When milk fever occurs in livestock, it is very important to treat the animal immediately and to monitor it afterwards. “Milkfever occurs commonly in high producing dairy cows, but may even be a problem in beef cattle or small stock, such as sheep and goats,” explains Dr Gillian Declercq, community state veterinarian with the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (GDARD).

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The disease rears its head within hours of having given birth, but can also take up to three days to surface. “There is a drop in the blood calcium levels, which causes the animal’s body to no longer function properly. Animals with milk fever appear to be dizzy and unsteady when they walk.

They also seem tired, depressed, have dull eyes and refuse to eat.” Eventually the animal will lie down, typically with its head on its side against the body.

Timeous treatment

Milk fever is usually diagnosed through recognition of the symptoms, a history of giving birth and by response to treatment.

Although rarely done, diagnosis can be confirmed by testing the serum calcium levels in the blood. “Prompt treatment is essential, as the animal may progress to a comatose state and eventually die. The time between first symptoms and death is only a matter of hours.”

However, if the cow is misdiagnosed and treated with high doses of calcium, the body’s homeostasis will be pushed to the other end of the spectrum and can also lead to death. “It is highly recommended that you speak to your veterinarian before attempting treatment.”

Milk fever is treated by injecting calcium borogluconate 40 %. “This can be bought at most co-ops, but injecting the animal with calcium borogluconate is not an easy task and requires great care.”

If possible, the injection must be placed directly into the vein (intravenous). This must be done very slowly, while keeping an eye on the heart rate and preferably by or in the presence of a veterinarian.” An injection directly into the vein will see a fast release of calcium and a faster recovery period.

“The other, less risky option is to give the animal a subcutaneous injection (under the skin). This is safer and can be done without a veterinarian, but sees a slow release of calcium and a slower recovery period.” If the animal is already lying on her side, the slow release of calcium may not be fast enough to support her system. If cows have been down for a while, the rumen needs to be stimulated. Physical massage of the rumen with a rumen stimulant per os (orally) can be performed.

Always keep a watchful eye on the animal after treatment, as it can relapse within a few hours. “A good measure to prevent a relapse is to follow up an intravenous injection with a subcutaneous injection a few hours later, to ensure a continued release of calcium into the blood stream.”

Prevention is better than cure

Health and nutrition go hand in hand. Milk fever is caused by a drop in the blood calcium levels after birth, and can be prevented by limiting the animal’s calcium intake before it gives birth. This means that calcium licks or calcium supplemented feeds should not be given before calving time. Lucerne, which is very high in calcium, should also be avoided as should molasses, which is high in potassium and affects calcium exchange in the body.

“By preventing high calcium in the body just before birth, the animal is able to mobilise calcium in her system. After birth, her milk starts flowing and her calcium requirements skyrocket. By then her system is used to mobilising calcium and can handle the high demand. High calcium levels in the feed before birth, means that her system is not used to mobilising it and the calcium levels drop very easily as soon as the calcium requirements increase with milk flow after birth.” – Marike Brits, Stockfarm

This article is the second in a series of informative animal health articles and goes hand in hand with the #VideoVet series, the first of which can be viewed below:

For more information, contact your MSD Animal Health representative or phone 011 923 9300. Visit www.msd.co.za.

Thank you for the support of several role-players in creating this series: the Gauteng Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Dr Gillian Declercq and the CCS veterinarians (Dr Lindsay Parvess and Dr Heidi Kuhn), MSD Animal Health, as well as Kenneth Ndlovu and the Amogelang team for their assistance and animals for demonstration.