Pain relief may help newborn calves

Treating newborn calves with low cost NSAIDs, such as meloxicam, shows promise in getting calves off to a good start.

Newborn calves that experienced stress and trauma during difficult births often have a slow start. Depending on the severity of the dystocia, calves can have trouble maintaining body temperature, oxygen deficiency, acidosis, vertebrae and rib fractures and even broken legs. Pain and fatigue are associated with difficult calvings, both on the side of the dam and the calf. Calves that experience a difficult birth are more at risk for death in the first 24 hours, reduced vigor short term, and may have long-term health consequences.

A study published in the Journal of Veterinary Science and Animal Husbandry in January 2016, looked at effects of giving calves non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) for the reduction of pain and inflammation following birth. The study was conducted on two commercial dairy farms in Canada, utilizing automatic computer feeders. 284 calves were assessed for vigor at birth (or discovery of birth), and then injected subcutaneously with a placebo or 1 ml (0.5 mg/kg body weight) meloxicam (Metacam, Boehringer Ingelheim, Burlington, ON). Vigor was scored as visual appearance, initiation of movement, general responsiveness, oxygenation and respiration rates. Calves that experienced a difficult birth had reduced vigor. In a subset of the population, 61 calves were re-assessed for vigor 1-6 hours after treatment. Calves that received the meloxicam treatment following birth had significant improvements in vigor in comparison to placebo treated calves. In addition, calves treated with meloxicam had an improved suckling reflex following treatment. The paper did not report if there was more improvement for calves that experienced a difficult birth, likely because of the low number of calves.

Calves were followed until 8 weeks of age (with the exception of bull calves that were sold) and data was recorded for health, average daily gain and milk intake. Calves that received meloxicam at birth had greater total milk intake on the automatic milk feeders; however, health and average daily gain were not affected by treatment.

These results suggest that treating calves with NSAIDs may be a good strategy to reduce pain and inflammation associated with birth and is very economical. Although this study did not show the long term benefits of treatment, it is important to consider the study design. This study was done on commercial farms, not a tightly controlled research farm, which brings variability in timing of procedures, vigor assessment, general animal handling along with a low sample size. Meloxicam has a half-life of 26 hours in a young calf, so it would be unlikely that a single treatment would have long lasting direct effects; however, getting the calf off to a good start early in life can pay big dividends later in improved health and milk yield.

Michigan State University Extension recommends working with your veterinarian to determine if a NSAID is right for your herd and the correct dose, administration route and meat withholding time.

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