Detecting Dystocia in Ruminants

Detecting Dystocia in Ruminants

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  CalvingCattle General Health Care  

Detecting Dystocia in Ruminants

Dr. Colleen Lewis / March 6, 2017

Recognizing any problems outside of the “normal” calving process is paramount in getting more live calves on the ground with a vigorous start. Typically, a cow will breeze through the three broad stages of labor, requiring no more assistance than a clean and comfortable place to give birth to her calf. This blog is written in the context of cattle, but is fitting for small ruminants as well.

  • 1st stage: presentation of the calf into the vaginal vault
  • 2nd stage: expulsion of the fetus
  • 3rd stage: passing of the placenta

Dystocia in cattle is defined as calving difficulty, or the inability of a cow to progress smoothly through the second stage of labor. Dystocia influences the economics of a cow/calf enterprise through increased calf death loss, increased labor and veterinary costs, reduced subsequent reproductive performance of the cow, potential loss of the cow, and reduced milk production. Calving difficulties cost our beef and dairy industries hundreds of millions of dollars per year, second in economic losses only behind failure to conceive.

The first stage of labor should be between two and six hours as contractions get closer together and attempts are made to get the calf situated up into the vaginal vault. The pressure in the vaginal vault instigates stage two: the active birth of the calf. We recognize stage two as the cow begins to actively push, or we see the sack or feet emerging from the vulva. But what happens when a cow fails to progress to stage two? Each contraction during the first stage begins to contribute to oxygen deprivation (hypoxia) and a decrease in blood pH (acidemia). Calves that are hypoxic and acidotic are slow to rise; they lack a suckle reflex and have difficulty regulating their body temperatures. These calves are subject to a higher mortality rate than those with normal values. The longer the calf sits in stage one past the six-hour window, the higher the chance of being born with some serious deficits or even stillborn. Finding calving difficulties earlier will provide your cows the timely help they need and land more vigorous calves on the ground.

Here are a few red flags that warrant a closer look at cows that might be in a prolonged state of stage one of labor:

  • Blood is visible on the tail or vulva
  • Tail is suspended out (longer than for urination) for more than an hour without progress
  • Abnormally large or pendulous abdomen with ANY stage one signs
  • Isolating herself for more than 6 hours with no other signs
  • Past her due date
  • Diagnosed with twins and shows any stage one sign(s)
  • Cows that try to steal other calves

Finding a cow in a stage two dystocia is usually a bit easier than finding a challenging stage one dystocia. Stage two cows are actively pushing, have sacs, fluids, membranes and calf body parts emerging from the vulva. When everything is running smoothly, we can expect a calf on the ground within a couple hours of entering stage two. Determining progress is fairly simple while watching her pushing and expelling fluids.

Here is a quick list of red flags that warrant a closer examination of stage two cows in labor to determine if assistance is needed:

  • Feet do not emerge within 30 minutes of active pushing
  • Blood is appearing other than freshly ruptured membranes
  • Amniotic fluid is dark in color, orange or green (mechonium staining)
  • Calf is not progressively advancing over several contractions
  • Only one foot is visible and a few inches out
  • Anything presented instead of the front feet (e.g., nose or tail)
  • Feet are presented with the bottoms of the hooves and the dewclaws pointed upward
  • Hair on the feet is dry or discolored

Watching cows closely for the first stage of labor is key to diagnosing some dystocias earlier. Although most dystocias are not readily apparent until the second stage of labor, time is of the essence to maintain a viable calf. Recognizing dystocia and applying prompt intervention will achieve better outcomes.

About the Author
Dr. Colleen Lewis is a 1996 graduate of Kansas State University, College of Veterinary Medicine. Her career has taken her to many places as a practice owner, consultant, embryologist, and mentor. She enjoys mixed animal practice, teaching, traveling, farming and high school sports with her husband, Andrew and their three boys.

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