Enterotoxemia, or “perfringens” or “overeating” as it is commonly referred to, is a disease that affects young calves and can be fatal if immediate steps aren’t taken to treat it. It is a clostridial disease that causes gas to form and accumulate in the intestinal tract of affected calves, and releases toxins into the bloodstream. If not treated within hours of onset, affected calves die quickly from the toxin release and shock.
“Perfringens” most commonly affects calves two months of age and younger, and is most widely characterized by a bloated appearance in calves with obvious discomfort and abdominal pain. Calves in the early stages will get up and down frequently, kick at their belly, and then begin to show signs of bloat/abdominal distension. Later, calves will be very reluctant to stand, and continue to show increased levels of bloating.
Affected calves can be treated successfully, but treatment must happen very quickly after the first onset of symptoms. Treatment consists of a perfringens antitoxin and penicillin, both given subcutaneously and orally. Many producers want to put a hose down affected calves thinking it will release the bloat, just like in a grain bloat, but the air is not trapped in the rumen as in grain overload, it is in the intestines, so the hose will not work and only add stress to the calf. Once antitoxin and penicillin are given, it is best to leave the calf alone, as calves that are caught in time will recover and be fine without further intervention, and stress may increase the likelihood of shock type symptoms.
Perfringens episodes can happen at any time, but seem to be more frequent after weather episodes, such as rain, snow, and even excessively windy days. These episodes are usually associated with the calf not nursing for an extended period, and then “overeating” a large volume of milk at one time, allowing for appropriate conditions for clostridial bacteria to overgrow. Calves can also become more likely to become infected by drinking from unsanitary water or puddles in lots contaminated with manure.
Perfringens cannot be totally prevented, but vaccination with a seven-way clostridial vaccine at tagging, especially Alpha 7, can lessen its incidence. Vaccinating cows with a scour vaccine prior to calving can also help reduce incidence.
Hopefully this will help the next time a bloated baby calf is discovered, giving you an idea of what you are up against and how to treat it!