What a week of ups and downs. It started joyfully, with the birth of a Jersey heifer calf. Born in the wee hours of Halloween morning, we named her Hallie. Her entrance to the world was apparently easy, to Snicker, a seasoned cow. By the time we awoke, she was cleaned off and contentedly sleeping.
Our joy turned to concern the following morning. One quarter of the cow’s udder was swollen and she moved gingerly. We expressed the quarter to confirm she had mastitis, and then started her immediately on penicillin – the drug of choice for mastitis, despite many newer antibiotics entering the market since penicillin was discovered.
From both experience and research, an animal with mastitis will often not act sick and will continue to graze and behave normally. However as the day wore on, it was clear this was not the case with our cow. By evening she was down – and unable to get back up.
We grew concerned she had milk fever in addition to the mastitis, since the symptoms of one will mask those of the other. So, when she still wasn’t up next morning, we called a vet out. He administered a bottle of calcium. If she had milk fever this would have acted quickly and she’d have been on her feet before he left. Sadly, all we learned was that she did not have milk fever. However the vet did tell us she has toxic rather than bacterial mastitis, which is not good.
Turning to Google, we learned that toxic mastitis is often a death sentence. Determined to do what we could for her, the next few days became a blur. We treated by stripping the teat every 2 hours around the clock. We started mammary infusions (shooting penicillin directly into the quarter via the teat) every 6 hours. We massaged the udder and rubbed essential oils – comfrey, calendula and peppermint – into it. We injected Dexamethesone, a steroid, and Vitamin B Complex once each day, and Penicillin twice each day. We held a food bowl containing grain in front of her nose for as long as she would eat (our cows are normally grass-fed so grain is a rare treat we hoped would tempt her). We hauled buckets of water to put in front of her. We covered her with blankets at night to keep her warm, and rigged up shade to put over her by day to keep her cool.
In spite of it all, the cow grew weaker. On day 3 she fell to her side, laying flat out, rather than sitting up. We were unable to get her back up to a sitting position so sat with her, listening to her breathing become shallower and more irregular. Periodically her legs paddled – a sign of imminent death. We bawled.
And what of Hallie? Bonded to her mom, she sat vigil with us. We milked our other cow and taught Hallie to drink from a bottle. She hated the bottle but needed the milk. Still, as soon as she was done, she ran back to lie with her mom again. She had occasional bursts of energy and ran around galloping and kicking, providing us the only comic relief and smiles in an otherwise dreary vigil.
After 5 hours lying flat out on her side, Snicker indicated a desire to sit up. We enlisted the help of a third person, and between the three of us, lifted the cow (whose weight we estimate at 1000 pounds) back up to a sitting position. We hauled hay bales to prop around her to help her remain sitting. In spite of the bales, she went back down several more times, and each time it took three people to return her to a sitting position.
At 2am on the morning of day 5, she again went down. Once again, three people lifted her to sitting. By now she was very weak. Most of the time she was unable to hold her head up and let it flop to her flank. When we offered food and water, she ate and drank from that position.
As dawn broke that morning, we milked the other cow and attempted to feed the milk to Hallie in her bottle. This time she refused. Thirty minutes of trying every trick in the book achieved nothing and we finally gave up and left her with her mom. Feeling miserable, we made a pot of coffee and fretted about this new development. Losing the cow was tough enough, but to lose her calf as well was unimaginable. But if she wouldn’t eat, how long could we keep her alive?
Coffee finished, we looked out the window to check on them and saw….a cow walking around grazing.
I don’t believe in miracles but…we got a miracle. Somehow, the same cow who 7 hours earlier was too weak to sit up by herself, had rallied the strength to stand. My theory is that the hungry calf gave her the motivation she needed to make that enormous effort. Amazingly, Hallie was playing nearby, no longer hungry.
I write this 36 hours since our miracle occurred. Snicker is now out in the pasture, grazing with the other cows. She is eating, drinking, nursing and playing with her calf, lying down and getting back up again – as though none of this ever happened.
Are we out of the woods yet? Not necessarily. The toxic mastitis continues to eat away at the flesh of her udder. We continue to strip every two hours around the clock. Yet some of the flesh has turned black and cool indicating it has died and will likely slough off. The fluid contained in the quarter remains a port wine color with chunks in it from the toxins inside. It seems greedy to hope for another miracle, so we accept that she will likely lose the use of that quarter.
Incredibly, she appears to be making enough milk to satisfy Hallie, who is full of beans.
I wish I could explain how or why any of this happened but I can’t. Even the vet – an older gent with decades of experience in dairy animals – is stumped. Mastitis does not normally take a cow down as fast as this did and does not usually manifest within hours of delivery. We may never know why. But we remain thankful that Snicker is still with us and recovering as fast as she went downhill.