Sunday, September 25, 2011

Being a food animal veterinarian, day 7

Day 7. Just me and Dr. Gray (my favorite doctor to ride with). He blasted out of the clinic at high speed, announcing that we were extremely late and that we were going to check on a herd which had a problem with cystic ovaries. He tossed me a copy of Merck’s Veterinary Manual and said, “Let’s get smart about cystic ovaries.”

He and I at least knew what cystic ovaries are, but I am betting you do not. What you want an ovary to do is to grow a bunch of follicles, and then have one follicle decide it is the queen follicle and ovulate an egg. You probably know what happens from there. If this process is stymied at some point so that the follicle just hangs out and doesn’t develop, but becomes a bump on the ovary full of liquid, it is a cyst. The cow may recover from this and return to a normal reproductive cycle, or her system may become confused by the particular mix of hormones circulating and get hung up. The a veterinarian has to figure out what is going on. The most common explanation is that the cows are not eating well enough, so we came prepared to look into that.

We pulled up at a lovely little farm. This was a hobby farm in the sense that the owner had income from elsewhere, but a real farm in the sense that he was trying to make a profit on selling milk. He actually had a farm store where you could buy milk from that farm (unheard of!) and ice cream made from the milk (even better!). I purchased both, since the cows were out on grass, which made me happy. (The milk later spilled in Dr. Gray’s truck and went bad so that he became cranky with me, but that is a different story.)

Herd check. Why did the cows have cysts? The usual veterinarian for the herd was present; we had been called out as consultants basically because we had an ultrasound machine to help us better see what was going on inside the cows. We checked cow after cow. Some follicles (excellent), some post ovulation structures (also excellent). No cysts. It turned out that what had appeared to be cysts were actually normal structures. The cows were in fact somewhat skinny, so we also did some education about how to body condition score a cow. This was a learning experience for me; it is more complicated than with a dog, involving a flow chart. We also gave advice about how to synchronize the cows so that the farmer would know when to breed them. Without a solid synchronization program (or a bull, which most people find dangerous to keep around), you just have to watch the cows to see when they might be in heat. They are in heat for such a short period of time, less than a day, that it is very easy to miss. Best to know ahead of time when it’s going to happen.

We got back in the truck. I ate my ice cream sandwich for lunch. It was a good lunch.

The next farm was very different. Instead of the welcoming committee of three people who had received us at the first farm, we were left to find the sick cows on our own. Eventually one of the employees handed us a list of numbers: three cows with possible twisted stomachs (displaced abomasums) and one that might have a dead calf inside her. Usually farmers catch the cows up for us and have them in headlocks, but not here. Go find them!

The sick pen had dozens of cows in it. Dr. Gray and I wandered through until we found our girls, then chased them into a small side area where we could put them into the single head lock one by one. The cow with the presumed dead calf was pretty sick, so Dr. Gray dealt with her while I checked TPRs (temperature, pulse, respiration) and gave physical exams to the other three. I couldn’t see him, as he was behind a barrier from me, so I was on my own.

First cow: already in the head lock thanks to Dr. Gray. Normal TPR. No pings (the sound they make when you thwack your finger against their belly and they have a twisted something or other inside there). Looked bright and alert and not dehydrated. I relayed this to Dr. Gray, he came over and double checked, said we would just recommend some oral fluids, and I should move on to the next cow.

Second cow: obviously not in the head lock. I released the first cow and tried to get the second cow in. They will move away from you, so you can basically chase them into where you want, but she would not actually put her head in the lock. They weigh a lot more than you; sometimes you can shove on the back end and they will be nice about it, but there was no way this girl was cutting me a break. It was a little embarrassing, but I did my TPR while she was loose.

This time Dr. Gray came back with blood on his arm up to his shoulder, looking stressed. He checked over the cow (who he also failed to get into the head lock), gave her a rectal exam (this was all with a bare arm — iew), gave her the same diagnosis as the first cow, and went back to what he was doing. I walked back to watch as he shot the sick cow with the dead calf inside her in the head with a captive bolt gun, standard euthanasia technique on farm for a cow who cannot make it on to a truck to be shipped to slaughter.

Dr. Gray explained that the cow had had a dead calf in her for several days, and had a large rip in her uterus, which she could not recover from. I will save you from some of the gorier details. He was clearly somewhat bothered by the fact that the calf had died at least four days before and she had not gotten medical attention before then. “To be fair,” he said, “the calf wasn’t in the birth canal so she probably didn’t show any signs of labor for them to notice.” I said, “Is this maybe a case where on a smaller farm, someone would have realized something was going on with the cow which was supposed to have freshened a few days ago?” He allowed as to how that was probably the case.

Then we checked out the fourth cow, the one which was also supposed to have a displaced abomasum. Amusingly, this cow stuck her head into the head lock enthusiastically. We were running late, so Dr. Gray did this exam himself, and did find a problem. He is a fan of a toggle procedure to fix displaced abomasums, so that is what we did, instead of the surgical procedure I had seen previously. With the help of a farm hand, we sedated the cow, put ropes around her, pulled her over on her side, and rolled her on to her back. Once she was on her back, her stomach floated into the correct place. Dr. Gray put two pins into her belly, puncturing through the skin and into the stomach. He used the pins to secure the stomach in place. The cow was allowed to stand up and was good to go (with dextrose, steroids, oral fluids, oral calcium, and B vitamins to help her out).

Then we washed off in a bucket. There was a lot of scrubbing to be done. And that was day seven.

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