treatments can do remarkably well. Take temperatures of any animals that are coughing. If above 102.5 F (39.1C) this indicates a fever and that the animal is trying to respond to an infectious challenge.

Dry bedding and fresh air are critical to prevent and reduce respiratory problems. Continuous exposure to damp bedding and drafts at ground level can quickly lead to the demise of an ailing animal. Be on alert if the weather is damp and chilly and on high alert if freezing at night and then quite warm during the day – many cases occur then.

Do not ignore animals that are coughing, even just a little bit! Pay close attention to what the animals are telling you. Stay alert if it’s just one animal being affected or if there are more and more animals starting to cough over the next few days. The first signs will often be coughing when animals are rustled up and moving about, and you have to be discerning to tell if the coughing is due to eating something or dust in the air or if it’s the beginning signs of a respiratory infection — when natural treatments are the most likely to succeed. The thermometer is your friend in this regard, as an early-stage pneumonia case will still almost always have an accompanying fever.

Nasal discharge can be one indicator of pneumonia.

If trying to reduce antibiotic use in general, here is a trusted and consistent protocol for animals that are coughing yet still have a normal temperature (less than 102.5F): Injections under the skin of vitamin A, D & E and MultiMinTM (follow label directions for dosing). These are allowed for certified organic use by 7CFR205.603(a)(21).

If animals are just weaned or otherwise recently stressed (disbudded), think also of using a proven immune stimulant like AmpliMuneTM, which quickly stimulates the animal’s own interferon. Interferon strengthens the animal’s “firewall” from challenges.

If the animal is showing a little more coughing than others and has a fever but still runs along with the group, use of biological antibody products like BoviSeraTM, PolySerumTM or MultiSerumTM will provide immediate antibodies against germs that cause pneumonia. These are allowed for certified organic use by 7CFR205.238(a)(6). These products are the closest thing to antibiotics without actually being antibiotics. The injected antibodies will be at peak when initially injected and decline over a period of days but provide help to the animal to overcome the situation. These above products are available online and are a “once and done” type treatment, but animals will still need frequent monitoring to make sure symptoms abate.

If symptoms don’t change or get worse in the next day or two, quickly switching to an antibiotic will be the best chance to save the animal’s life and also still be a productive member of the herd in the future. The “let’s wait and see” approach is truly not your friend when it comes to respiratory problems. If you are certified organic and resort to using an antibiotic to save the animal’s life (legally required), keep in mind that you will be selling an animal or two every year anyway and that this one will be one of them. Perhaps it’s almost too ridiculous to say because it’s so obvious, but a live animal is better than a dead organic animal.

Once the injectable vitamins, minerals and biologics are given, it’s good to follow up with an oral garlic-based tincture the next few days: give twice daily for 3-4 days in a row. The one I developed during vet practice is called GetWell and is a strong combination of garlic, echinacea, ginseng, and barberry. Dosages are: calves 5cc, yearlings 10cc, adults 15-20cc each dose orally. Avoid giving anything more than 15-20 ml in the mouth. For instance, giving a cup (8oz/240ml) or pint (16oz/480ml) of whatever fluid can too easily land in the animal’s windpipe – and that would be the exact worse thing you could do in trying to help the animal. When dosing an animal in the mouth, never have the nose pointing up to the sky; instead, always have the mouth slightly above parallel to the ground and give any fluids little by little, allowing the animal to swallow correctly or spit it out if it starts to tickle the windpipe.

You could simply give a bulb of garlic to an adult (or a fraction thereof to younger stock) twice daily for a few days. If they are still eating and chewing cud they will activate the sections of garlic by chomping them (when administered or in their cud) which then releases garlic’s natural antibiotic qualities.

At our farm, we’ve had to do this protocol occasionally with groups of calves, normally when weather goes from unseasonably warm/cold to the other extreme, and if we’ve had any mold in the bedding. Even with our very open barns with only knee high walls, smaller animals are closer to the ground and more sensitive to less-than-the-freshest bedding. It’s very satisfying to avoid using antibiotics as much as possible (even though we’re not certified organic, we still follow these principles as much as possible).

If there is an animal that’s been coughing with a fever and has been off on its own, it’s likely that that particular animal needs an antibiotic. If not treated early and appropriately, pneumonia can lead to permanently damaged lungs, if not death. In fact, pretty much any animal who has had a severe respiratory challenge will have life-long lung damage to some degree if let go too long, so early treatment is vital, regardless of whether you start with natural treatments or not.

Cows near calves indoors can lead to pneumonia.

Natural treatments always are more effective when used early on in the progression of disease. If your goal is to avoid antibiotics, the “let’s wait and see” is almost never your friend. Animals with permanently damaged lungs won’t ever perform as well as they would have otherwise.

There are many antibiotics for pneumonia: Naxcel, Excenel, Excede, Baytril, NuFlor, Micotil (and many more new ones that I’ve never used as a veterinarian). I only use antibiotics for those animals that have a wet cough with the slightest exertion, standing off on their own, and have a fever. It is always best to listen to the lungs with a stethoscope to determine the phase of infection. Veterinarians are well trained and experienced in listening to lungs and staging the degree of pneumonia.

If the lungs are just raspy when listening with a stethoscope and the animal is otherwise fine, then I use vitamins, minerals and biologics as mentioned above. But if the lungs are “wet” and wheezy and with ”pops” and “whistles” then the animal needs antibiotics right away. If the lungs only have sounds from the windpipes and no actual expansion, it’s usually too late even for antibiotics to save the animal. Please have your vet out to at least listen to the lungs so you can decide on how to treat for the best outcome of the animal while minimizing potential antibiotic use.

This bears repeating because it’s so important: do not take a “wait and see” approach with early signs of pneumonia, especially if the weather has been damp and chilly or the seasons are rapidly changing. The non-antibiotic treatments mentioned have all done really well for me as a veterinarian and herd owner IF used early.

Treatment decisions should be based on observation and a stethoscope to see if an antibiotic is truly needed or not. Most cases of coughing animals do NOT need antibiotics IF treated early. Be attentive as conditions change and commit yourself to hands-on therapy for a few days. Animals treated for pneumonia without antibiotics take about a week to normalize. It is worth repeating… if using the non-antibiotic approach and the animal doesn’t respond over the next day or two, it likely needs antibiotics — do not delay.

I’ve treated many outbreaks of pneumonia over the years. When sorting out clinical presentations of animals along with immediately jumping on non-antibiotic treatments, it’s easy to reduce reliance on antibiotics, if not eliminate reliance upon them altogether.

And what about vaccines? The use of intranasal vaccine can prevent and can even help stop an early outbreak if used immediately. The intranasal vaccines quickly stimulate interferon and antibody production along the respiratory tract. Never use injectable vaccines when there’s any coughing. Read labels – injectable vaccines are only for use in healthy animals … how can you be totally sure an animal isn’t already brewing the infection?

Prevention is always the best treatment for pneumonia and that is always by providing dry bedding and fresh air year-round to your animals.

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