Student Amy Sachs was part the team that saved the life of Leo.
Student Amy Sachs was part the team that saved Leo’s life.

“Leo is taller, has outgrown his halter, and is getting more assertive.”

This email message was big news in the offices and treatment areas of the OSU large animal hospital. Just a few weeks earlier, Leo was one of the sickest little calves doctors had ever seen.

Leo came into the world in April 2012, one of four newborns in Teresa Smith’s small herd of cattle. A white-faced Hereford bull, he arrived bright and peppy but by his fourth day, had a high fever and quit nursing. Smith was very concerned and brought him to the OSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. By the time he arrived, Leo could not stand and was unresponsive. Doctors at the clinic started him on IV fluids and quickly ran diagnostic tests which revealed he was suffering from meningitis. most likely caused by a failure of passive transfer.

A failure of passive transfer happens when a calf receives too little antibody-rich colostrum (early milk) from its mom. Sometimes the mom is unwilling or sometimes the colostrum isn’t adequate; either way, it can be a life-threatening situation because the calf is born without any antibodies to fight bacteria. The amount of time a calf has to ingest colostrum and absorb antibodies is narrow and crucial: two or three hours after birth. It is literally a race against time to protect the newborn.

Doctors Jennifer Donofrio and John Schlipf treated Leo with nutritional supplements and a plasma transfusion to provide blood protein. He was also given antibiotics. But the really heart-warming part of Leo’s treatment was the 24-hour, tender, loving care and tube feeding that the veterinary students gave him. “It was not hard to become attached to Leo; I didn’t even try. The entire hospital was powerless against his big brown eyes and long white eyelashes,” says Amy Sachs. “I believe that being attached to a patient and thinking about a medical case objectively and critically do not have to be mutually exclusive.”

After four days in the hospital, Leo’s suckle response returned and the students were able to feed him from a bottle. But a few days later, he came up lame and fluid had to be drained from his joints in a process called ‘tapping. He was put back on antibiotics and anti-inflammatories. Leo’s strength improved.

By the time Smith was finally able to take Leo home, his ordeal had left him developmentally delayed. “He had a hard time learning to eat grass on his own,” says Sachs, “and he was just a little slow.” The doctors told Smith that he might remain stunted and slow permanently but recommended she try gradually introducing him to the herd so he could learn to fit in.

Small and confused, it took Leo a while to get the hang of bovine living. “It took him forever to learn how to graze,” says Smith. “And it broke my heart to see him alone while the other calves played, but now he is initiating play and they are responding.” He still receives two bottles of milk a day and ‘drinks water like a dog’ reports Smith, but Leo’s local veterinarian, Dr. Jeffrey Pelton, recently gave him a thumbs-up on his well-baby check.

“I am so forever thankful for all that everyone did for Leo,” says Smith. “He is one lucky guy and has come to know he is very special.”

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