Common Health Problems Beef Cattle

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Recognizing and Managing
Common Health Problems
of Beef Cattle
Floron C. Faries, Jr.
Professor and Extension Program Leader for Veterinary
Medicine, The Texas A&M University System
Many health problems in beef cattle can be Observations: The onset of pink eye is sudden,
managed successfully if they are detected

beginning with an excessive flow of
early. Cattle owners can prevent or minimize

tears. The animal holds the eye
losses by taking steps to keep the problems from

partially closed, rubs the eye and
recurring or spreading to the rest of the herd.

seeks shaded areas. Soon an ulcer

develops in the central area of the
Below are common problems found in beef cattle as well
cornea and an opaque ring develops
as the probable causes of those conditions and suggested
around the ulcer. Within 48 hours of
measures to prevent recurrence.

onset, the entire cornea becomes

“My cows’ eyes
are cloudy and runny.”

Next, the lining of the eyelids becomes

red with mucus and pus. As the ulcer
When cattle have cloudy, runny eyes, the inflamed and

deepens and extends completely
painful eyeballs and eyelids are probably infected with a
through the cornea, the eye ruptures
virus or bacterium or damaged from sunlight or cancer.

and loses fluid, and the eyeball
These conditions include pink eye, IBR virus eye, cancer
collapses. The infection may affect one
eye or photo eye.

or both eyes.
Specific diagnosis and proper treatment may require
Management: The infected cattle must be isolated
close observation, available history, laboratory testing

and treated immediately by a
and professional assistance.

veterinarian to eliminate the infection

and prevent spread to other cattle.
Pink eye (infectious keratoconjunctivitis)
IBR virus eye (infectious bovine
Although sporadic cases of eye diseases occur in all
seasons of the year, this highly contagious bacterial
disease is most common during the summer.
The IBR virus is transmitted through the air and can
spread rapidly through the herd. It causes upper
respiratory infections, and it is most prevalent in the fall
and winter.

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Observations: In the early acute stage, a few cattle
Management: Protect the animal from sunlight until its

may develop cloudy corneas, similar

eyes and skin have healed. Shelter it

to pink eye. The opacity spreads

during the day and allow it to graze on

inward from the outer edge of the

pasture at night.

cornea, and there is no ulceration.
“My calves have areas
Management: Isolate the affected animals until

the viral infection runs its course,
of hair loss with skin lesions.”

and vaccinate the whole herd and
Calves commonly become infected with ringworm

purchased replacements.
fungus and wart virus. These two infectious, contagious
conditions are easily recognized and differentiated by
Cancer eye (squamous cel carcinoma)
the appearance of localized hair loss with skin lesions.
Cancer often appears as smooth plaques on the eyeball
and ulcers or horn lesions on the eyelids. It occurs more
In cases where there is generalized hair loss with
often in cattle with no eye pigment and those that are
skin lesions, possible causes other than ringworm or
constantly exposed to bright sunlight.
warts include photosensitization, dietary deficiencies,
infections of worms and infestations of horn flies and
Observations: As in cases of pink eye, cancer eye

causes an excessive flow of tears.

This cancer can be identified by the
Ringworm fungus (dermatophytosis)

appearance of the lesions on and near
In the early stages, a fungus infection of the skin often

the eye. The cancerous growths develop goes unnoticed because the affected areas are small and

on the third, upper and lower eyelids
slightly raised with roughened hair. Infected cows often

and eyeball, and they spread to internal serve as sources of the fungus, which is transferred by

lymph nodes and organs.
direct contact to calves.
Management: Early detection is necessary for heating
Observations: After several weeks of the fungus

or freezing therapies or for surgical

infiltrating the hair follicles, the hair

removal of the tumor alone. In chronic

falls out, leaving distinct circumscribed,

cases with more extensive involvement,
grayish lesions. The scaly lesions

the entire eyeball and eyelids must be

coalesce to form large patches of hair


loss at least 3 inches in diameter. They

are often located on the face and neck
Photo eye (photosensitization)

and are more common in young cattle.
This noninfectious condition is a hypersensitivity
to sunlight after ingestion of various plants or
Management: Although the infection tends to clear up
administration of certain drugs.

