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Veterinarian shares tips to help newborn calves that aren’t breathing

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

Sometimes a newborn calf is stressed and exhausted from a difficult birth, and they struggle to breath. There are several ways to stimulate the calf to breathe or offer artificial respiration if the calf doesn’t start breathing on its own.

Dr. Jennifer Pearson of the University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine says as soon as a calf is born, it is important to check the airway, breathing and circulation.  

Resuscitation tips

“A few things many producers and veterinarians used to do, which is not recommended anymore, was to hold the calf up by the hind legs, hang the calf upside down over a fence or gate or swing the calf around in a circle to try to drain fluid out of the airways,”explains Pearson. 

“Although fluid does come out of the calf’s nose and mouth when we do this, it is actually fluid from the stomach, not the trachea,” she continues.

She adds, “Newborn calves always have fluid in their stomachs because they normally swallow some of the fluid they float in while they are in the uterus.” 

This fluid is important for a calf’s health and should not be removed. Hanging calves upside down to try to drain fluid from their airways is actually counterproductive. All of the weight from the intestines pushes against the diaphragm, which makes it even harder for calves to breathe.

Today, veterinarians recommend putting calves in the resuscitation position instead.  

“We place them upright, resting on the breastbone, rather than flat on one side, and we pull the hind legs forward so the feet are up by their ears,” explains Pearson. “This helps keep the calf propped upright, resting on the belly and breastbone. The front legs can be straight out in front of the calf or tucked under it. Their head and neck are forward, with their nose low to the ground, as fluid in the air passages drains out.”

“This position enables both lungs of a calf to expand. If the calf is lying flat, there is too much pressure on the bottom lung to allow it to fill with air. This can hinder the calf’s ability to breathe appropriately,” she says. 

Additionally, Pearson notes it’s important to clear fluid and mucus from the nose and mouth. Producers can keep a small suction bulb in a coat pocket for sucking out extra fluid and mucus. 

The next step is to stimulate the calf to take a breath. Producers should use a clean piece of hay or straw to tickle the inside of one nostril. If the calf is conscious, this usually makes them sneeze or cough and take a breath.

She explains another method may include using a small-diameter needle to poke the center of the calf’s nose. Pearson notes it may not get the calf to breath normally, but it can get them started. 

“I also do vigorous rubbing, with a towel or straw, all over the calf’s body, to stimulate circulation,” she says.  

Check for a heartbeat

Pearson also encourages producers to check for a heartbeat. The calf may be unconscious and unresponsive, but if the heart is still beating, there is a chance producers can get them going.

She notes in many cases, newborn calves have a heartbeat, but they are not breathing. 

If this is the case, artificial respiration can be attempted 

To do this, producers should lay the calf on its side with its head and neck extended, hold the mouth and one nostril shut and blow a breath into the other nostril.

Pearson notes it is important to blow gently until the chest rises, then let the air come back out and blow in another breath – continuing to breathe for the calf until it starts breathing on its own.

“There are some devices available to help give artificial respiration,” she adds. “One is called the McCulloch Calf Resuscitator, which is designed to inflate the lungs. It has a mask that fits over the calf’s nose and mouth, with a syringe to push air in and help inflate the lungs.”

One drawback to doing this is sometimes air goes into the stomach instead of the lungs. 

“It’s important to make sure the airway is open and the esophagus is closed off, so it helps if the head and neck are extended,” explains Pearson.

If the calf is unconscious, unresponsive and there is no heartbeat, producers can do chest compressions, however, Pearson says this method isn’t usually successful. In many instances, if there is no heartbeat, it’s usually too late, she points out. 

Pearson concludes there is research currently being done on devices to help resuscitate calves, however. 

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

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