Is "Little Man" a Dummy? ~ Tuesday Tutorial (Dummy Calf Syndrome)

Just nine days ago we had an average size (for a Mini Jersey) calf born when Dr. Stoneburner pulled him after his dam had a difficult time during delivery.  (You can read the details of that story here.)  Since his birth, I have had my hands full trying to keep him alive.  We have had a lot of calves born between the dairy and the beef herds, and I can honestly say I have never experienced one that was so difficult to get started.  Mike, who was born and raised on a third generation dairy farm and continued to run the family dairy until about 14 years ago, commented that anytime a calf has to be pulled, they frequently tend to have difficulties getting started (standing, nursing, etc).  This made me start thinking about an article I had read recently about "dummy foals".  The article was fascinating and I encourage you to read it for yourself (and I would love to hear feedback regarding either the animal aspect of the article or the autism research aspect of the article).  You can read the article Newborn Horse Syndrome Suggests Links to Childhood Autism at this link.

The article had piqued my interest as it had surfaced several times on Facebook and then a friend sent it to me again after "Little Man" was born.  I will admit, that I have been so busy between dealing with a downed cow and trying to keep the calf going, that I did little more than skim the article again.  However, after "Little Man" (as I named the calf) seemed to turn a corner yesterday in his health and development, I began to contemplate the situation further and do a little research.  Sure enough, not only does this situation occur in newborn horses (often called dummy foal syndrome) but it also occurs in newborn calves and is often referred to as dummy calf syndrome (also known as weak calf syndrome).  While there are a variety of things that can cause dummy calf/weak calf syndrome, one of the causes is dystocia (difficult birth).  There are a number of interesting articles available detailing this subject. The article I found most helpful since it was directly to the point affecting my calf, was published by Hoard's Dairyman and written by Dr. Jason E. Lombard D.V. M and Dr. Frank Gary D.V. M. entitled Dystocia Takes A Toll On Calves.   The article can be read at this link.   While I realize some of my Facebook readers who have been following along probably thought that I was over complicating things and worrying about a calf that was probably secretly nursing behind my back, I can assure you that having handled enough calves, I was very aware that this calf and this situation was not normal.

First of all, the dam never did progress to the pushing stage of labor.  Being very familiar with my cows, I realized that she had all the signs of being in a progressed, labor stage without the actual pushing.  Because her calving paralysis actually began before giving birth, I am assuming that this calf was pushing on some nerves that made it impossible for her to stand or even to push with her labor pains.  This is all supposition on my part, but regardless, the calf was born after a long labor and a complicated delivery.  It would be very easy to see how such a complicated delivery could lead to hypoxia (insufficient oxygen during the birthing process).
"Calves are born with low levels of oxygen and high levels of carbon dioxide in their blood. Even a normal delivery results in a phenomenon called “birth asphyxia,” which occurs when the blood supply from the umbilicus is cut off but the calf is not yet breathing.
After delivery, the calf must begin breathing by inflating the lungs and initiating gas exchange to raise the level of blood oxygen and lower the level of carbon dioxide. High blood levels of carbon dioxide result in respiratory acidosis and play a critical role in stimulating respiration.

During dystocia, a more pronounced asphyxia occurs and respiratory acidosis is more severe. In addition, the reduced oxygen content of the blood leads to anaerobic metabolism within tissues, resulting in a metabolic or lactic acidosis." ~ Hoard's Article
The next chain reaction in our difficulties with the bull calf was that he would not nurse.  Granted, he was not stimulated by his dam (who was down and couldn't rise to lick him dry).  We had dried him off with towels but I could not get him to suck.  Having had experience with orphaned newborn animals of various species, I knew it was critical to get him warm enough to take the initiative to nurse.  So, I carried him to our milk kitchen and turned the heat up to get him warm.  Even when warmed, I had to work and work with him to take the bottle.  He wouldn't open his mouth for it and he had a hard time sucking.  Eventually, I got the required amount of colostrum in him.  However, it was approximately 6 hours before he ever stood on his feet.  (Normally a calf stands within minutes of birth.)
The major clinical effect of acidosis is central nervous system depression, sometimes referred to as “weak calf syndrome” or “dummy calf syndrome.” This depression also results in reduced physical activity and might delay standing or prevent calves from standing at all. In addition, decreased physical activity and reduced shivering results in more heat loss and hypothermia. In this case, suckling and the consumption of colostrum may not occur. Or, if it does, calves may not efficiently absorb the immunoglobulins necessary to protect against disease. ~ Hoard's Article