spontaneously after several months,

separate and treat the affected calves
Observations: In addition to cloudiness of the cornea,

with a prescribed medication to prevent

signs of photo eye include sunburn of

transmission to the others.

nonpigmented eyelids, nose, teats, vulva

and areas of the head, body and legs. If Warts (papil omatosis)

the affected cattle are exposed to
Warts are fibrous tumors of the skin and mucous

sunlight for prolonged periods,
membranes and are caused by many strains of the

blindness and severe skin damage will
papilloma virus. The virus is usually transmitted to

calves by direct contact from infected cows. It also can be

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transmitted by contaminated instruments that puncture
Management: To prevent recurrence of this cold-season
the skin and by biting flies such as horn flies and stable

problem, take steps to reduce the horn

fly population during the warm seasons.
Observations: The cauliflower-type growths occur
“I have occasional y

primarily on the head, neck and

shoulders, in the mouth and vagina,
a cow or a bull

and on the teats, vulva and penis.
crippled on one foot.”
Management: To prevent transmission to other calves, A cow or bull with a lame foot should be examined

isolate those with warts. Over a period
closely. Pick up the foot with a rope, and wash and

of 3 to 12 months, the affected calves
examine between the toes carefully, looking for a foot

build immunity against the virus in the
crack, a corn, swelling, heat or a discharge. You will need

warts and skin. Once the immunity kills professional assistance to differentiate some of the other

the viruses, the warts dry and slough.
abnormal conditions of the foot.
“Every winter, my cows rub
Unobservable problems inside the foot include bruises,
their heads, necks and
abscesses, fractures and foot founder, or laminitis. The
lameness may also be related to long toes as well as joint
inflammation of the leg, including the hip on the rear
and shoulder on the front.
Even though lice are known in the winter to cause cattle
to itch and rub on objects such as fences, posts, trees and Foot crack (web tear)
barns, another common cause of itching and rubbing is
the aftermath of the allergic dermatitis produced during This condition often occurs after cattle walk on rough
the previous summer and fall by a horn fly infestation.
terrain or when a bull places its weight on the foot when
mounting for breeding. These actions commonly spread
Horn fly al ergy (al ergic dermatitis)
the toes wide apart and cause the skin to tear. Also, long
toes predispose to the likelihood of excessive spreading
During the horn fly season, cattle often develop a skin
of toes.
allergy to the saliva of the biting horn flies. After several
weeks, an inflammatory reaction occurs in the skin, and
Observations: If the problem is not a corn or foot rot,
many hair follicles are destroyed.

check for signs of foot crack, along

with swelling and heat of the foot.
Observations: Before the damaged hair falls out during
The web of skin between the toes is also

the winter, the retained hair causes an

likely to be cracked deeply into sensitive

itch sensation, and the cattle rub their


faces, necks and shoulders from

December through March. As a result of Management: The damaged tissue must heal from the

rubbing these areas, the hair coat

inside out. To prevent further tearing,

becomes sparse, and irritated skin

the cow or bull must be confined for a

lesions develop.

few weeks to limit walking and the toes

trimmed and taped together.
Once the dead hair is removed by rain and rubbing, a
normal hair coat returns. If no crawling lice are on the
Foot rot (necrotic pododermatitis)
skin or lice eggs are glued to the hairs, the diagnosis
is based on a history that the cows had a horn fly
If the problem is not foot crack, the likely problem is
infestation the previous year.
foot rot, a bacterial disease of the foot. During warm,
wet weather, the bacteria in manure mixed with mud

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commonly gain entry through tiny cracks and abrasions Infectious lung disease (pneumonia)
of the skin between the toes and heel bulb, causing
swelling and dead tissue.
Pneumonia is a highly complex, contagious disease
and may be caused by one of several viruses in concert
Observations: The signs of foot rot include a hot,
with various bacteria. Pneumonia caused by bacteria is

swollen and painful foot with pus
generally serious.

discharge and a dead odor, fever and

loss of appetite and body weight.
Observations: Fever, coughing and labored breathing

The infection may spread to the skin of
are caused by inflammation and

the pastern and fetlock and to bone

swelling of the lungs and the

joints inside the foot.

accumulation of mucus, blood and

pus that interfere with airflow in the air
Management: Because the pus discharge contains

passages. The animal tries to get more

bacteria and serves as a source of new

air by stretching out its head and neck

infections, segregate the cow or bull

and protruding its tongue.

