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Pneumonia: More Than Just a Cough - January 2021

We are near the midway point of winter, but respiratory challenges have been going since late September and won’t start to subside until about mid April. Pneumonia in cattle, as you know, can have a significant impact on the rest of the animal’s life, especially if not addressed quickly and the earlier in life the animal develops pneumonia.

What are signs of pneumonia? Typically we think of an animal that is coughing, possibly with a snotty nose, increased respiratory rate, not eating well, and hanging back or sluggish within a group. These are excellent indicators of pneumonia, or in the least, that an animal is not healthy or feeling good. A two-week old calf with scours can often times can mimic some of the signs of pneumonia because of dehydration and acidosis. When a calf becomes noticeably sick from scours due to dehydration and acidosis, they won’t clean and lick their noses as well or as frequently as a healthy calf. Acidosis in a calf will also lead to increased respiratory rates and mimic another sign of pneumonia and mucus build up isn’t cleared as readily or easily, which can cause an occasional cough. On these calves, listening to the lungs with a stethoscope, and even ultrasounding the lungs, will help to determine if there is a potential case of pneumonia in these young calves (provided you know what healthy lungs sound like). In most cases of a scouring calf, correcting the dehydration and acidosis will clear up those signs we associate with pneumonia.

What about fever and inflammation as signs of pneumonia? Almost always with a case of pneumonia, especially an acute case, a fever and localized inflammation occur too. When an infection of the body occurs, whether by virus or by bacteria, the immune system jumps into action to fight off the infection. Two of the defensive mechanisms that are triggered are a fever and localized inflammation which raises the temperature of the body and tissue and helps to kill off the intruding bacteria or virus. When you treat a case of pneumonia with an antibiotic, you are helping the body’s natural defense mechanisms. Antibiotics will kill certain types of bacteria, good or bad, but most importantly the ones that most often lead to pneumonia. Antibiotics won’t however kill a virus. The body usually has to fight off viruses on its own, and can usually do this better with the help of vaccines or passive immunity from colostrum. Antibiotics in the face of a viral pneumonia will help prevent or control a secondary bacterial infection that may occur due to the tissues being damaged and more susceptible to bacterial infection.

What to do about fever and inflammation? Fever and inflammation aren’t completely a bad thing. As discussed above they help naturally fight off an infection. Prolonged periods of fever and inflammation can be problematic, however, as the mechanisms leading to fever also lead to aches, pains, and discomfort and inflammation can lead to more tissue destruction and eventual scarring or fibrin build up. To keep fever and inflammation in check, the use of a NSAID (Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drug) like flunixin meglumine (aka Banamine), aspirin, or meloxicam should be used along with an antibiotic. An animal battling a case of pneumonia will greatly benefit from a NSAID as it reduces inflammation in the respiratory tract and also reduces fever, aches, and pains that occur as the body fights the infection. This will result in the animal recovering faster and coming back on feed sooner compared to those that don’t receive a NSAID during pneumonia treatment. Use of a NSAID may require a few consecutive days of treatment to get complete recovery, as long as the antibiotic being used is also effective in reducing the bacterial infection.

If you look in your medicine cabinet at the medications commonly used during cold and flu season for people, you’ll find in the drugs listed things like Acetaminophen to reduce fever and relieve pain. Acetaminophen is a NSAID used in people for the same purposes that we use NSAIDs in cattle. Be certain that it is truly pneumonia that an animal is sick with and if it is, give them an NSAID to help them feel better and recover sooner like you would for yourself.

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