On the Sunday afternoon of a steady on-call weekend, whilst taking myself out to visit an open garden, I received a call from one of our calf-rearing clients for advice on a sick calf that had been noticed a couple of hours prior. This isn’t a case we see every day, but highlights the benefit of speaking to your vet when you notice some weird goings on.

The calf was around two months old and had previously been bright and mischievous within the herd but was now dull and depressed. He was also standing in the pen aimlessly, staring into space and appearing vacant.

The client also mentioned that they had noticed the calf was occasionally pressing his head into gates and the walls of the pen. There was also uncertainty regarding the visual ability of the calf. On further questioning, the calf was otherwise healthy and happy in itself – eating and drinking fine once he had navigated himself to the trough. The calf did not have a high temperature and no treatments had been administered. Routine management protocols on this farm meant that the calf had already been vaccinated for respiratory disease and ringworm, had been tag and tested for BVD, and had received a coccidiosis drench.

After receiving several videos over text, it became evident that something wasn’t right with this calf. He was standing in the pen completely unaware of what was going on around him, getting knocked over by his pen mates, and staring blankly into space.

Based on these signs, the main differentials considered in this case were bacterial meningitis and thiamine deficiency (Cerebrocortical Necrosis), given the age of the calf. Treatment involved a 7-day course of double dose penicillin, alternating injections of NSAIDs and steroid, and Vitamin B1 to cover the possibility of a thiamine deficiency.

I called the client three days after commencing treatment to see how the calf was getting on, by which point he had received three days’ worth of antibiotics, two NSAID injections, and one steroid injection. The client reported that the calf was much brighter in himself, more interested in playing with his pen mates, and more willing to navigate his way to the trough for food and water. However, he was still very vacant in his stare which led us to question his vision.

The client continued the calf’s treatment as planned and at their next TB test I went out to assess the calf’s visual ability, which found absent menace and pupillary light reflexes in the right eye and reduced reflexes in the left. Therefore, it was concluded that the calf had limited vision that was restricted to one eye. Nevertheless, the client was willing to keep the calf due to his nice nature. I visited the farm a couple of weeks ago for a castrating day and enquired how the calf was getting on. I was then led to a field to find he was living his best life munching on grass and the odd bucket of corn, having completely adapted to a life without sight, and was now called Buddy.

Bacterial meningitis is essentially caused by bacteria entry into the gut and some localisation within the membranes around the brain. The early clinical signs include depression (as seen here), lack of sucking behaviour, star gazing and weakness. Progression can cause blindness and if left untreated, will lead to seizures before death.

Prompt treatment as soon as clinical signs are seen can prevent much future damage. We can also prevent many nervous diseases such as meningitis by ensuring good colostrum transfer (quick, quality, quantity) and a hygienic calving environment.

If you have any questions about calf rearing or would like to have a calf health assessment, please speak to your vet or vet tech who can carry this out for you.