from the rest of the herd for proper

antibiotic treatment. To prevent
Management: When you see signs of pneumonia,

occurrence of more cases, the unsanitary
isolate the sick cow for antibiotic

conditions leading to this condition

treatment. Laboratory tests are needed

must be corrected.

to identify the specific viruses or

bacteria involved to develop an effective

vaccination plan for the herd. The plan
Corn (interdigital hyperplasia)

should include vaccinating the cows,
The development of scar tissue, or corns, in cattle is

nursing calves, bulls and replacements
thought to be caused by stretched skin folds between the
with the proper vaccines.
toes in heavy, splay-toed breeds.

Because stress can contribute to the
Observations: A painful and hard, tumor-like, vertical

occurrence of this disease by lowering

mass develops in the web of skin

an animal’s resistance, cattle owners

between the toes.

need to minimize adverse conditions of

cold or hot weather to prevent
Management: The mass must be removed surgically

pneumonia in the herd.

and the toes bandaged closely together.
Fog fever (pulmonary emphysema and edema)
“One of my cows coughs,
Fog fever is caused by a toxic reaction in the lungs after
protrudes her tongue and
the cow ingests a large quantity of an amino acid in lush,
breathes with her mouth
green grass in spring or fall. Diagnosis is based on a
history of the cows being moved within the previous 10
days from a dry, brown pasture to a lush, green pasture.
The cow obviously has a lung disease in which
Observations: Fever is not present; coughing is
inflammation elicits an irritated cough, and reduced air

minimal; and the onset of symptoms is
space encourages open-mouthed breathing. Because

sudden. Breathing is obviously difficult,
several infectious and noninfectious causes are possible,

with the animal breathing through its
professional assistance will be needed to make a specific

mouth, extending its tongue and
diagnosis by physical and laboratory examinations.

drooling saliva.
A common infectious lung disease is pneumonia; a
common noninfectious condition is fog fever.

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Management: The affected cow should be treated by a the cause is often the consumption of toxic amounts of

veterinarian and handled carefully to
lead or arsenic from batteries or lubricating grease of

prevent death by suffocation brought
vehicles or machinery. If the cause is dietary, it is likely

about by exercise. Move the herd from
that the cattle have a common metabolic disorder such

the lush pasture and gradually return it as polio, ketosis or grass tetany.

over 3 weeks by feeding hay and

limiting grazing time.
Polio (polioencephalomalacia)
“My calves have
Cows with polio are thin and usually have been on a
diet high in sulfate and low in protein and roughage.
runny, snotty noses.”
They probably have been confined and fed a grain diet
Runny, snotty nose can be associated with pneumonia
without roughage.
if the calves have fever, are coughing and have labored
breathing. Otherwise, the calves may simply have an
Observations: As an affected downer cow attempts to
inflammation of the sinuses of the head, which is called

stand, the ankles remain flexed or

knuckled over.
Management: Immediate treatment by a veterinarian
Runny, snotty nose (sinusitis)

to relieve swelling of the brain is
Nasal drainage in calves may be the normal discharge

necessary to prevent permanent brain
of mucus from the sinuses of the head. On extremely

damage. Adequate roughage must be
hot, cold or windy days, inflamed sinuses can discharge

fed with grain concentrates.
excess drainage, even if there is no infection. Also,
irritants and allergens in the environment such as dust,
Range ketosis (acetonemia, hypoglycemia)
pollen and mold cause inflammation of the sinuses.
Cows with range ketosis are usually thin, on a low-
carbohydrate, low-energy diet and likely are stressed
Observations: When viruses and bacteria infect the

sinuses, they produce a head cold and
from cold weather or calving and nursing.

cause a nasal discharge that is a clear,
Observations: In addition to the incoordination before

mucus or pus type. Often the infection is

going down, the cows are observed

limited to the head and does not involve

pressing against walls, posts and trees,

the lungs.

bellowing and tongue wallowing and

Management: Do not use antibiotics if there is no

or only a low-grade fever; allow the
Management: Immediate treatment by a veterinarian

condition to run its course. Respiratory

is directed to raise the blood sugar and

vaccines may lack the specific antigens

improve glucose metabolism.

