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Common Cattle Diseases - Treatment, Symptoms & Prevention

While your animals mean the world to you, they may also be your livelihood, so keeping them healthy is essential. In today's post, you will learn about five cattle diseases, symptoms to watch for, how they are treated and how to prevent your cows from contracting these diseases.

Caring for the Health of Your Cattle

Preventing and managing disease in cattle requires a combination of proactive measures, vigilant monitoring for cattle disease symptoms and swift veterinary intervention. By implementing good management practices and ensuring that cattle receive proper veterinary care you can help to keep your herd healthy and productive.

Below we provide helpful information on five common conditions seen in cattle.

Bovine Respiratory Disease Complex

BRDC - Bovine respiratory disease complex is a serious respiratory tract infection that costs American farmers millions of dollars each year in decreased productivity and increased veterinary costs. Predominantly seen in calves experiencing nutritional changes, poor housing, wet bedding, overcrowding or stress caused by handling and transport, this respiratory condition can be viral or bacterial in nature. 

Symptoms of BRDC can include:

  • Runny nose
  • Depression, lethargy
  • Changes in social habits
  • Head extension
  • Fever
  • Ear drooping
  • Poor appetite, refusal to eat
  • Cough
  • Rapid and shallow breathing
  • Separation from herd, or lagging behind herd

Early detection and treatment of BRDC are essential. Delayed treatment can lead to the development of secondary infections and irreparable lung damage. Contact your livestock vet if you see signs of BRVD in any of your cattle.

Treatment of BRDC in Cattle

Your veterinarian may recommend quarantining the affected animal to minimize the spread. Injectable prescription antibiotics, antimicrobials and anti-inflammatories are the most successful treatments for BRDC. If the animal is dehydrated or experiencing pain these issues will need to be addressed also.

BRDC Prevention

To help prevent BRDC ensure that your herd's BRD vaccination is kept up-to-date at all times. Work with your veterinarian to recognize and reduce potential stressors, and improve nutrition, mineral status, and overall herd immunity. 

Pink Eye

Infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis, commonly known as pink eye, is a painful and debilitating bacterial infection that irritates the eyes. The infection can spread very quickly through a herd and must be treated as soon as symptoms appear. If left untreated pink eye can cause permanent damage to the eye or even blindness. When both eyes are affected vision can be severely impacted leading to accidents, starvation and thirst.

While pink eye is typically a bacterial infection, animals closely confined for long periods, dry dusty conditions, flies, bright sunlight and physical irritation (scratches from plants etc) can predispose an animal to contracting the condition. Animals with under-pigmented eyelids and those with protruding eyes may be more susceptible to pinkeye.

Once one animal gets pink eye it can spread rapidly through a herd, so must be addressed as soon as symptoms appear. Symptoms will depend upon the severity of the condition but may include:

  • Eyelid squinting, eye partially closed
  • Frequent blinking
  • Tearing or watery eyes
  • Cloudiness, over the entire surface or over parts of the eye
  • White spot at the center of the eye
  • Reddening in the margins of the eye
  • Yellow discharge

Treatment for Pink Eye in Cattle

Treatment will depend upon the severity of the animal's condition but may include prescription antibiotic eye ointment, antibiotic injections, eye patches in conjunction with eye ointment, suturing eyelids shut for seven to fourteen days or injections of antibiotics or corticosteroids into the eye through the upper eyelid.

Prevention of Pink Eye in Cattle

Preventing pink eye in cattle involves eliminating potential eye irritations. Providing cattle with face fly control can be very effective. Offering protection from direct sunlight and allowing cattle to graze at night when face flies are not active can also be very effective. Ensure adequate mineral consumption, especially selenium, copper, and zinc. Be vigilant and immediately isolate animals with pink eye.

Foot Rot

Foot rot is a painful and highly contagious bacterial disease that affects the area between the toes of ruminants. 

If foot rot is not treated right away, it may invade deeper structures of the foot, including bones, tendons and joints (which may lead to septic arthritis). Although foot rot can occur any time of the year, it is most commonly seen during wet periods. Cuts, puncture wounds, and severe abrasions of the foot caused by rocks, sticks, or ice can predispose an animal to foot rot by allowing bacteria to enter the body, invade tissue and multiply.

