Septicemia can kill calves quickly |

Septicemia can kill calves quickly

The mucous membranes on the gums will be dark or red-purple, instead of pink like a normal calf. The blood vessels under the surface may be getting bigger and standing out.
Photo courtesy Steve Hendrick,

BENEFITS OF NECROPSY — “When dealing with any sudden death situation, such as septicemia, it is important to have a necropsy to see what actually killed the animal. You might want to know whether it was actually septicemia or just a severe enteritis that killed the calf. If your vet can do a post-mortem he or she may be able to identify what was really going on, and identify the organism. One thing I can’t stress enough to ranchers and to veterinarians is to do necropsies. You may not come up with an answer. But that, too, can be of benefit, ruling certain things out. It can help you rethink what you are looking at,” England said.

Calves sometimes develop systemic infection in which bacteria or their toxins get into the bloodstream and travel throughout the body, creating life-threatening illness.

Bacteria or viruses in the blood can cause septicemia. Bacterial toxins in the blood cause a condition known as toxemia. Some types of toxin-forming bacteria enter the body via the GI tract, after damaging the gut lining and slipping through it, causing rapid death; the calf goes into shock when internal organs are damaged and start shutting down. Any blood-borne infection may become life-threatening if the bacteria or their toxins damage vital organs. In some instances the infection localizes, creating internal abscesses, or settles in the joints — causing painful arthritis (joint ill).

James England, of the University of Idaho, said many bacterial infections can get into the blood. “A navel ill situation can be a true septicemia, when it goes systemic and gets into the joints. Endotoxemia caused by clostridial bacteria can also occur in calves, but these are not a true septicemia; it’s just the toxins getting into the blood. A common sequel to calf scours is either septicemia due to an infection like E. coli (secondary to the scours) or even more commonly we see septicemia due to Salmonella. This infection can kill calves quickly,” he said. All body systems are attacked and the calf goes into shock and it can be hard to save the animal.

“The Salmonellas are highly pathogenic and invasive and tend to go septicemic more than some other types of scours. Probably most Salmonella infections don’t go septicemic, but they certainly have the capability to do so,” he said.


Septicemia is very hard to treat. “Often by the time you realize the calf is sick, it’s too late. The whole body is under attack and stress. When you get into a sepsis situation you are usually way behind the eight ball,” England said.

Steve Hendrick, Coaldale Veterinary Clinic, Coaldale, Alberta, said calves don’t obtain antibodies from the cow’s bloodstream via the placenta, so they are born without any antibodies to protect them from disease. “They must obtain the needed antibodies from the cow’s colostrum. Many people don’t realize how critical this is — to make sure the newborn calf has adequate colostrum. Ideally it should come from the dam because she has been in the environment the calf will be born into (unless you purchased her just before calving) and has been exposed to pathogens the calf will encounter — and has the necessary antibodies in her colostrum,” he said.

Many of the calves that develop septicemia are calves that didn’t get enough antibody protection from colostrum. Sometimes their immunities are overwhelmed (even if they got good colostrum) if they are born into a filthy environment and develop a navel infection. They may be exposed to high doses of some very bad pathogens. It’s important to make sure calves are born in a clean environment.

“Clean bedding is always a good prevention against navel infection, if the cows are confined rather than calving out on large grass pastures,” he said. People who calve early when weather may be bad, or calving out heifers, generally have them confined so they can watch them. Then it takes more diligence to make sure the calving area is clean.

“We often see calves that are born in dirty conditions and have to suckle a dirty udder. This makes more challenge, increasing the number of pathogens the calf will ingest, and there are also more pathogens that will come into contact with the raw umbilical stump. This is a huge challenge to the immune system,” Hendrick said.

Infections can get into the bloodstream from just about any location of the body, including the respiratory system. With septicemia, the big challenge is treating the systemic infection. If you don’t start treatment early, to halt the infection, some internal organs and/or joints may be damaged.

“Septicemia is the same as what we call ‘blood poisoning’ and simply means bacteria in the blood,” he said.


Signs of septicemia may include weakness. The calf may be unable to get up, with signs of shock — pale or purple gums, cold feet, cold ears. One of the best ways to tell if a calf is septic is to look at the mucus membranes and the normally white sclera around the eye. The mucous membranes on the gums will be dark or red-purple, instead of pink like a normal calf. The blood vessels under the surface may be getting bigger and standing out. The blood vessels of the sclera around the eye will become prominent and dilated, making the eye look bloodshot.

The heart may be beating fast, trying to get blood to vital organs as everything starts shutting down.

If the calf is young and sick, and has swollen joints, check the navel for signs of infection such as swelling, heat, a thick umbilicus or pus discharge. A common cause of septicemia is navel ill in the newborn calf. Infection from the umbilicus gets into the blood stream and travels to other tissues. A healthy calf that had good colostrum may still get an infected umbilicus but will generally wall it off as a local abscess and is not as likely to get septicemia. A common location for blood-borne infection to localize is in the joints; the joints swell and become painful and the calf is lame.

It’s important to work with your veterinarian when early signs are noticed (lame calf or very sick calf), because the earlier you can treat the calf, the better chance of halting the infection before it causes extensive damage or makes it impossible to save the calf. Your veterinarian can advise you on the proper course of antibiotics because there are several that could be effective.

“These infections tend to filter into some of the smaller blood vessels like the capillaries, particularly in the joints or where the bones are growing (ends of the bones). This may result in a chronic arthritis. It’s difficult to get enough antibiotic into those areas,” Hendrick said.

“You need to be watching young calves closely, and make sure they are getting up, and moving around, and not becoming stiff or lame. If they look sluggish or sore, you have a serious problem. Hopefully you can detect the illness before they get to this point; the infection is already having an impact by the time they are lame,” he said.


Prevention is always preferable to having to treat calves — and risk losing them. A clean environment, adequate colostrum, and adequate nutrition for the cow herd are crucial factors. “If the cows don’t have good condition and are not passing along good colostrum to their calves, you are fighting an uphill battle,” he said.

“Some producers who have had problems with navel ill and septicemia try to give every calf a long-acting antibiotic at birth, but this is not a good solution. This is not how we should be managing our herds. Antibiotics are not a cure-all for sloppy management and poor conditions,” Hendrick said.

England said that for best success in treating a septic calf occurs when your veterinarian can do an antibiotic sensitivity test, to make sure you can treat with something that will work against that particular pathogen. Some calves will also need IV fluids, and may need medication to help prevent or treat shock.

“Part of the problem in food animal medicine is that we have some over-the-counter antibiotics that are sometimes applied inappropriately; they may not work against that pathogen. When we have a situation that indicates bacterial infection, and collect samples to identify which bacteria it might be, we can’t wait for the results, however, treatment must begin immediately, so we have to start with some type of broad-spectrum antibiotic until we get the results. We also need to do the sensitivity tests to make sure we ultimately choose the right antibiotic, even if we have to change from the one we started with. Correct diagnosis and correct selection of antibiotic is crucial,” he said. Otherwise you may treat a calf for quite a while and the calf is still going downhill.

“Sometimes ranchers put two antibiotics together that work against one another, or choose the wrong one for that particular infection. You certainly have to give the calf something to start treatment, but it’s best to ask your veterinarian for advice. In many cases the rancher doesn’t call the veterinarian — for whatever reason, including economics. This is part of the dilemma in treating septicemia — the difficulty in having the correct diagnosis and antibiotic,” England said. ❖

— Smith Thomas is a cattle rancher, horseman, freelance writer and book author, ranching with her husband near Salmon, Idaho. She can be reached at

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