to prevent recurrence.
“Some of my cows got
Grass tetany (hypomagnesemia)
the staggers, went down
The affected cows are thin, grazing lush pasture high
in nitrogen and potassium and likely are stressed from
and are unable to rise.”
cold, cloudy weather or calving and nursing.
Cows that cannot rise must be checked by a professional, Observations: In addition to staggers, signs in cattle
who will conduct physical examinations and evaluate

include tossing the head, bellowing and
their diet and environment. Although the cause may be

galloping before going down with
one of many poisonous plants, it is more often the result

of grazing on Dallisgrass. In chemical poisoning cases,

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Management: Immediate treatment by a veterinarian
“I have low conception rates,

is directed to raise the blood

repeat breeders and abortions
in my cowherd.”
“I have occasional y a thin,
Dietary deficiencies and stresses of hot weather and
downer cow.”
malnutrition in cows continue to be major causes of
Dietary deficiencies are the most common cause of
reproductive failures. Abnormal ovaries and uterus
weakness and weight loss in cattle. Enteric bacteria and
and starvation of the embryo or fetus are commonly
parasites may be contributing factors.
associated with inadequate intake of protein, energy,
minerals or vitamins. These reproductive problems
Observations: Tipoffs to problems in the diet include
occur in stressed cows on poor quality or short grazing

weakness and loss of weight.
without provisions of hay and nutrient supplements.
Management: Evaluate the nutritional intake,
Observations: The herd has an unusually high number

comparing it to the protein and energy

of abortions, repeat breeders and low

requirements of the herd. Make

conception rates that cause a large

adjustments if necessary.

percentage of open cows.

If the problem is limited to an individual Management: If the problem is caused by poor

cow instead of affected the entire herd,

nutrition, evaluate the nutritional intake

seek professional assistance to identify

and take corrective measures.

the cause, such as infections of body

Professional assistance is essential to

cavity linings (pleurisy, peritonitis) and

diagnose infectious diseases, including

abscesses and cancers of internal lymph

testing of fetuses, placenta and blood

glands and organs.

“I continue every year to have
“I had several calves suddenly
cows prolapse and retain
die that before dying were
rapidly breathing, weak and
It is common for a cow that has difficulty in calving
to bruise her uterus. A thin, weak cow may have a
Many infectious causes of rapid breathing, weakness
prolonged calving process that commonly causes a
and fever, followed by sudden death of calves are
bruised uterus.
possible. Ask a veterinarian to perform a necropsy on
one of the dead calves and make a specific diagnosis by
Observations: The inflamed, swollen uterus quite often physical and laboratory examinations. Two common

causes straining with prolapse of the
diseases that cause sudden death in calves are lepto and

vagina, cervix or uterus. If prolapse

does not occur, the placenta may be

retained because of bruising
Lepto (leptospirosis)

Lepto is caused by one of five strains of bacteria. The
Management: Treatment by a veterinarian is directed
bacteria are shed with urine from infected animals, such

to replace the prolapse and expel the
as cattle, raccoons, skunks, opossums, rodents, deer,

retained placenta.
swine and dogs. The bacteria may be shed for many

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For calves, the likely exposures are from the urine from
muscles, killing the muscles (black dead muscles),
carrier cows that were stressed at calving and from
causing blood poisoning and sudden death.
diseased and convalescent calves. Cows may have the
disease but show no signs of it. Calves are infected with
The most common trigger is fast growth. Another trigger
the bacteria when they ingest contaminated urine on
is muscle exertion, such as that caused during working,
teats, hair, grass and hay and in water. Newborn calves
weaning and hauling. Affected calves may be infected
are the most susceptible to the acute disease.
at an early age and die of blackleg at a later age. When
blackleg occurs, the transmission was not necessarily
Observations: The acute form of the disease causes
recent, but possibly months ago.

high fever, rapid and difficult breathing,

depression, bloody urine, incoordination Observations: Sudden death and rapid, gaseous

and death. Lepto calves are often

decomposition are the most common

mistakenly diagnosed and treated for

signs of blackleg.

pneumonia. Because the bacteria can kill

unborn calves as well as nursing calves, Management: The death is so rapid that treatment

it is suggested that cattle owners

is normally ineffective. All dead calves

evaluate the cow herd’s pregnancy rate

should be burned with untreated wood

and look for aborted fetuses.

