Dixie on our back porch with our four-year-old daughter Andrea
Dixie was one of many calves who spent some time in our kitchen. But unlike the newborns that visited temporarily as we dried and warmed them by the stove so they could safely go back out into the cold to be with their mothers, Dixie was a month-and-a-half-old calf, recovering from intestinal surgery. We had taken her to the veterinary clinic in our car, with my husband Lynn driving and the kids and me holding the calf on the back seat.
Her name wasn’t Dixie at first. Her mama was a ten-year-old Hereford cow named Drusilla, and we’d named the calf Druid when she was born. She was healthy and happy until disaster struck one spring day. We found her dull and droopy, kicking at her belly, when we fed the cattle that morning. She seemed constipated, unable to pass any bowel movements, so we brought her and her mama in from the field to a small barn and gave the calf 4 ounces of castor oil (mixed with warm water) via stomach tube.
The next day the calf still had not passed any feces, so we called our vet to come out to the ranch and examine her. She had some intestinal sounds, due to the castor oil moving things along in the gut, except for one area toward the rear of her abdomen. We treated her again with castor oil, fluids, and electrolytes and gave her several enemas during the next 24 hours, but nothing came through. By the third day she was bloated and very weak.
It was obvious that she would not survive without surgery to correct the blockage, and surgery would be a gamble because we didn’t know what was wrong. We were struggling financially to make ends meet in those early days of our ranching experiences, and we could not afford to pay for surgery, especially if the calf died. But we didn’t want to give up, either, if there was a chance for her to live.
Lynn called the young vet who had come to our place to examine the calf and asked if he’d like to participate in our gamble. Lynn asked Dr. Dick if he’d operate on the calf — on the condition that if the calf lived she would belong to the vet (he’d get the money from her when our calves went to market) and if the calf died we wouldn’t have to pay for the surgery.
Dr. Dick was willing to gamble, so Monday morning we loaded Druid into the car and took her to town. Dick operated for almost 3 hours and in his search through her intestines found that a section of intestine had made a loop, gone through itself, making a knot, and strangulated. About 4 inches of intestine had died. He speculated that this might have happened if she was running and bucking or maybe if she was stepped on or knocked about by a cow.
He cut out the dead section and stitched the healthy ends back together — a tricky job because the dead piece was right next to the valve out of the cecum and didn’t leave much room for stitching after he removed it. But he successfully put Druid back together.
We brought her home and laid her on towels by the woodstove in the kitchen because it was cold out in the barn. She was still groggy from the anesthetic, and we left her lying there while we did our outdoor chores and helped a heifer calve. By the time I got back in the house to look at Druid, I was alarmed by her appearance. She was still unconscious and was not coming out from under the anesthesia. She was lying flat, barely breathing, with her eyes rolled back. I took her temperature with a rectal thermometer and discovered she was so cold her temperature wouldn’t even register on the thermometer. I called Dr. Dick, and he confirmed my suspicions. The calf was in shock. It would be difficult to save her.
Dixie lying on her bed of towels in our kitchen
Secondary or surgical shock is fairly common following severe injury, especially when abdominal organs are handled. The main characteristic of shock is circulatory failure, resulting in a drop in circulating blood volume and blood pressure. Druid was sinking fast.
The primary aim in treating shock is to try to restore circulating blood volume before the brain and internal organs are permanently damaged from lack of oxygen. There was no way to give her a blood transfusion in time, but we did have a sterile solution of electrolytes and dextrose. While we warmed it to body temperature, we gave her an injection of epinephrine (adrenaline), which we keep on hand for emergencies. It acts as a stimulant and also helps constrict the small blood vessels, halting any further loss of fluids through the capillaries, thus helping increase the effective blood volume. If given in time, IV fluids and adrenaline can often reverse this condition. We also gave Druid dexamethasone, which is beneficial in halting the effects of shock.
The hardest part was giving her the IV. This was our first attempt at giving an IV to a calf, and a dehydrated calf is much harder to do than a normal animal with big, full veins. She had almost no blood pressure, and we couldn’t locate her jugular vein. It was flat and empty instead of full and round. Finally, Lynn shaved her neck with our hair clippers, and after much trial and error, we were able to get the needle into the vein and start the IV. But the needle wouldn’t stay in the collapsed vein; part of the fluid leaked out into the surrounding tissues, creating a swelling, which resulted in slower absorption of the leaked fluid.
Druid looked bad — limp and unconscious. We didn’t know if we’d gotten the drugs into her in time or enough fluid into her vein. All we could do was wait. While we waited, we tried to warm her cold little body. We propped her up with towels so she could breathe more easily, put an electric heating pad over her back, and covered her with several layers of towels and jackets. I kept taking her temperature, but her body was still cold — something below 92 degrees because it still wouldn’t show on the thermometer. Her respiration was slow and shallow, about six breaths per minute. We feared she would be dead before morning.
We went to bed but checked on her periodically through the night whenever we got up to check on the calving cows. There was no change in the sleeping mound of towels and jackets. Then at 2 a.m., when Lynn walked through the kitchen, the calf raised her head and looked at him. She was awake!
He yelled to me to come look, and I got out of bed and rushed to the kitchen to see the miracle for myself. Druid was indeed awake and looked at us with awareness and recognition. I uncovered her backside to take her temperature and discovered that she had passed a large quantity of loose manure; the operation was a success! She was coming out of shock, and her temperature was up to 96 degrees. She still had a ways to go (“normal” for a calf is between 101 and 102 degrees), but she was making progress.
Dixie in the barn later, shown here with her shaved side and sutures
We nearly danced with joy and quickly mixed up a feeding of warm water, dextrose, electrolytes (to help replace the body salts she’d lost through dehydration), and some medication to keep her bowels loose while the repaired intestine healed. We gave her this mixture with a nasogastric tube (into her nostril and down into her stomach).
By sunrise her temperature was up to 98 degrees. We gave her a feeding of electrolyte fluid every 6 hours. Later that day we milked out her mother and began adding some milk to the feed mixture. Druid was passing lots of feces now — all the material that had been in her blocked gut for several days. I continually put clean towels under her and washed the messy ones. It was like having several washing machine loads of baby diapers daily. Who would have thought we could be so very happy cleaning up after a messy calf!?
Heather Smith Thomas raises horses and cattle on her family ranch in Salmon, Idaho. She writes for numerous horse magazines and is the author of several books on horses and cattle farming, including Storey’s Guide to Raising Horses, Storey's Guide to Training Horses, Stable Smarts, The Horse Conformation Handbook, Your Calf, Getting Started with Beef and Dairy Cattle, Storey's Guide to Raising Beef Cattle, Essential Guide to Calving, and The Cattle Health Handbook. You can read all of her Notes from Sky Range Ranch posts here.