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Is calving painful? What can we do for the calf and the dam?

Dave Renaud and Steven Roche for Progressive Dairy Published on 15 April 2021

Do cows experience pain after calving?

This might sound like a silly question – especially for those who have experienced childbirth. But because cows are pain tolerant, it can be difficult to know when they’re in pain.

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Research suggests cows show subtle behavioural signs, like a raised tail, tail swishing or wagging when they’re in pain.

These behaviours are most often seen when the calf is entering the birth canal and are particularly evident in cows that experience dystocia (difficult or prolonged calving). Dystocia is common in the dairy industry. Estimates suggest 10% to 40% of cows experience dystocia. Of all calving events, cows that experience dystocia likely experience the highest amount of acute pain due to the longer duration of calving and the need for intervention.

Specific behaviours have been identified in cows that experience dystocia, including a decrease in feed consumption, increased restlessness, having their tail raised for longer and laying on their side with their head rested for longer. These animals also show an increase in inflammatory markers and hormones associated with stress and pain.

What about calves?

When we think about pain associated with calving, we typically think of the pain to the dam. But calves can also experience pain during the calving process. It is most likely to occur when calves experience dystocia. This may be due to traumatic injuries (e.g., fractured leg, mandible, ribs, spine, ruptured internal organs or diaphragm, or severe internal bleeding) or prolonged or forceful traction (with a mechanical calving aid, such as a calving jack or chains), where calves experience pain both during and immediately after forced extraction.

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Dystocia has been shown to adversely affect the vigour of newborn calves. For example, research suggests calves experiencing dystocia are more likely to have:

  • Higher levels of blood cortisol (a marker of stress and pain) and creatine kinase (an indicator of muscle damage)

  • Lower blood pH (or acidosis) as a result of an inability to get sufficient amounts of oxygen

  • An inability to regulate body temperature

  • Decreased blood flow to vital organs

  • A harder time staying upright and take longer to stand

What is the impact of pain at calving?

Inflammation caused by dystocia can result in several long-term, post-calving issues for the dam, including:

  • A decrease in milk, fat and protein yields

  • Increased risk of retained placenta, displaced abomasum, metritis and mortality

  • Increased number of days open and number of services required

Calves born to a dystocia are more likely to suffer reduced colostrum intake, failed transfer of passive immunity, and to be treated for disease or to die.

Clearly, as dystocia is one of the most painful events that can occur, a focus is needed on prevention to optimize health outcomes and production for cows.

What can be done to reduce the impact of dystocia?

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There are several factors that have been associated with an increased risk of dystocia. Most are related to decreasing the risk of what’s called feto-maternal disproportion. This is when the pelvic diameter of the cow is not large enough to allow easy passage of the calf.

Specific factors that influence dystocia are:

  • Calf birthweight – one of the most important predictors, where the higher the weight, the greater the risk. This is influenced by genetics and nutrition provided to the cow in the last trimester.

  • Body condition score at calving – cows with a score greater than 3.5 around the time of calving will have increased risk. This is due to a buildup of fat in the birth canal, reducing its diameter and giving the calf a smaller space to pass through.

  • Parity – first-calf heifers are at the highest risk of dystocia. Weight at service (55% of mature bodyweight) and weight and condition at first calving (85% of mature bodyweight) are important to evaluate so heifers are being bred and calving at the right size. Breeding decisions should be made on heifer size, not age alone.

Fortunately, all these factors can be modified to some extent to reduce the prevalence of dystocia, and solutions should be explored to reduce pain experienced during calving.

When is it time to intervene?

Even if preventive measures are in place, dystocia may still occur for some cows. This could be a result of calf position (e.g., if it is backward or if a forelimb is out of place). This is where calving management practices and protocols need to be in place to ensure the right intervention is provided at the right time. Ideally, at the first signs of calving, the cow should be examined to ensure everything is presenting normally.

Intervention should be applied right away if: amniotic fluid is brown, red or foul smelling; the calf’s tongue, head or feet are swollen or cold; the calf is in an abnormal position; or poor reflexes are identified. Otherwise, you should regularly monitor the situation every 15 to 30 minutes to ensure there is progress, and if no progress is made, it’s time to intervene. Work with your veterinarian to develop a comprehensive calving management protocol to ensure calving interventions are applied appropriately and in a timely fashion to ensure best outcomes.

How do we treat pain associated with calving?

We know calving is a painful process, which is why pain control measures may be necessary through the provision of non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs). Research has shown the timing of NSAID administration is key for success. Here are some research results depending on timing:

  • Given before calving: found to improve milk production after calving

  • Given at calving or less than 12 hours after: found to increase milk yields, especially in early lactation, and to decrease risk of culling.

  • Given 24 hours after calving: Cows that required assistance during calving received meloxicam and had increased feedbunk visits, but no other differences were found.

It should be noted, studies have reported the use of flunixin meglumine (a different type of NSAID) at calving increased the risk of retained placenta and is not recommended for controlling pain at calving.

Should we be giving calves pain control?

Use of a NSAID could be beneficial for calves to reduce pain and inflammation they may have experienced during a dystocia event. Specifically, in calves born from a difficult calving, it has been shown that providing meloxicam will improve calf vigour and suckling reflex. This likely contributes to improved milk intake, health and weight gain in the first week following calving. Based on this, providing a NSAID to calves that endured a dystocia is warranted. It is important to note, more research and evidence is needed in this area to determine whether blanket use of NSAIDs (given to every calf at birth) is warranted or necessary. Talk to your veterinarian about the best practice for your herd.

Where do you go from here?

Calving is painful for both the dam and calf, especially when dystocia occurs. Producers should first focus on dystocia prevention through management of dam nutrition, genetics, and size and age at first breeding for heifers. When dystocia does happen, we need to be ready at the right time to prevent the negative consequences endured by both calf and cow. NSAIDs can help by reducing pain and inflammation that occurs when a calf experiences the effects of a difficult calving. Work with your veterinarian to determine what strategies you could employ to better manage pain around the time of calving.  end mark

Dr. Dave Renaud is a veterinarian and holds a Ph.D. in epidemiology. In addition to bringing knowledge-based solutions for ACER he continues to practice dairy herd health, research and teaching in his other role as an assistant professor at the University of Guelph.

Dr. Steven Roche holds a Ph.D. in epidemiology. ACER is driven by his passion and his mission to develop and deliver evidence-based solutions to motivate on-farm change and improve animal health and welfare.

Dave Renaud
  • Dave Renaud

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  • University of Guelph
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