Ask the Vet

Head-Catch Troubles

The bars of a head-catch can restrict flow of the blood to the brain, making it important to keep a close eye on any restrained animal to ensure it is not in distress. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Claire Vath)

Question: I recently had a vet come to my ranch to test bulls for fertility. The last bull he tested using my squeeze chute was trapped in the head gate. As soon as he was released, the bull stumbled and fell to the ground. His eyes rolled back, and he lay there for what seemed like several minutes, finally getting to his feet and staggering off. After two days of him not being able to walk very far at a time, the vet came out and got him to some shade and gave him a steroid and an antibiotic. The bull lay around in the shaded area for about a week, getting up to eat cubes and hay, after which he'd lay back down. In another week, he started to graze and get around better, but still seems to have weakness in his hind legs. Could the choking, which must have cut off the blood supply to the brain, have caused the weakness in his hind legs? In your opinion, is this something the bull can fully recover from?

Answer: What you describe is quite common with head catches. Rule 1 is to always adjust the chute and head-catch to the size of the cattle being worked. Rule 2 is to closely and continuously watch the animal for "choking" while any animal is restrained.

To be clear, when I say "choking," that is just a common term. We are not truly talking about choking but rather what can happen when the bars of a head-catch restrict the flow of blood to the brain from the carotid arteries. Close observation can often detect this early. Look first for the milder signs: a panicked looked, increased agitation or muscle tremors. At that point, try to loosen the pressure. With many self-catching chutes, however, the animal must be released. If there is ever any question that an animal is in a head-catch too tightly, this is what you have to do.

The longer the animal's brain is deprived of oxygen, the more severe the damage to the brain can be in an incident like you describe. Most cattle completely recover in seconds to minutes. If they don't, however, it can take weeks and even months for complete recovery. And, yes, sometimes the damage is permanent.

In the case you describe, I'd want to know if the bull hit the chute really hard or if he fought and struggled while in the chute. In that event, he could have damaged his spinal cord or peripheral nerves. Afterwards, if he spent an excessive amount of time down in the same position in the days following the event, he could have created a myositis or inflammation in his leg muscles. Either of these can complicate recovery.

Ultimately, the best way to deal with these problems is to prevent them. Good luck with your bull. Keep me posted on his progress.

(VM/CZ)