Part of the job with being a beef cattle veterinarian is to be there when things go wrong. Despite the best preventative efforts of the farmer or rancher, the nature of livestock is that sooner or later you will end up having to treat an emergency. One of those emergency situations that we face with beef cattle are bloated animals.
To understand what a bloat is, we’ll talk a bit about cattle anatomy. Cattle are ruminants, which means they have a four-chambered stomach uses microorganisms for a large portion of digestion. This process produces gas, which needs to be burped out. If cattle can’t burp, their stomach starts to expand like a balloon, which is a bad deal.
There are two reasons this can happen. One is when they eat too much of a tasty feed too quickly, like alfalfa hay. This creates a bunch of bubbles that trap the gas in the stomach. The other is when the nerve that allows them to burp is not functioning. With either problem, the first way to treat the bloated bovine is to pass a tube down their throat to let the gas off. Usually, if you correct it once it fixes the problem permanently.
However, there are a handful of calves that continue to bloat again after letting this gas out. Instead of constantly putting a tube down their throat to help them burp, another option is to do a “bloat surgery”, where a hole is placed in their side allowing the gas to escape. Carolyn did one of these surgeries last week and as her assistant I was able to get a few pictures, so we thought we’d share them with you here. A word of caution, IF BLOOD MAKES YOU WOOZY DO NOT READ THIS POST!
Carolyn’s patient was a 4 month old calf that had bloated three times. He had been happily frolicking in the pasture with his mother before this, but unfortunately caught a pneumonia that caused strain on his Vagus nerve (the “burping” nerve that I mentioned earlier). Before surgery, Carolyn let the gas out of the calf so his stomach was no longer distended. Then she clipped the hair from the surgery site and scrubbed it with antiseptic.
After cleaning the area, she used local anesthesia to numb the surgery site. She then marked it with a small cut in the area where she would make the hole, and then scrubbed it again.
Once sterile, Carolyn gloved in and got to work. First the skin over needed to be removed.
Next, she bluntly dissected through the muscles to find the inside body wall. After she cut through the body wall, Carolyn pulled out a bit of the stomach in order to attach it securely to the skin. This small piece of stomach would be removed in order to make the hole.
Once the stomach was exteriorized, Carolyn placed four stay sutures to hold the stomach to the skin. These were placed at the 3, 6, 9 and 12 o’clock positions.
Now that the stomach was firmly affixed to the skin, Carolyn cut into it to make the hole. She did not cut the entire hole out at once, but rather cut a little bit at a time while whipstitching the stomach to the skin to prevent any leakage of stomach contents into the calf’s abdomen.
Once the whipstitch was completed around the entire whole, the calf was treated with post-op antibiotics. The hole is high enough on the calf’s stomach that his food doesn’t come out, and large enough that gases can easily escape. Typically the hole (which has the proper name of a “rumenotomy”) will stay open for a few months and then seal shut. By that point in time, the issue that is causing the vagus nerve to not function correctly will be resolved and the calf will go on normal as ever, just with a small scar on its side.
The surgery was a success, and now the calf is back with his mother, happily frolicking in the pasture and such.