In my career, there have been many instances when surgery has saved a calf and the animal went on to live a productive life.
When considering surgery to a calf, one must also consider that if cows are not raising a calf, they are often culled, which is another loss to the producer.
The outcome of the surgery depends on whether it was carried out at clinics, the facilities available, the expertise of the surgeon and in many cases how quickly the procedure was carried out.
Sometimes an emergency makes a quick decision necessary, while at other times, surgery can be booked for a later date.
Producers should ask the veterinarian for a prognosis before proceeding. The decision on whether to go ahead with the surgery could change depending if the calf has a 90 percent chance of survival or a 10 percent chance.
There is a long list of possible situations that may require surgery, including hernias, hairballs resulting in blockages, no rectums requiring a colostomy, cleft palates, navel infections, melanocytomas (cancers with dark pigment) and rudimentary extra limbs.
On occasion, farmers have caught an ulcer in the abomasums before it ruptured, leading to a chance at surgery. Broken femur repairs have also been attempted in special cases.
I realize that economics may not warrant surgery but some of that is also averaged out over the whole herd and may be the cost of doing business.
Also, the value of a particular individual animal may be higher and there is sometimes the satisfaction of knowing action has been taken.
Producers can also learn something about their herd when assessing the need for surgeries. There are potential preventive measures they might adopt, such as breeding decisions affected by hereditary traits, or hairball incidents they uncover, which may indicate licking to control lice. Or, a herd with too many severe navel infections may have contamination issues at birth or lack of colostral transfer.
Umbilical hernias are the most common in beef cattle practice with inguinal (scrotal) ones being rare. If very large, they may be hereditary but often they may be one or two fingered in size and associated with navel infections.
Small hernias, if irritated by frequently pushing them up, will close. The very large ones require surgery, and this is where your veterinarian needs access to a clinic and preferably gas anesthetic.
A few calves are born with open hernias and if these can be rushed into surgeries, it can keep the intestines from coming out. Calves found with intestines dragging on the ground must be euthanized.
A navel infection can often be peeled out at the same time. The only navel infection surgeries that are generally done are those where the infection goes upward and inward to the bladder or liver following the umbilical vessels and can’t be drained.
Usually, these are unresponsive to antibiotics and with more diagnostic tests such as ultrasound or a good clinical exam, one realizes the infection is advanced internally.
I have drained out a few gallons of pus internally in some cases and we had to shrink the infection before attempting surgery.
Purebred bulls can have long-term navel infections that get into their secondary sex glands and render them infertile. Navel infections are important to watch. If you find yourself treating too many navel infections, talk to your veterinarian about prevention.
Surgery will be done only in exceptional cases.
Surgery on calves lacking an anus or rectum requires careful selection for cases in which the procedure is prudent. If major parts of the intestinal tract are missing, it is a non-viable calf and must be euthanized.
But if surgery can be completed, there is often little after-care and the calf can go on to slaughter.
I had two fourth-year veterinary students perform one under supervision from me and the owner phoned a little over a year later to say the calf was ready for market. It is a great feeling to hear about the ability of veterinarians to use surgery to make a calf productive.
Extra limbs and odd-ball masses can usually be removed by skilled surgeons with little recovery time for the calf. These can often be assessed and surgery done at a convenient time, potentially not in fly season and when the calf is strong.
For hairball blockages, keep in mind almost all calves may have a hair ball or two in them from licking themselves. Lice and other itchy conditions may exacerbate this, but calves are inquisitive and will lick and chew on many different things. Blockages can happen when the hairballs get pushed out the abomasum and into the small intestines. If conservative treatment of laxatives fail, an exploratory complete with an enterotomy (cutting into the intestine at the blockage) should solve the issue.
You can see that surgeries for specific conditions on individual calves can be successful. It depends on early diagnosis, skill and willingness of the surgeon, adequate facilities, assistance by veterinary technicians and anesthesia.
Roy Lewis works as a technical services veterinarian part time with Merck Animal Health in Alberta.