Subsequent days with "Little Man" proved difficult.  He took absolutely no initiative to nurse on his own.  This was not a matter of him "sneaking" behind my back and then not being hungry when I would try to get him to nurse.  This was a confused, lethargic calf who seemed to lack the ability "get it together."  When I would try to get him to nurse his dam, he would just turn circles and could never get the sucking reflex to work properly when I did force him to latch on to his mother.  When I would give him a bottle, it was almost as difficult.  Never would he open his mouth to take the nipple, I would have to force the nipple in his mouth and then it would take him a little while to actually get the sucking reflex to work.  I also had to straddle him and put his back against a wall and hold his head up in the proper position to nurse.  Back breaking and frustrating for the farmer who simply wanted him to live.

  An article by the Washington State University Extension and WSU College of Veterinary Medicine states:

 Weak calf syndrome presents as a newborn calf that is weak, unable or slow to rise, stand or nurse. These calves often die within three days of birth. They may be also called “dummy calves” or “fading calves.” 

 A calf involved in a difficult birth undergoes more stress but also can become hypoxic (low oxygen levels) which can result in neonatal acidosis. Acidosis results in a weak calf and if not corrected, can result in death. Calves involved in dystocia may die soon after birth. If they do happen to suckle, they don’t absorb maternal antibodies from colostrum as well, making them more susceptible to scours and pneumonia later in life.

Another interesting theory regarding a comparative situation in horses known as "Dummy Foal Syndrome" is the one from the article by UC Davis:  Newborn Horses Give Clues to Autism:

In short, somewhere between the time a foal enters the birth canal and the moment it emerges from the womb, a biochemical “on switch” must be flicked that enables the foal to recognize the mare, nurse, and become mobile. Madigan and Aleman suspect that the physical pressure of the birthing process may be that important signal.
“We believe that the pressure of the birth canal during the second stage of labor, which is supposed to last 20 to 40 minutes, is an important signal that tells the foal to quit producing the sedative neurosteroids and ‘wake up,’ ” Madigan said.

The theory, he said, is supported by the fact that the maladjusted foal syndrome appears more frequently in horses that were delivered via cesarean section or experienced unusually rapid births. Perhaps those foals do not experience significant physical pressure to trigger the change in neurosteroids, Madigan
It's not too difficult for me to recognize that "Little Man" has a classic case of "Dummy Calf Syndrome" brought on by his difficult birth. Now that I have had the time to research things, I have become aware just how lucky we are that he is still with us.  I know he's not completely "home free" yet as he is only a week old and still struggling to overcome, but I am greatly encouraged that he has begun nursing at will and that he is more energetic, acting more like a normal calf.  The "Dummy Calf" and "Dummy Foal" Syndrome are worth researching further so that the farmer or homesteader can be prepared in the event they are ever faced with a similar situation.  
Between 30 and 50 percent of all calvings require assistance, and approximately 1 out of 10 of these calves die at the time of birth due to dystocia or complications from a difficult calving. Calves that survive dystocia are still at greater risk of experiencing disease and death before weaning. ~ Hoard's Article
I sincerely hope that no one reading this ever has to experience what we have been experiencing for the last nine days with "Little Man" our Mini Jersey bull calf.  However, it's my desire to share our experience with the hope that someone will be better educated should they ever find themselves in a similar position.  


adkmilkmaid said...

Tammy, this was an excellent, informative article. I have had slow calves and lambs but never quite to the degree mentioned here. It was helpful to read! Thank you!

Janet Kaercher said...

Oh how I love reading about your farm. So glad Little Man is doing better,he is adorable.