On Farm Post Mortem Reveals Mystery Surrounding Sudden Death of Apparently Healthy Calf – February 2016

On 6 January 2016 Suncrest cow Ngutunui White Trixie (HBN 12209) gave birth to an apparently healthy bull calf, which grew into a particularly active calf attaining all of the development milestones generally at or ahead of normal times.

On the morning of 18 February 2016, at ~ 6 weeks old the calf was observed to be running around the paddock with other calves, and by mid afternoon it was observed lying motionless near a fence line. On closer inspection the calf was found to be dead and rigor mortis had set in, indicating that death had occurred not long after the calf had been observed running around in the paddock. Closer inspection did not reveal any marks on the ground where a struggle had occurred or any external damage or abrasions to the skin.

Fortunately, Suncrest’s then resident vet – Dr John O’Connell was on hand to perform a necropsy that evening, which quickly revealed the cause of death and allayed the normal fears of an accident with a fence or the like. On opening the abdomen, John noticed that the calf had suffered from a perforated ulcer of its fourth stomach (abomasum), which had led to diffuse and overwhelming peritonitis (infection and inflammation of the abdomen), explaining the relatively quick and sudden death.

John referred us to an article published in Beef Magazine in 2000 entitled “The Riddle of Abomasal Ulcers” by Gerald Stocker & Louis Perino – http://beefmagazine.com/mag/beef_riddle_absomasal_ulcers.

The authors explain here that calves diagnosed with abomasal ulcers are generally found dead and that symptoms are very difficult to detect, and the condition is renowned for affecting otherwise very healthy calves. They also refer to studies published almost 90 years ago “…where 78-98% of 4-14 week calves in North America were documented as being affected by abomasal erosions and/or ulcers”. Since then the authors state that “We’ve made little progress in determining the conditions’ true prevalence in calves, the risk factors and/or causes”. Fortunately very few calves with abomasal ulcers / ulcerations go on to develop perforating ulcers.

As this was Suncrest’s very first calf fatality, and there was no external evidence of the cause of death, we are most grateful to John for identifying the cause and providing us with the relief that there was nothing we could have done to prevent the loss.