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Quick treatment of acute toxic gut infections is essential to save calve

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

In some herds, calves die nearly every year from enterotoxemia caused by bacterial toxins.  The calves are usually about a month old but may be as young as a few days or as old as two to three months.  

Often, healthy, fast-growing calves develop acute gut pain, which can be identified by calves kicking at their belly, sometimes running frantically around the field trying to get away from the pain or throwing themselves to the ground and thrashing, like a colicky horse. They may stagger, collapse and lie on the ground kicking. Or, a calf may suddenly become dull and bloated.  

In either case, these calves were happy and healthy – right up until the acute infection started creating toxins.  

Toxin build-up

One theory for the cause of enterotoxemia is that the proliferating bacteria – whatever kind they may be – start to damage the gut, and it shuts down, perhaps causing sudden buildup of gas in a certain area, and hence the acute pain.  

If the calf is not treated immediately, toxins leak through the damaged gut wall into the blood stream, to create toxemia – toxins throughout the body that start attacking various body organs.  

The calf goes into shock and soon dies, unless this condition can be reversed by appropriate treatment, including intravenous fluids.

In a typical scenario, the calf does not have diarrhea. This infection comes on so quickly the gut shuts down before the calf scours. 

Identifying disease

This serious disease has been called enterotoxemia, over-eating disease, purple gut, toxic gut and other names. 

Lee Meyring, a veterinarian near Steamboat Springs, Colo., says this is one of those interesting diseases that has been around for a long time.  

“Any time we have a disease that has multiple names, we know it’s been a problem for a long time in different regions, and this one has been a nemesis of stockmen forever,” he says.

Prevention and treatment

There is a commercial vaccine produced for Clostridium perfingens type A.  

“I also know about some producers who have been battling this disease until their vets did some pathology work on calves that died and came up with different genotypes. They had an autogenous vaccine created against that specific type. Some producers have had good luck with that approach, for prevention,” says Meyring.

There are also some treatments that work.  

If a calf can be treated early at the first signs of acute gut pain or bloat, there is a good chance of saving that calf. The infection can be halted with the proper antibiotic, and the shutdown gut can be stimulated with castor oil to start things moving through again.  

Once the toxins get into the bloodstream, however, the calf quickly goes into shock and internal organs begin to shut down. At that point, it’s more challenging to save the calf.

“I am always cautious about prognosis, because of how quickly this disease can be fatal, but my first line of treatment – if I suspect C. perfringens type C or D, is to give the calf antitoxin,” he says, noting that antitoxin can be given orally or by IV. “We can also give the calf Banamine for the endotoxemia.” 

Banamine helps reduce the inflammatory reaction and eases the pain.

“I usually give the calf oral penicillin, since this drug is very effective against clostridial organisms and is most effective for this disease if put directly into the gut. I also give the calf intramuscular Naxel,” he says.  

Some of the other antibiotics helpful in treating toxic gut infections include oral doses of neomycin sulfate solution. 

Using oil

“If a calf is bloated, I usually give him some oil to help get things moving through – if he’s not so ‘full’ that there’s no room for the oil,” says Meyring. “I try to give oil for a laxative effect and get those toxins out of there.”

Castor oil works better than mineral oil, partly because not as much volume is necessary and also because it stimulates the gut to move while mineral oil merely works as a lubricant.  

The usual dose for castor oil is two to three ounces for a small calf, up to five or six ounces for a two- to three-month-old calf.  

Meyring notes it is nearly impossible to overdose on castor oil, and the oil may help save a calf by helping it absorb some of the toxins and stimulating the shut down gut to move things on through.

Some calves are severely bloated and some just have extreme gut pain without bloating.  

“It would be interesting to culture the organisms and find out exactly what we are dealing with. Some of these bacteria are tremendous gas-producers and some less – and this may be part of the difference,” says Meyring.  

At any rate, the castor oil stimulates things to move through.

Later stages

Once the calf is in shock, however, the only chance for saving him is to give large amounts of IV fluids, along with medication to combat shock.  

If ranchers can reverse the condition before vital organs are completely shut down or seriously damaged, the calf may survive. If the organs have shut down, they are too late. Meyring explains if a rancher can reverse shock, however, and get enough fluid into the circulatory system to get the kidneys working, passing urine, the calf has a chance.

“Sometimes, however, we get the calf rehydrated and starting to look a little better. Then the gut absorbs more toxins and the calf relapses and dies. It can be a heartbreaking disease to try to treat,” he says.

Prevention is the best path, Meyring says, coupled with close monitoring of calves to notice any cases very early on, before they go into shock or they are found dead.  

Heather Smith Thomas is a correspondent for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to

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