How to Help Sick Calves Eat

The spring weather in South Dakota can be rough on calves. One day it is sunny and 50 degrees, the next it is 25 and snowing. Just like people, calves can get run down and sick in this kind of weather, typically with diarrhea. And to think we complain about getting a runny nose from the cold.

I was treating a calf with this problem a couple days ago. He had gotten dehydrated and would not suck a bottle. Obviously if he wouldn’t eat he wasn’t going to make it. Fortunately there is another option for feeding a calf with no appetite–tube feeding. Tube feeding is necessary in calves that need nutrition or fluids, but cannot or will not drink from a bottle. It works by passing a soft plastic tube into the calf’s esophagus. This tube is attached to a bag that contains a liquid to be given to the calf. The fluids are then allowed to flow into the calf’s stomach, thereby giving the calf its needed nutrition and hydration. It is safe and does not cause pain for the calf.

A calf tube and bag setup. The bag holds 2.5 liters of fluid.

A calf tube and bag setup. The bag holds 2.5 liters of fluid.

In this case, I was giving whole milk to the calf because it needed the fluids and the nutrition. Other times if calves only need fluids I will give them water with electrolytes mixed in. It’s kind of like a bovine Gatorade without the flavoring. It is best to give the fluids at body temperature. I utilize a highly intricate scientific method for determining the perfect temperature for the calf’s milk.

Yep, it's a peer reviewed process and everything.

Yep, it’s a peer reviewed process and everything.

Once the temperature is right, I pour the milk into the bag take it out to the calf.

The most important part of the process is actually passing the tube. I insert it into the calf’s mouth and gently work it to the back of its throat. There are two openings there, the trachea and the esophagus. It is crucial to make sure the tube is in the esophagus because putting fluid into the trachea would cause there to be fluid in the lungs, which is obviously counter-productive to life. However, it is easy to feel the tube in the calf’s neck, making this a very preventable problem. Once I am sure I have the tube in the esophagus and it is far enough in, I slowly let the fluid flow into the calf.

Now this was the point when I was going to have a really cool picture of me tube feeding the calf. But just before I started feeding him I realized it is rather difficult to take a selfie while doing this. Considering it was after-hours and I was alone at the clinic, I will have to leave the image up to your imagination. My bad.

At any rate, once you have all the fluid in, you remove the tube. Then pat him on the head and call him a good calf. It helps in the healing process. To conclude this story the calf bounced back and is now frolicking playfully with the other calves at his home ranch.