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Vet on Call: A soothing treatment for milk fever attack in cows

Saturday January 14 2017

Josphat Sirma, a dairy farmer in Ongata Rongai inspects his dairy cows in his farm.

Josphat Sirma, a dairy farmer in Ongata Rongai inspects his dairy cows in his farm. Milk fever is a malicious livestock disease caused by loss of calcium from the mother’s body into the bones of the foetus in the uterus and the formation of milk in the udder. FILE PHOTO | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Veterinary medical emergencies have their way of catching me at the most inopportune time.

Some come when I am having quality time with my family or in the wee hours of the morning, when sleep is sweetest.

This one came at 1am in June last year and it caught me off-guard. My wife and I had just come from a children’s hospital where we had rushed our daughter who had high fever and an inflamed throat.

She had been admitted and we had hurried home to catch some sleep as we were to wake up early to check on her before going to work.

The phone rang and my wife looked at me as if prodding me to pick it. Obviously, if it was an emergency, I was the one who was going to attend to it that time of the night, not my wife, who is also a vet.

I picked the phone and recognised the deep masculine voice as that of Kamau, a dairy farmer in Nairobi.


“Doctor, you must come immediately to my farm. I am sorry to call you at this ungodly hour,” he said, without greetings.

He told me his highly prized cow that he had bought weeks ago was moaning endlessly.

More probing revealed the cow was lying down with its head on the side, unable to stand and moaned and grunted, with the noise having made the night guard wake him up.

The two had tried to right the cow’s head for some time but it would fall back to the side and the animal continued moaning.

The farmer had retired from employment and bought 10 high-grade in-calf Friesian cows as a starter stock for the dairy farm he was establishing.

From his description, it was obvious to my wife and I that I had to visit Kamau’s farm immediately. Fortunately, it was a 10-minute drive from our home.

Since I always close the day with my field medical kit fully loaded and checked, I jumped into my ambulatory service truck and headed to his farm.

I could hear the animal grunting as I went through the gate. The cow was a well-fed pure Friesian in its second pregnancy.

Records from the seller showed it produced 30 litres of milk each day in its first calving and Kamau had bought it at Sh180,000.


After a cursory look at the cow, I told Kamau the information he had supplied was sufficient and I was to treat the animal immediately.

I donned my dungarees and gumboots and gloved my hands, grabbed my stethoscope and thermometer and started to examine the cow.

The animal had a normal temperature, weak heartbeat, rapid heart rate and undetectable rumen movement. The muzzle was dry and the head, with eyes closed, was twisted to the side.

The cow kept moaning as if it was in deep pain. The udder was heavily engorged but there was no discharge from the vulva. The calf in the uterus moved when I put pressure on the abdomen.

I agreed with the records that the cow was about eight months pregnant, meaning close to giving birth.

I told Kamau he was lucky that the calf was alive and that it was a straight case of milk fever, also called parturient paresis or hypocalcaemia.

The good news was that uncomplicated milk fever normally responds dramatically to the correct and adequate treatment to the point of making vets look like magicians.

The bad news, on the other hand, was that milk fever may sometimes fail to respond to treatment and the animal progresses to a state called the downer cow, hence it may never stand.

I told Kamau that in medicine, positive attitude is the correct stance while negativity results in frustration.

All the while I was preparing my intravenous line to infuse the cow with the standard treatment for milk fever – calcium borogluconate solution given through the jugular vein until the heart regains its normal rhythm and strength, the muzzle becomes wet and the rumen restarts movement.

With the guard restraining the cow, I infused the medicine for 15 minutes. The grunts and the moans ceased, the neck straightened, the muzzle became moist and the eyes opened.


I unhooked the intravenous line and told the guard to release the head. The cow attempted to stand and failed. At the second attempt it got onto its feet. It stretched the back, then turned and looked at me as though to say “thank you”.

I advised Kamau to give it di-calcium phosphate in feeds once daily until it calved down and to continue until two weeks after calving. I, thereafter, left the farm a happy vet surgeon.

Milk fever is caused by loss of calcium from the mother’s body into the bones of the foetus in the uterus and the formation of milk in the udder.

Calcium is important in muscle and nerve function. It is a disease of reproduction that mainly affects high-milk producing cows during the late stages of pregnancy or soon after calving.

The disease should be treated immediately it is detected but in most cases, it is never known when it started. Every minute after reporting is important because there is no way of telling how fast the blood calcium is being lost.

The disease is prevented by supplementing high milk producers with calcium in feed during late pregnancy and in the first few weeks after calving.

Prompt adequate treatment by a veterinary doctor is critical in recovery from the disease. Kamau’s animal later calved down to a healthy heifer without any complications.