Everyday Herd Health

Seven Common Cattle Ailments that are Often Preventable

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Bloat can be deadly in cattle, and any change in diet can cause it. Don't turn hungry cattle out onto a new forage, instead let them adapt gradually with other feed resources available. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Mark Parker)

Sometimes in the cattle business it pays to keep things simple. Most herd health problems, for example, aren't going to be the result of a rare disease or a genetic defect. They are more likely about management and prevention of ailments everyone's already heard of.

Veterinarian Ken McMillan, is a large-animal practitioner out of Cropwell, Alabama, and a Hereford cattle producer. After more than 30 years in the business, McMillan won't say he's seen it all, but he admits he's seen a lot.

He says the single most important thing most cattle producers can do to improve their herds, is to have an annual visit with their local veterinarian. It's a good chance to discuss concerns and ask your local professional who has seen lots of operations, how yours might be improved.

That said, there are any number of ways producers can treat and prevent some of today's most common health issues.


This infectious disease destroys red blood cells and can lead to death if not treated. It is transmitted animal to animal through blood-sucking insects, as well as on contaminated needles or surgical instruments, like castrators.

>Visible signs. Weakness and a refusal to drink water or eat often signal an infection. As it progresses skin around eyes, lips and teats becomes pale. Rapid weight loss is common. Animals may fall and not be able to get up.

>Treatment. After the first signs of anaplasmosis, cattle will either begin to recover in about 4 days or they will die. This disease is best not treated once it's past the early stages. Cattle that recover can be carriers for the rest of their lives. A blood test can identify carriers. A year-round control program using antibiotics is to keep outbreaks from occurring is not uncommon. Your veterinarian will have to show there is anaplasmosis in the herd to be able to write a prescription for a medicated feed or mineral containing chlortetracycline. Other treatment options include vaccinations for non-carriers, or oxytetracycline to temporarily clear up the disease in carriers.

>COMMON MISTAKES. McMillan says one of the biggest issues with anaplasmosis is that a lot of producers don't think it affects them. "No matter where they are in the U.S. cattle can be affected by this," he says. "It is a ubiquitous disease. Cattle move so much and there are so many ways it can spread, that it can become an issue quickly. If it's not on a producer's radar they may never realize what they're dealing with."

He says the cases that tend to get producers' attention are those with clinical symptoms. But he notes subclinical cases are stealing from producers every day.

"It's an anemia and it effects cattle more than most producers realize," he notes. "It's really important to trace this back so you how it got in your herd. This may help you avoid it moving forward."


A build-up of gas doesn't sound so serious, but in a cow it can mean death in as little as one hour. Bloat can occur when cattle graze lush forage, low in fiber and highly digestible. It's most common on immature legume pastures, including clover and alfalfa.

>Visible Signs. Things can go wrong as little as 15 minutes after turnout to a bloat-producing pasture. The cow's rumen becomes distended (left side), she urinates and defecates frequently, bellows and staggers. Death results from restricted breathing and heart failure.

>Treatment. As soon as signs of bloat are evident, remove animals from the pasture and offer dry hay. Force bloated animals to walk to cause belching. Move calmly, remember breathing is already impaired. If the cow continues in distress, stomach tubing to release the gas may be necessary. Other options may include a dose of vegetable or mineral oil to rupture foamy gas bubbles (10 to 12 ounces per 1,000 pounds); or use of a trocar, as a last result. This is best done by a veterinarian.

>COMMON MISTAKES. "Don't let creep feeders run out," says McMillan. He notes this is often the first step to bloat. Really any change in diet can cause a problem. "Feeding on an infrequent basis, putting out too much food at one time or feeding the wrong things. . .these can all result in digestive upset," he says. "The key is a balanced ration. People feed cattle things they get for free all the time, and they have to be aware this can cause some real problems."

Beyond this, McMillan notes it's important to think before turning a bunch of hungry cattle out into lush pastures.

"Try to fill them up on some feed, or hay, before you turn them in. Free choice feeding, especially on legumes that have dew on them in the morning, can be a recipe for disaster. Instead, wait till the dew dries and limit-graze them. Make sure you have bloat blocks, a mineral or a salt ionophore out too. And even with precautions, watch them until you're sure there isn't a problem."


A common ailment, foot rot is an infectious disease, often due to the bacterium F. necrophorum. Once infected, animals spread the bacteria in their environment. It is an issue in high heat and humidity, where the ground is hard or covered with rocks or even stubble. Standing in mud or water can further spread the disease.

>VISIBLE SIGNS. Look for decaying, swelling and lameness in the interdigital skin. Foot rot can cause fever, weight loss, decreased milk production and a reluctance to breed.

>TREATMENT. Clean and examine the foot and apply a topical treatment for mild cases. Most cases will need antimicrobial therapy, and an anti- inflammatory may help with pain. Keep affected animals in a dry area until healed. If there's no improvement in three to four days, a re-evaluation is called for. Some animals will need to be culled.

>COMMON MISTAKES. Think about foot rot and mineral nutrition isn't likely the first thing that comes to mind, but McMillan says it is critical. "With foot rot you have to make sure you have adequate zinc in your feed or your minerals. Copper and selenium are also very important," he explains.

In addition, McMillan says it's critical to consider sanitation in areas where cattle congregate. Letting them stand in mud can soften their feet and provide the perfect habitat for bacteria to live and reproduce. Rotate pastures, and avoid these wet, muddy messes as much as possible.

Another issue with foot rot, is with any injury that opens the foot up and allows bacteria in. Be especially cautious putting cattle in a pasture with stubble; on cutover timber land; in rocky areas; or on hard, icy frozen ground.


