Pneumonia in calves

Pneumonia is one of the most significant diseases affecting calves, costing the UK cattle industry an estimated £50m a year. Our range of resources can help you identify, treat and prevent pneumonia in your calves.

Back to: Disease management in dairy calves

Bovine respiratory disease (BRD) or pneumonia usually occurs in young, housed calves (five weeks to five months old) either being reared as dairy replacements or in beef systems, usually indoors. It causes inflammation of the lung tissue and airways. Damage may be irreversible in severe cases. It is the most common reason for death and poor performance in young cattle from weaning to 10 months of age.

Strategies to reduce pneumonia should target improving cattle immunity and reducing stress, as well as treating any disease present. Studies have shown that when 30 per cent of cattle in a group show actual signs of respiratory disease, a further 40% can exhibit lung damage at slaughter. Therefore, it is likely that many cases go unnoticed.

Cost of pneumonia in calves

A large proportion of the costs caused by pneumonia are hidden, such as reduced liveweight gain and feed conversion efficiency (FCE). Costs per affected animal range between £30–£80, but increase to £500 or more if an animal dies because of the disease.

Causes of pneumonia in calves

There are several factors that can cause pneumonia in calves, including the presence of bacteria and viruses, the environment and the immune status of the animal.

The only way to know what is causing disease in your herd is to test. This is particularly useful when you have a disease outbreak and want to find the best response or if you have a closed herd to design future vaccination strategies.

Environmental factors include low environmental temperatures, high humidity, poor ventilation and direct draughts. The relationship between season and outbreaks may also be related to management practices including calving pattern and mixing of different ages of calves.

The quality and quantity of colostrum a calf consumes can affect its ability to fight off disease, as can time of weaning and breed differences. Stresses such as mixing groups, movement and poor housing conditions can also affect immune status.

Clinical signs of pneumonia in calves

There are two types of pneumonia seen in calves. Acute (calf or enzootic) and chronic pneumonia.

Symptoms of acute pneumonia include:

  • Reduction in feeding
  • Dull demeanour
  • Dropping of the head
  • Increased respiratory rate
  • Nasal discharge 
  • Cough
  • Raised temperature

The onset of chronic pneumonia is more gradual, with no distinct ill phase and the cow may appear to still eat well but may have a slight nasal discharge, sometimes with an increased respiratory rate and cough.

Both forms of pneumonia cause production losses as there is a reduction in liveweight gain and acute pneumonia may result in calf death. You should seek veterinary advice in order to rule out other possible causes (e.g, congenital disease, tuberculosis (TB)) and to discuss treatment and vaccination and management strategies.

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Pneumonia podcasts

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Tackling calf pneumonia

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