MHBA ANIMAL HEALTH SERIES: Keeping your cattle healthy

By Peggy Joseph-Potter RN, BSN, MHA

Keeping your cattle healthy is an important method of protecting your investment in Miniature Herefords. Disease prevention and early treatment are a lot less costly than the alternative. Good animal health is a combination of knowledge, skill and a little bit of intuition that comes from knowing what is customary for your herd. The best ways to determine if your animal is displaying signs and symptoms of illness, is to learn what their norm is and then observe them daily for any variation from that expected behavior.


Observing your cattle’s physical appearance on a regular, preferably daily basis may alert you to the early warning signs of sickness or injury. Changes in behavior, such as in the intake of food or water are usually one of the first indications that something is abnormal in your animal. It may be as simple as a change in feed that is not well tolerated or a reaction to stress, such as after vaccinations, however it could also be the beginning of something more serious. Important questions to ask are: Do they socialize with their pasture mates or do they lie somewhere by themselves? Do they walk with a normal gait or are they limping? Are their eyes open and bright or are they
clouded or sunken? Do they look well-hydrated or are their noses and tongues dry, their bodies flat or skin tenting? Lethargy, weakness, depression, lack of appetite or water consumptions should set off that inner alarm that tells you something is abnormal and that it is time to investigate further.

Important animal characteristics to observe
on a daily basis are:
* Abnormal behavior (social or depressed)
* Stance, movement, back and ear position
* Nasal discharge (color and consistency)
* Rubbing or hair loss
* Fecal consistency (i.e. loose, watery or hard, blood or parasites in stool)
* Body condition
* Hair quality and quantity
* Tail carriage
* Lameness and localized swelling

Vital Signs

The most important vital signs to evaluate cattle well-being include temperature, pulse and respiratory rate. Temperature is the most useful diagnostic test that you can perform. Thermometers are readily available at most feed and vet supply outlets and stethoscopes for listening to the heart, respiratory rate and quality and rumen function
are usually available at drug and medical supply stores or over the internet.


Temperatures > 102.8 are considered a fever.
Anything below 100.5(subnormal) is also serious.

Pulse rate
A stethoscope is necessary to listen to the heart
rate. Obviously you must restrain your animal first.

20 (10-30)
Observe your cattle at rest. Respirations will be faster on a hot day.


The temperature should be taken by inserting a well-lubricated thermometer (to prevent tearing or perforation of the tissues) into the rectum. To avoid placing it in the vulva remember the anus is always above the vulva closest to the tail. A digital thermometer is finished when it beeps, or if using the traditional glass thermometer, then it must be held in position for at least 3 minutes to get an accurate reading. Isopropyl alcohol or veterinary disinfectant should be used before and after each temperature is taken to avoid cross contamination with possible pathogens or parasites from other animals. Remember to always properly restrain your animal before taking their temperature to prevent injury to yourself and your bovine. You may also want to attach a clip or string to the handler’s end of the thermometer so that you will not lose it should the animal decide to move away.

Due to the lack of efficient thermo-regulators, the temperature in cattle may vary depending on the ambient temperature and level of excitement. Therefore these factors should be considered when evaluating for the presence of pathological fever. Excitement can increase the body temperature in cattle; therefore it is important to approach your animals in a calm and non-threatening manner. The treatment of fever is dependent on the cause and that may include viral/bacterial pathogens or even pain. Your veterinarian may recommend the use of Banamine, which is used to treat multiple symptoms and is frequently given for the management of pain or fever; you may want to think of it as “Motrin” for cattle; available by prescription only, this should be another staple for your “Doc Box.”

Pulse or heart rate

The pulse represents the surge of blood as it flows through the heart after contraction of the ventricles. It can best be found by locating it at the angle of the lower jaw bone where it can be felt by pressing the artery against the bone. The heart rate indicates beats per minute; therefore multiply by 2 for a 30 second pulse or by 4 for a 15 second pulse. You may want to practice taking the pulse on healthy animals to gain experience and to get a feeling for the abnormal.

The heart rate may also be determined by listening to the left side of your animal’s chest with a stethoscope after the proper restraint has been applied. If you have a squeeze chute this is the most efficient place to perform your physical exams as it limits their movement and improves your visibility. Normal healthy cattle have a heart rate between 60-80 beats per minute with calves at 100-120 beats per minute.


Respirations equal the number of breaths per minute taken by your animal. This can be performed by either watching the flank or the nostril movement or by listening to the chest wall with a stethoscope. Again, this is a function you want to evaluate while your cattle are at rest as stress or excitement can accelerate the respiratory rate. Of the most concern is an increase in respirations in the presence of cough and fever. This is a likely indication of an upper respiratory infection such as pneumonia. If present, this is the time to contact your veterinarian or to follow pre-established veterinary protocols.

Rumen-The 4th Vital Sign

For ruminant animals such as cattle, the evaluation of rumen activity is another important facet of an animal wellness assessment. The rumen can be equated to a large mixing barrel that turns over periodically to blend the contents of any ingested feed. The normal rate for rumen contraction is two to four times per minute. The best method to evaluate this activity is by placing a hand or stethoscope on the left flank of your animal. The slowing or absence of rumen contraction may signal early signs of fever, dehydration or gastric trauma related to the ingestion of metal or other foreign substances. An increase in contractions or activity is usually a sign that the animal has or is about to have diarrhea.

Know what is normal

The key to any animal wellness assessment is to know what is normal for your cattle. By making frequent observations and assessments under stable conditions it becomes less difficult to detect subtle changes that are a common sign of abnormal health.

Abnormal Herd Health Warning Signs

* Abnormal vital signs
* Lethargy, weakness or depression
* Signs of dehydration
* A change in food or water consumption
* Loss of body weight
* A change in stool color, consistency or presence of blood/parasites
* A change in color, frequency or amount of urine; straining to urinate
* Abnormal discharge from nose, eyes, mouth or reproductive tract
* Solitary behavior in a normally social animal
* Skin abnormalities such as wounds, hair loss, or swelling
* Irregular breathing, coughing, gagging or retching
* Swollen joints or lameness

Good animal husbandry practices include knowing your resources and when to contact your veterinarian. Many veterinary practices offer a ranch assessment service that includes instruction on livestock physical assessment, wellness protocols and recommended medication regimens. These initial evaluations may be costly on the front end.
However, their future benefits can reduce the time, expense and stress related to the management of a herd wellness program.

Haynes, N. B. (1978). Keeping Livestock Healthly. North Adams,
MA: Storey Publishing, L.L.C.
Langlois, C. (n.d.). Signs of Sickness. Hobby Farms .
McNeal, D. L. (January/February 2007). Basic Farms Husbandry
Skills. Hobby Farms .
Thomas, H. S. (1998). Storey’s Guide to Raising Beef Cattle. Storey
Publishing, L.L.C.

Peggy and her husband, B ob Potter, own and operate PJ Ranch
LLC in Winton, California where she serves as the Vice President of
Animal Health. They have been Miniature Hereford owners and
active participants in the MHBA since 2002. She is also employed
as a critical care nurse for a local medical center.

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