“Purple Gut” in Calves Can Cause Fatalities Overnight

The bacteria, C. perfringens Type C in nursing-age calves, may proliferate and become toxic when a calf’s nutritional intake is inconsistent. ( John Maday )

Enterotoxemia, also called “overeating disease” or “purple gut,” can cause the death of a young calf in as few as 12 hours, with signs that are not detectable until it is often too late. One reason the disease is so devastating is that it can strike in an otherwise apparently healthy, well-managed herd.

“Preventing enterotoxemia from occurring is important, because often the first clinical sign is acute death of the calf,” stressed Dr. DL Step, professional services veterinarian, Boehringer Ingelheim. “In fact, the bacterium that causes the disease, Clostridium perfringens, is ever-present in the environment and the digestive tract of calves. The bacteria, C. perfringens Type C in nursing-age calves, may proliferate and become toxic when a calf’s nutritional intake is inconsistent, and the calf consumes too much of its mother’s milk. In that case, the bacteria can multiply rapidly, produce toxins and kill a calf overnight.”

A calf with enterotoxemia may appear and act healthy, then develop a distended abdomen, scours, or exhibit signs of abdominal pain such as throwing itself on the ground, and kicking at its belly. Weakness progresses, as body temperature and blood pressure drop, gums become pale and extremities grow cold. If the disease is not identified and treated quickly, the calf will slip into a coma and die.

“We often see this happen when calves are away from their mothers and do not nurse regularly,” said Dr. Step. “Beef calves normally nurse five to six times per day, or sometimes more. When we temporarily change that pattern for any reason, reducing their intake, and then allow them to eat ‘regularly’ again, the calves tend to overeat. This often happens when cattle are moved, get out unexpectedly or inclement weather events alter routine feeding intervals. When calves consume too much milk, the normal balance in the digestive tract can become altered, allowing the bacteria to multiply then produce toxins and gas.”

In order to reduce the risk of fatalities from overeating disease, Dr. Step recommended monitoring calves often, especially during inclement weather events, when feeding patterns might change. “Work with your veterinarian to develop a protocol that includes identification of clinical signs and swift treatment for the calf,” he said.

“Preventively, we need to consider how long calves are separated from their dams, and how often those calves are able to nurse,” he continued. “If you’re able to work out a schedule in which the calves are allowed to nurse several times per day, you can minimize the effects of the disease.”

Vaccination is another preventive measure that reduces risk. “If your herd has problems with enterotoxemia, consult with a veterinarian on how to incorporate a proven, clostridial vaccine into your herd’s protocols,” Dr. Step advised. “Dams can also be vaccinated at pregnancy check to help improve colostrum and get the calf off to a strong start.”