Thursday, January 6, 2011

Everything I touch is missing a uterus, or, What is a freemartin?

Bovine procedures lab today and yesterday! (Why do they schedule these outdoor labs for the middle of the winter? Thank god for my insulated coveralls, three shirts + sweatshirt, and leggings.)

Bovine procedures lab involves actually doing lots of procedures on year-old Holstein heifers. These heifers (young cows who have not yet calved) are owned by an area farmer and lent to my school for a year or so, during which time the farmer pays for their upkeep and we get to do procedures on them. There are lots of rules about how many procedures can be done on an individual cow per day, to make sure they don’t have to put up with lots of invasive procedures (but even so my group frequently took breaks to let our heifer rest). The procedures included things like insertion of IV catheters, insertion of a stomach tube, haltering, tying up a leg, and so on. I do feel a little uncomfortable about the animal use in this lab, but I recognize the practical difficulties of spreading the procedures out over more cows. Also, I figure that once I am an all-powerful school administrator, I can find a creative solution to the problem.

These are super friendly heifers! I was surprised. One of them followed us around and solicited neck rubs. They are still pretty small, weighing in at around 700 lbs (which nevertheless felt like a lot when ours stepped on my foot).

Scratch my neck, bitches!

Late in the second day we got ready to do our vaginal exam. LPK lubed up the speculum but good and started to work it in. No go. It just wouldn’t go very deep. We called over Dr. Cole, who tried it himself, failed, said hmmm, put on a long glove (up to the shoulder), lubed it up, and did a rectal palpation. You do a rectal palpation as another method of evaluating the reproductive organs; you want to feel the cervix, uterus, and ovaries. This can tell you what stage of her cycle the cow is in (did she ovulate? is she perhaps even knocked up?). He took his arm out, looked at me, and said, “Give it a shot and tell me what you feel.”

Ah, my first bovine rectal palpation. On with the super long glove and lube. Brrr — you have to take off your insulated coverall top to do this and roll up your sleeves so your arm is bare to the shoulder; luckily it is warm inside the cow.

I got in and felt around. Lots of poop! (You have to sort of shovel that out at first. Dr. Cole had gotten most of it but I cleared out a little more. It is not cool to mistake a handful of poop for an organ.) I felt a cervix, but it was awfully tiny. And... nothing else. No uterus, no ovaries. This didn’t necessarily mean a lot, since I don’t really know what I am doing, but when I reported my findings to Dr. Cole, he replied, “That’s exactly right. She’s a freemartin.”

What’s a freemartin? This is a fairly rare condition. It happens when there are twin calves, one male and one female. The female is genetically normal, but as she is awash in a sea of testosterone in utero, she develops abnormally, into an intersex animal. I don’t know if all freemartins develop exactly the same way, but this one was typical in her lack of uterus and ovaries. Her vagina was a short, blind sac, which is why we could not get the speculum in.

It is freakish, I tell you. My first spay dog had no uterus, and now my first bovine rectal palpation doesn’t either. What are the chances? Am I cursed?

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