Illinois Alters Protocol After Cow Deaths

USDA points to possible problems with aseptic techniques and post-surgical monitoring at the University of Illinois.

According to The Merck Veterinary Manual, clinical signs of peritonitis in cattle include reduced feed intake, a sudden decrease in milk production and decreased rumination.

Peggy Greb/AVMA

The University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine has changed procedures after one cow died and four were euthanized in a case the U.S. Department of Agriculture attributed to possible unsanitary conditions and inadequate post-surgical monitoring.

The college-owned cows underwent invasive surgery during a student laboratory and later developed post-operative peritonitis, or inflammation or infection of the abdominal lining, USDA stated.

A USDA inspector reported that the operations involving six student groups and six cows were conducted in “a prep area” rather than a surgical suite and that the cows were moved days later to the campus farm, where oversight was assigned to two animal caretakers.

University administrator Lyndon J. Goodly, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACLAM, described the matter as “extremely important.”

“We will address and correct any shortcomings,” Dr. Goodly, the associate vice chancellor for research, wrote in an Aug. 25 response to a USDA regional director.

A USDA veterinary medical officer, Susan Kingston, DVM, raised questions about the deaths following her routine inspection.

“At some point in a major surgical procedure, five out of six student groups breached aseptic techniques,” Dr. Kingston wrote in her report.

The student groups were observed by three veterinarians—“with not one scrubbing in”—and two veterinary technicians, Kingston stated.

“There must be enough qualified personnel to adequately monitor the students and to ensure that the students are using aseptic techniques,” she urged.

The cows were kept at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital for three days after surgery and then returned to the farm, where “it is unknown how closely they were observed” by the caretakers, Kingston stated.

The caretakers are responsible for feeding, cleaning and monitoring the farm’s horses, cattle and sheep as well as maintaining the grounds, her report noted.

“Performing a major surgical procedure in a prep area (not a dedicated surgical suite) and the lack of adequate daily monitoring and observation when the cows returned to the farm may have contributed to the post-operative complications and deaths of the animals,” Kingston concluded.

Goodly’s letter stated that university will:

  • Increase the number of trained observers to have “at least one scrubbed faculty veterinarian and one scrubbed veterinary technician” for every two cows undergoing surgery.
  • Ensure that students understand aseptic techniques.
  • Assign post-surgical monitoring of animals to veterinary students, faculty or staff rather than to farm caretakers.
  • Extend the frequency and length of post-surgical monitoring.
  • Conduct surgeries in dedicated surgical rooms.
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