A Day in the Life: Dan Zawisza, VMD


Dan Zawisza, VMD

My day typically starts around 8am. I head in to the office to see what the day will bring. Farmers are up early, and as they discover cows that are sick, they call in to schedule an exam for them.

Today I will start with a call for a Jersey cow with milk fever. This is a life-threatening condition in which a cow that has recently calved is unable to maintain an adequate level of blood calcium. Calcium is essential in the function of the heart, muscles, and other organs. These cows become weak, and are often unable to stand. It is readily corrected with an intravenous treatment of calcium solution. I treated this cow with calcium over about ten minutes. Time is important, as correcting the calcium level too fast can interfere with the electrical activity of the heart, causing it to stop beating. This cow did very well and was able to stand up a few minutes after treatment.

Our patients are not able to talk to us in order to say what bothers them. Because of this, we must pay close attention to the animal, its history and our physical exam findings. By being aware of this information, we may also be able to suggest changes to the management of the animals to prevent future cases of a disease.

We know that Jersey cows are prone to milk fever. This cow had a very classic presentation with a slow heartbeat, slow rumen movement, and a generalized muscular quivering. It was also important to note that she was an older cow, as cows in their first lactation rarely get milk fever.

Next, I went to look at a Holstein calf that was about two months old. The calf was bloated. Calves can bloat for many reasons, and the bloat is usually not difficult to relieve.  It is also necessary to try to determine the underlying cause so that the bloat does not recur. As their abdomen becomes progressively more bloated, the calf begins to look like a tick, and it becomes more difficult for it to breathe and circulate blood.

As I said, it is important to pay attention to get as much information as possible, and when I entered the barn, I heard some of the calves coughing. Pneumonia is one common cause of calf bloat. The infection causes lymph node enlargement that can prevent the calf from being able to burp gas out of its rumen. After a physical exam, I started this calf on an antibiotic to treat its pneumonia, but I also put a device called a trochar into its abdomen. The trochar is a tool that creates a temporary hole from the rumen through the body wall to the outside. This relieves the gas in the rumen and allows the calf to function normally until the pneumonia subsides. It’s a minor surgical procedure. The trochar will remain in place until it falls out on its own in about three weeks. Cattle tolerate these very well.

My last call of the day was for a herd check. During herd check, we use an ultrasound machine to scan a cow’s uterus for pregnancy, infection, and pathologic conditions. This is important because cows must deliver a calf to produce milk. The ultrasounding is performed by inserting your arm with an ultrasound probe into the cows rectum, and then scanning the uterus transrectally (wearing a shoulder length glove, of course!). We can then make recommendations regarding any treatment a cow may require.

It may sound gross, but this is a fast, cost-effective way to determine a cow’s reproductive status. Other structures can be assessed rectally as well, such as the kidneys, bladder, rumen, and various parts of the intestinal tract. This is a cheap, but very valuable, diagnostic tool.

This was a slow day – only three calls -but many days do not have such a relaxed pace.  The days are filled with challenges and opportunities. Many veterinarians are happy to have a rider along with them, so if you’re ever curious about the other things we do, give your local veterinarian a call and ask about riding along with him or her. I bet you’ll see something fascinating every day you visit a farm. I still do.


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