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Getting compromised calves breathing is critical

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Published on March 21, 2020

In a normal birth, the calf is stimulated to breathe as soon as the umbilical cord breaks or the face and nose are uncovered as the amnion sac comes off the head.  

            There are several causes for breathing failure in a newborn calf. These include the sac not breaking, a hard birth in which the calf is exhausted or unconscious from too much pressure for too long in the birth canal and the placenta detaching too soon.

Some calves are born with the amnion sac intact, often with fluid still in it. If the membrane and fluids remain over the calf’s nostrils, the calf won’t take a breath.  

This immersion reflex keeps the calf from drawing fluid into his lungs, but it also means some calves die soon after birth, unless the cow gets up immediately and starts licking the sac off and nudging the calf to get it moving and breathing.  

If the calf goes too long without oxygen, it will suffocate.

Determining if the calf is compromised

In most normal births, the calf begins breathing within 60 seconds after it’s born.  If it’s not breathing, we need to clear the fluid away from the nose and tickle the inside of one nostril with a clean piece of hay or straw.  

This usually makes the calf cough and take a breath. If the calf is unconscious and won’t start breathing, give artificial respiration.

            Traditionally, compromised calves were held up by their hind legs to allow fluid to drain from the airways, but now many veterinarians don’t recommend this.  

            Veterinarians note most of the fluids draining from an upside-down calf are stomach fluids. 

            Holding the calf up by the hind legs puts pressure on the diaphragm from abdominal organs, interfering with normal breathing movements.  It’s better to use a suction bulb to clear the airways.

            If a calf was stressed during birth and doesn’t begin breathing immediately, it may be because it is suffering from acidosis, a pH imbalance caused by stress and shortage of oxygen during birth, which has an adverse effect on proper function of heart and lungs.  It may take several hours for its body to correct this.  

            Dr. Ron Skinner of Drummond, Mont. notes one way to tell if a calf is compromised is to determine whether the calf tries to raise its head rather than continuing to lie flat.  

            “If the calf just lies there and has not tried to raise its head within two minutes, prop it up and rub it briskly to stimulate circulation,” says Skinner. “The calf can breathe better if it’s upright. Lung function and ribcage movement are impeded when the calf is lying flat.”

Pulling calves

            How we pull a calf may determine whether it can start to breathe. Always pull when the cow is straining and rest when the cow rests. 

            Skinner suggests to not put steady traction on the calf without periodic let-up.  

“It takes time for the cervix to dilate and the birth canal to stretch to full capacity,” he notes. 

            “A cow doesn’t just squirt a calf out in two minutes when she’s having a normal birth,” says Skinner. “The cow will get up and down, push and rest.” 

            Skinner continues, “The calf will make a little progress as the cow strains, then go back in a little. The cow keeps stretching more, gets up and walks around and lies back down.” 

            “So, we can take our time when pulling the calf, and if we only pull as the cow pushes, we only have to pull half as hard to get as much done. When the cow is not pushing, let the calf back,” says Skinner.

            “If we pull constantly, there is constant pressure on the calf, impairing its blood circulation,” he notes.

            “This is one reason some calves are unconscious and fail to start breathing when they are born,” says Skinner. “If the calf is really tight in the birth canal and we are constantly pulling on the legs that are tight against the head, the legs are putting pressure against the jugular veins.”

            “When I have a tight one like that, I’ll pull when the cow pushes, four or five times and then I’ll push the calf back, to let him get some circulation to its head,” says Skinner. “After giving the cow a little time to rest, with the calf pushed back inside a bit, I’ll pull on the calf again.”  

            “Once the head is out of the vulva to the eyebrows, then we can go ahead and finish pulling with a few more pulls because the cow is now stretched enough for the calf to come, and when the calf gets out it will usually breathe,” explains Skinner.

Taking action

            “If the calf’s heart is still beating, we know it’s still alive and there’s hope to get the calf breathing, even if it is unconscious,” says Skinner. “Clear the airways and roll the calf onto its breastbone in an upright position with chin resting on the ground and nose as low as possible, to allow fluid to drain from its nostrils.” 

            Skinner continues, “If necessary, use fingers to strip fluid from the mouth and nose in a suction-like action or use a suction bulb. Rub and massage the calf to help stimulate lung action.”

            If the calf won’t take a breath even after we tickle the nostril, blow air into the lungs.  

            “Lay the calf on its side with head and neck extended. Cover one nostril tightly with one hand, holding its mouth shut and gently blow a full breath into the other nostril, forcing air into the lungs,” he suggests. “Don’t blow rapidly or forcefully or we might rupture a lung. Blow until the chest rises.” 

            “Then let the air come back out. Blow in another breath until the chest rises again,” Skinner explains. “Continue filling the lungs and letting them empty, until the calf starts breathing on its own.” 

            He concludes, “Usually, once the body tissues become less starved for oxygen, the calf will regain consciousness and start to breathe.”

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

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