Dystocia (difficulty calving) is hard on a cow, especially when the calf (or calves, blasted twins!) has to be pulled. That trauma to the reproductive tract can cause pain and inflammation that can last for several days. As we know, cows that don’t feel good often don’t spend as much time at the feed bunk, and cows that eat less than they should, make less milk than they could. When we humans feel achy, we often take an NSAID (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug, like ibuprofen). Maybe we should do the same for our cows around calving?

In a study just published in the January 2017 Journal of Dairy Science, the investigators gave flunixin meglumine (Banamine®) immediately precalving and then again 18-36 hours later. As it turned out, that was a bad idea! The precalving dose was discontinued after the first week of the study (72 animals) because the treated group had 26% stillbirths vs. 5% in the control group. For the rest of the study (~1200 animals) the treatment group only received doses of flunixin at ~1 hour and ~24 hours post calving. The results: through 14 days in milk, cows treated with flunixin produced significantly less milk (3.5 lbs./day) than the untreated cows. Additionally, flunixin-treated cows had an increased likelihood of retained placenta. Bottom line: it is inadvisable to give periparturient cows flunixin meglumine (Banamine®).

So are there other NSAIDs that could help out cows after calving?

A few years ago, the same research group looked at meloxicam as a pain reliever for cows that had needed assistance calving. Animals in the treatment group received a single injection of meloxicam approximately 24 hours after calving. They found that meloxicam-treated cows had the same dry matter intake and milk production as their untreated herdmates. The treated cows did spend a little more time at the feed bunk, which may indicate that the NSAID was reducing pain.

The post-calving use of ketoprofen was explored in a study published in 2009. Each cow received a dose of ketoprofen as soon as possible after calving and then a second 24 hours later. Treated cows tended to have fewer cases of retained placenta than control cows, but the difference was quite small. Ketoprofen treatment did not result in a difference in early-lactation milk yield or subsequent fertility. So like meloxicam, ketoprofen doesn’t seem harmful (unlike flunixin), but it’s probably not particularly helpful either.

Something simpler than an NSAID?

Photo of a Holstein cow licking her newborn calf.
Photo: Carla Wardin, Truth or Dairy

Interestingly, an older study (1997) found that ingestion of amniotic fluid at calving seemed to have a pain-dampening effect. That study was prompted by similar findings in rats. Allowing a cow to lick her baby clean may have benefits beyond a dry and stimulated calf.

Future investigations into pain relief for calving, especially dystocia, will hopefully give us more effective options for getting our cows feeling better quickly.

(Before initiating a new treatment regimen, be sure to consult your veterinarian and observe any drug use restrictions.)

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