Newborn calves sometimes need CPR

Artificial respiration may be needed if a calf isn’t breathing and other options have been unsuccessful. | Cody Creelman photo

Calves that aren’t breathing need their airways cleared and extra encouragement; artificial respiration is a last resort

In a normal, easy birth, the calf starts breathing as soon as the umbilical cord breaks and its face and nose are uncovered.

But sometimes after a hard birth, the calf goes too long without oxygen and doesn’t start to breathe. If the cord started to detach during birth, it will die unless it starts breathing quickly after emergence. Such calves are often limp and unconscious, with blue gums instead of healthy pink.

Dr. Cody Creelman, a veterinarian based in Airdrie, Alta., deals with many calving problems and has advice for producers faced with a calf that’s not breathing.

“There are two situations. If the calf is born naturally, we simply need to clear fluid from the airways, versus a hard birth or delivery by C-section.

“In a natural birth the airways clear as the calf comes through the birth canal. Once the head and ribcage are out and the calf is pausing there or hanging, if the cow is standing, this provides opportunity to drain out most of the fluid,” said Creelman.

“If it was an assisted pull, we may need to clear the airways, because they haven’t had a chance to clear naturally. We also differentiate between calves that are responsive and just have mucus in the airways, and calves that are nonresponsive, maybe without oxygen awhile,” he says.

Responsive calves just need a little help. Rubbing the calf vigorously with hands or a towel can help, advises a recent posting from the Beef Cattle Research Council. Squirting a few drops of water in the calf’s ear can help stimulate a head shake and breathing, but don’t fill the ear because that could case an infection.

“Use your fingers to clear fluid from nose and mouth or a suction bulb in the nostrils or a piece of clean straw to tickle inside a nostril,” advises Creelman. “This may stimulate a vigorous head shake or cough, which often helps clear the airways and gets the calf breathing.

“I like to use acupuncture as a nervous system stimulant,” he said. “The Jen Chung (or GV-26) acupuncture technique utilizes an acupuncture/acupressure spot on the tip of the nose. If this is pressed or poked, it stimulates the central nervous system. This increases heart rate, respiration rate and overall consciousness and seems to wake up the brain.

“We teach ranchers how to use a very small diameter needle, 20 gauge, and poke it into the centre of the tip of the nose, giving a little twist,” he says. “If you don’t have a needle handy, press that spot with your fingernail.”

Once the calf’s airways are clear and it’s starting to breathe, put it in recovery position to allow adequate balance of oxygen from the air and perfusion of blood through the lungs.

“Put the calf upright on the chest rather than flat. When an animal stays on its side, the lung on the down side has less air and more blood flow and the upper lung has more air and less blood flow. We want to balance this by having the calf upright on the chest,” Creelman said.

“I open up the airways even more by bringing the hind legs forward toward his ears. Then the calf is square and not slumped off to one side. This also helps open up the ribcage, like an accordion.”

Do not hold or swing the calf by its hind legs or hang it over a fence or gate. Research has shown that the fluid emitted is from the stomach, not the airways. Hanging a calf over an obstacle also puts pressure against the lungs from weight of the abdominal contents, restricting its ability to breathe.

“If you hang a calf on the fence, there’s risk of even more fluid getting into the upper respiratory tract and choking from the stomach fluid draining out.”

Creelman carries a portable oxygen tank on farm calls in case he needs it after a difficult calving.

“There are also tracheal tubes or laryngeal masks that a veterinarian might use to help establish an airway.”

Some drugs can stimulate breathing, the two most common being epinephrine (adrenalin) and doxapram. Both must be used under the guidance of a veterinarian.

The last resort is artificial respiration, which can save an unconscious non-responsive calf if it still has a heartbeat. The calf should be on its side, with head and neck stretched forward to open the airway and ensure air will go into the windpipe and not the esophagus.

Blow into one nostril, holding the other nostril and the calf’s mouth shut. Blow gently until the chest rises, then let the air out again and repeat. Keep repeating until the calf starts breathing on its own.

The BCRC also suggests providing a pain control product, such as meloxicam, in some situations. When provided to cows and calves after a difficult birth, “recent work at the University of Calgary showed slight statistical improvements in weight gain during the first week of life.

“Furthermore, without being told which calves had received the pain control product, producers were able to identify calves that had received the pain control product. They noted that these calves appeared brighter, mothered up faster, and were let out of the barn sooner.”

The BCRC has a calving and calf management web page that provides further information. It is at

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