Signs of footrot:

  • Indications of pain or sudden lameness
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite or weight loss
  • Reduced milk production
  • Reddening and swelling of foot
  • Spreading of dewclaws due to swelling
  • Bulls may be reluctant to move or unable to breed

Foot rot is especially problematic for bulls. Pain in the rear feet can prevent a bull from breeding for a full season if not properly treated.


Early treatment of the disease is essential to help prevent the spread of foot rot throughout the herd. Treatment should begin with a thorough cleaning of the foot. Mild cases of foot rot often respond well to topical therapy, however, most cases require sustained-release antibiotics to clear up the infection. In some cases anti-inflammatory drugs may also be prescribed.


If possible, always isolate infected animals until infection is resolved to prevent the spread of bacteria in the environment. Rotate pastures or move feeders frequently to avoid manure buildup in one area. Provide your cattle with mounds or higher areas to allow them to stand on dry ground and avoid wet areas. Speak to your veterinarian about feeding a zinc supplement to your animals. Consider vaccines to fight the bacteria that cause foot rot.


While bloat is simply a build-up of gas in a rumen animal it is one of the most common causes of death in adult cattle. Most commonly seen in spring and autumn, bloat may be caused by higher forage intake and the fact that plants tend to be digested more quickly when grown at lower temperatures. Bloat also tends to occur most frequently in the morning, perhaps due to cattle eating their largest meal at this time of day.

Bloat occurs when cattle are unable to belch properly and gas production exceeds the rate of gas elimination. Cattle can be prevented from belching due to an obstruction in the gullet or from the buildup of foam on top of stomach liquid.  Gradually the gas accumulates and causes expansion that begins to interfere with normal breathing if not treated. Death from bloat occurs due to suffocation.

Signs of bloat in cattle include:

  • Distension of the area between the last rib and hook bone on the left side of cow. This enlargement will become increasingly pronounced as bloat becomes more severe.
  • Rectum may protrude.
  • Animal may stop moving due to difficulties breathing.


Gassy bloat can often be relieved by placing a hose or tube (about the diameter of a garden house) into the animal’s mouth, allowing them to swallow it so it passes through the esophagus and into the rumen (stomach). It is essential that the hose enters the rumen and not the lungs. The hose should be gently moved around in order to reach different parts of the rumen.

Frothy bloat can be treated with non-toxic oils such as vegetable or mineral oil. Contact your vet for dosages appropriate for your animal. A basic dosage guideline is 1.0 to 1.2 oz. per 100 lbs of body weight administered into the rumen via a tube or drench.

In some cases, a rumenotomy may be required, or a trocar and cannula may need to be inserted through the skin to allow gases to escape the stomach.  


Feeding your cattle anti-bloating supplements can be helpful but expensive. Grazing management can often reduce or eliminate bloat problems as effectively as purchased supplements. Proper grazing management involves providing a consistent and steady diet and limiting access to high bloat-potential plants, especially under moist conditions.

Scours - Diarrhea in Cattle

Scours is a potentially serious form of diarrhea seen in young cows. Causes of scours can range from E. coli and other bacteria to viruses, protozoa and various environmental factors. 

Treatment of Sours in Cattle

Veterinary care is essential for young cows with scours. Calves able to move around independently can typically be treated at home whereas those unable to stand may require hospitalization. Dehydration is the usual cause of death due to scours. IV fluids with electrolytes to fight the effects of dehydration are typically necessary to help young cows recover. Sick calves should be provided with adequate nutrients and calories so that they do not become increasingly weak. If the calf is unable to feed off of the mother, it may be necessary to alternate between feeding a milk replacer, oral electrolytes and fluids every six hours or so. 

Prescription antibiotics may be recommended for calves with scours to help prevent secondary infections.

Prevention of Scours in Cattle

A clean environment and regular vaccination program for mother cows are some of the best ways to prevent calves from developing scours. When the mother is healthy and has a strong immune system, protection against disease is passed to the calf during the first four hours of life - through the colostrum (earliest milk after birth) they consume.

Ensuring your cows receive regular veterinary checkups and vaccines goes a long way toward keeping the moms healthy and stress-free. It is also essential to protect calves and mothers against bad weather and not leave them confined for too long during the calving season.

Note: The advice provided in this post is intended for informational purposes and does not constitute medical advice regarding pets. For an accurate diagnosis of your pet's condition, please make an appointment with your vet.

Our Gillette large animal vets have extensive experience with cattle diseases and treatment! Contact Red Hills Veterinary Hospital today to book an examination for your animal.

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