products to keep from contaminating

the ground.
Management: For a closed herd, the most effective

approach for control is annual

Because other calves can have the

vaccination of all cattle; for an open

bacteria in dormancy, guard against

herd, vaccinate twice yearly. If you time

triggers such as stress and rapid growth.

the vaccination in the cow herd during

Vaccinate the remaining calves. If these

the last trimester of pregnancy, it will

calves die, they were already infected

provide immunity to the newborn

with the dormancy of blackleg bacteria

calves through the colostrum.

before vaccination. Vaccination after

exposure will not prevent the dormancy

Use polyvalent killed vaccines

from breaking out.

containing three or five common

serovars. Different vaccines vary in

The seven-way blackleg vaccine should

effectiveness, and vaccine failures may

be used because other strains in addition


to blackleg that also cause sudden death

can be present. The seven strains can
Blackleg (clostridial disease)

be diagnosed only in a dead calf by

necropsy and laboratory tests. In
When the cause of sudden death of a calf is blackleg

addition to blackleg, the other six
bacterial toxins (poisons), the first point to make is that

clostridial diseases that cause sudden
the calf swallowed blackleg spores from the soil. This

death are black neck, black liver,
means the ground is contaminated with the spores

malignant edema, and B, C, D
that never die. During rains, these spores are normally

concentrated by surface water in various spots in the
ground, and drought or rains will cause them to surface

A proper vaccination program includes
from the soil.

annual vaccination of the entire herd

(calves, cows, heifers, bulls), not just
When ingested by a calf, the spores go to the muscles

calves. Grown cattle die from four of the
and remain dormant. A trigger breaks them out of

seven different blackleg-type bacteria.
dormancy, sometimes months or years later. Then the

Cows should be vaccinated during last 3
bacteria multiply rapidly and produce toxins in the

months of pregnancy or twice a year.

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“Some of my calves are rapidly
from manure. This contamination is long standing
breathing, weak, feverish,
during cool, wet weather by a build up of manure from
the calving cows and heifers and scouring calves.
scouring and dying.”
Observations: Calves infected with these germs
Because several infectious causes are possible,

breathe rapidly and are weak, feverish
professional assistance is required to make a specific

and scouring. Death also may result.
diagnosis. Fresh feces from live calves must be
submitted for laboratory testing, and one of the dead
Management: To correct the dehydration, the affected
calves must be submitted for necropsy and physical and

calves must be removed from nursing
laboratory examinations. Results of these examinations

and given oral electrolytes until the
commonly reveal the presence of tissue damage in the

scours have stopped.
small intestine (enteritis) and large intestine (colitis) and
bacteria in the blood (septicemia).
Preventive measures include increasing
the level of immunity in colostrums and
Scours (enteritis-colitis septicemia)
having all calves nurse the first day of
birth. Calf scours can be controlled by
Nursing calves are at high risk to fatal diseases such as
vaccines containing E. coli, rotavirus,
scours from the day they are born and continuing during
coronavirus and C. perfringens B, C,
the time of the year when one is calving cows and
D. Establish an annual vaccination
heifers, moving and mixing these cows and heifers, and
program to provide immunity for
bringing in bulls to them. At this time, the baby calves
the newborn calf though the cow’s
can have low immunity and be highly susceptible to
colostrum. The pregnant cows and
diseases. They can die from scours by dehydration and
heifers need to be vaccinated late in
from septicemia by systemic infections.
pregnancy to be in colostrums and
Scours are caused by bacteria (E. coli and C. perfringens B,
provide the protective immunity against
C, D), viruses (rotovirus and coronovirus), and protozoa
the fatal baby calf diseases.
in the intestines (cryptosporidia and coccidia). Scours
Other preventive measures include
and dehydration worsen when affected calves nurse
reducing the level of exposures to
natural or artificial milk and receive oral antibiotics.
infectious organisms during calving
The sources of these deadly germs in the pasture include
and breeding seasons. To reduce the
contaminated ground and fecal shedding from the cows,
calf mortality related to scours and
heifers and bulls. When a pasture trap is used year after
septicemia in a cow herd calving over
year for close observation of calving cows and heifers,
a period of several months, use more
the ground becomes heavily contaminated with germs
than one pasture trap to provide clean
maternity areas.