Abomasal bloat, or abomasitis, is a condition seen in calves less than three weeks old. We have recently seen several cases at our clinic, and unfortunately, most cases are fatal without very rapid intervention. The good news is that good management and preventive measures can all but eliminate this disease.
Abomasal bloat is a sporadic disorder seen in calves, lambs and goat kids. It is characterized by rapid distension of the abdomen, symptoms of colic, anorexia, depression and ultimately death. Initial symptoms may be a poor appetite and depressed attitude. This is followed by a rapid distension of the abdomen, which may feel hard when palpated. Calves may lie down and kick at the abdomen, becoming more depressed and appearing severely dehydrated. The course of the disease is rapid-death, which can occur within 4-12 hours from onset.
The cause of abomasal bloat is not fully understood, but appears to be the result of multiple factors that bring on the condition. Bacterial overload in the abomasum, combined with a compromised immune system from inadequate colostrum intake and mineral/vitamin deficiencies, and ingestion of foreign bodies such as hair or coarse forage have all been linked to the condition. Vitamin E, selenium and copper deficiencies have been described in cases of abomasal bloat. Bacteria such as Clostridium perfringens Type A and Sarcinia have been linked as causal agents of the disease. C. perfringens produces large amounts of gas and toxins as it reproduces in the stomach, leading to the rapid distension of the abomasum. This bacteria is a part of the normal bacterial population in the stomach; it appears that large volumes of highly fermentable liquids (such as milk) can cause rapid growth in bacterial numbers.
Because of the rapid progression of the disease, treatment is often unrewarding. Antitoxin, antibiotics and intravenous fluids can be administered early in the disease process and may help reduce bacterial numbers. Make sure to consult a veterinarian before treatment as this use is off label for these drugs. Deflating the abomasum can be attempted; again, this is something a veterinarian should undertake. Because the rumen is not the source of the gas, passing a stomach tube is unrewarding to relieve the distension.
Prevention is the key to controlling and eliminating this disease. There are several areas that need to be addressed. First, evaluate colostrum intake and colostrum quality by testing colostrum for solids and checking serum total protein in calves to test for adequate ingestion and uptake. Consult your veterinarian for methods to evaluate both of these. Total protein levels in calves should be checked 24-72 hours after birth. Second, check mixing technique for milk replacer. This may be the most important factor in preventing abomasal bloat. Follow the label directions for mixing carefully. A good rule of thumb is that water used to mix should be between 105-110 degrees F at mixing and fed as soon as possible so that milk does not become too cool at feeding. It is also important to make sure the total solids concentration is correct. Total solids can be measured with a refractometer and should be 10.5-11 percent. Thirdly, make sure bottles and buckets used for feeding are cleaned daily. Hot, soapy water is the best method to clean feeding utensils.