UC Davis vets save calf from deadly protozoal infection

Brownie came into UC Davis’s Livestock Medicine and Surgery Service with some bloodwork levels not compatible with life

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Brownie, a 6-month-old Jersey heifer calf, was had bloody diarrhea, lethargy and anorexia. She was diagnosed by her referring veterinarian with coccidiosis, an infection of the intestinal tract caused by an ingestion of parasites (coccidian protozoa). However, by the third day of treatment, she still had not responded, and stopped eating and drinking. She needed more emergent care so Brownie’s owners brought her to the UC Davis veterinary hospital where she was seen by the Livestock Medicine and Surgery Service.

Upon arrival at UC Davis, Brownie was down and so weak that she could barely stand. She was severely dehydrated, had abdominal pain and exhibited signs of shock. A team of livestock veterinarians, technicians and students immediately started her on IV fluids, drew blood for testing and stabilized her condition. The hospital was able to quickly test her blood, feces and urine in order to properly assess her condition. With bloodwork off the charts — some revealing levels not compatible with life — it was clear that Brownie was a more complicated medical case than initially suspected.

Brownie’s electrolyte levels showed massive abnormalities. Her intestinal lining was stripped, and she was losing all her electrolytes into her gastrointestinal (GI) system. Her bloodwork also confirmed that she had severe inflammation, most likely due to the dysfunction of her GI. Her blood was more acidic than normal, which often happens with diarrhea as the body loses important buffers. She had a very high blood glucose — partly from stress and partly from administration of IV fluids. Brownie also had elevated kidney values and lactate, which was likely due to her dehydration.

Brownie’s fecal flotation test confirmed the coccidia specific to cattle, which is a common disease in calves greater than 21 days of age. Calves’ compromised immune systems can cause them to become infected by consuming the parasite from a fecal-contaminated pasture, feed, water and bedding, or by licking the hair of other contaminated calves. The parasite can remain viable for months in soil, water and vegetation, and thrive in a moist, moderate and airy environment.

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To rule out other causes of severe abdominal pain and bloody diarrhea, veterinarians performed an abdominal ultrasound and confirmed that Brownie did not have any intestinal obstruction, twists or peritonitis. They found no evidence of other complications.

Brownie was hospitalized for five days where she received: intensive fluid therapy to combat the dehydration, acid-base and electrolyte abnormalities; a regimen of anti-coccidial medications to kill the protozoa infecting her; and gastric acid suppressants to treat and prevent any gastric ulcers.

Throughout the week, Brownie’s electrolyte parameters and hydration status improved. Her appetite returned with medication to help with the pain and inflammation in her GI tract, as well as the care from the hospital’s attentive staff who enticed Brownie with hay and fresh grass. She was discharged with additional antibiotics to complete the anti-protozoa treatment, as well as an anti-protozoal maintenance supplement in her feed.

Just one month after discharge, Brownie was well enough to compete in her first show, taking 4th place in “showmanship” and 2nd place in “breed” in the winter division at the San Joaquin County Fair. Brownie’s owners are glad they bought her for their 10-year-old daughter, Mila, to be raised for 4H. Mila, who wants to be a veterinarian, plans to show Brownie next year in the winter yearling division.

“Raising these animals has helped foster a tremendous work ethic in Mila,” said Mila’s mother, Sonia. “Bringing Brownie to the hospital was an important lesson for her. It showed her the level of responsibility it takes to properly care for an animal — that you can’t just get animals and not care for them appropriately.”

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