The name sounds like your cow just ate a bag of nails, and the reality isn't that far off. Old tires, often used to hold feed or water, are a common source of this ailment. Some tires contain wire and as they erode and rot, cattle ingest that wire. Cattle will also pick up any number of odds and ends around the farm, so it's important to be vigilant about keeping metal scraps picked up.

>VISIBLE SIGNS. Wire can get trapped in the cow's reticulum. If it punctures the wall, the contents of the cow's stomach leak through and cause peritonitis. This leads to infections and overall poor health. Sudden death can occur if the foreign matter pierces areas around the heart.

>TREATMENT. Prevention is the key here. Keep feeders and feeding areas free of any exposed wire or metal. Consider using magnets in feed mixers to pull out any hazardous material.

>COMMON MISTAKES. On the whole, McMillan says he's seeing less hardware disease as the years progress. "I do think we are probably doing a better job of keeping places clean, with less hardware around, but it still happens."

He recalls baling wire being a horrible problem at one time, and notes he's pulled thin electric fencing wire and nails out of dead cows.

"Hardware disease is something people don't tend to think of when they have a cow that isn't doing well," he notes. "They want to treat her for worms and see her get better, but she just never does. Maybe she's losing weight, is walking stiffly or appears sore or cramped up. Hardware disease can be a severe and quick end; or something that is chronic and goes on for a long time."


Infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (IBK) is one of the most common diseases in beef cattle. It's contagious and spreads from animal to animal, often by flies. Tall weeds or grasses that rub the eyes can be a source as well, along with dust. Some breeds are more sensitive to the condition.

>VISIBLE SIGNS. Early in the course of the disease, look for tearing and light sensitivity. As pain increases, cattle will tend to eat less and seek shade more. Look for an ulcer in the center of the cornea, it appears as a small, white spot. The eye will look cloudy. The disease continues to progress to the point that this ulcer extends completely through the cornea.

>TREATMENT. Treat pinkeye early and adopt preventive management practices. Tetracyclines are often effective early in the progression. With regards to management, keep fly populations down, keep pastures cut and try to have enough feeders so there is less crowding together.

>COMMON MISTAKES. Environmental control and vector control are places McMillan says producers tend to miss the boat on when it comes to pinkeye management. In addition, he stresses the need for biosecurity when bringing new animals onto the premises.

"First, keep pastures cut, so cattle aren't getting hit in the eyes with seedheads as they graze. That is a common problem. Next, it's all about the flies. They carry the infection from animal to animal."

He notes that even in animals with no signs of pinkeye, they can still be carriers.

"That's why we really need to be isolating new animals for a few weeks, so we can be sure they aren't going to expose the rest of the herd to something like pinkeye. Biosecurity often overlooked, and it could prevent a lot of problems for the average producer."


Scours is diarrhea, caused by viruses, parasites or bacteria. Young calves are most susceptible. Changes in feed, or even quantity, can lead to this condition.

>VISIBLE SIGNS. Watery stools in calves under a month old are a warning sign. Scours is most common within the first 15 days of life. The loss of water and electrolytes is serious for these young animals. Look for weight loss, depression and weakness, to the point the calf does not having the strength to nurse. Calves may even stagger. Death, without treatment, is not uncommon in less than 24 hours.

>TREATMENT. Start with prevention, keeping calving areas clean and dry. Be aware that calf boxes, common in cold climates, can be breeding grounds for the bacteria and viruses that cause scours. Isolate scouring calves and dams if possible. Replace fluids and electrolytes as soon as there is a problem. If scours is caused by a bacterial infection, an antibiotic may help. Most important, make absolutely sure all newborn calves receive adequate colostrum from their dams. If that doesn't happen, administer replacement colostrum to the calf shortly after birth.

>COMMON MISTAKES. We may be talking about calf scours, but it starts with the cow. McMillan says the passive transfer of immunity, given through that first milk (colostrum) is critical to keeping scours out of the calf herd.

"She should be in good body condition, have excellent nutrition, minerals, be current on vaccinations," says the veterinarian. "Anything we can do to make that dam stronger, and her colostrum better, is worth it if you're worried about scours."

He advocates use of a calving system that relies on the basic tenets of what is commonly called "the Sandhills System". "This is basically about trying to make sure calves are born into a clean environment," he says. "In this system cows are moved through a system of pastures, so that calving areas remain clean for each group."


There are a lot of positives about Kentucky 31, but this common forage also has a dark side. At certain times the endophyte in this grass produces a toxin that can effect grazing cattle in several negative ways.

>VISIBLE SIGNS. This toxicosis has a long list of signs. Some of the more troubling include heat stress, lameness (fescue foot), losing the tips of tails or ears, rough hair coats, poor growth and reduced calving rates.

>TREATMENT. Forage management comes first. Some producers replace endophyte infected fescue pastures with other forages; others dilute the effects with other types of feed. Manage the problem by not letting the fescue develop seed heads, which is where the toxins are at their highest levels. If the forage gets ahead of the herd's ability to keep it grazed down, consider haying some of the area.

>COMMON MISTAKES. If you've got toxic fescue, you already know it. So plan ahead. "The most toxic parts are the seedheads, so keep those clipped," says McMillan. "In the Southeast these toxins can be compounded by low temperatures and we can see fescue foot or fescue tails."

The key to managing around toxic fescue is dilution. "So interseed with other forages and feed hay," says McMillan. "In some cases producers have transitioned over toxic fescue pastures to endophyte-free pastures."

Victoria Myers