On call during the cold: 'When I pull my arm out, the poop freezes'

Jennifer Lu
La Crosse Tribune, Wis.

Polar vortex or no polar vortex, large animal veterinarians are at the beck and call of their patients.

While Coulee, Wis., area vets braced themselves for extreme cold caused by a wayward whorl of arctic air that had drifted south, submerging parts of the upper Midwest into record breaking negative digits, it was business as usual for their patients. Adult animals do fine in cold weather with the right precautions; though, the deep freeze added a layer of inconvenience for their vets.

One big inconvenience: the cold itself.

A large part of Ashley Kruse’s job requires her to stick her arm deep inside a cow’s rectum. It’s a quick way to do a pregnancy check or make sure internal organs, including the kidneys and intestines, are healthy, said Kruse, a large animal veterinarian and owner of River Valley Veterinary Clinic in Reedsburg. “I can learn a lot by putting my arm up there.”

Unfortunately, while cows are an excellent source of heat — their body temperatures average around 101.5 degrees — her arm, covered in a plastic glove and sleeve, inevitably gets coated with cow manure during exams, Kruse said. “And when I pull my arm out, the poop freezes.”

Kruse said she saw three bovine patients on Jan. 30 during the polar vortex, including in a freestall barn where temperatures hovered around zero — compared with the 27-below outside.

These temperatures, while uncomfortable for humans, are OK for cows as long as they’re properly fed and kept out of the wind, Kruse said.

In West Salem, Wis., Mike Huston was spared any outdoor calls during the coldest periods of the polar vortex, but he did attend a delivery 11 p.m. on Jan. 28 after the mother, a beef cow, had been struggling to give birth for three or four hours.

Calving can be a soggy business, especially with all the amniotic fluid coming out the birth canal, said Huston, managing veterinarian at West Salem Veterinary Clinic.

And if you’re at the right place at the right time, Huston said, you get wet. Huston said it took him about 40 minutes to deliver the calf in the wind and snow. “No doubt about it, it’s a nippy job.”

Fortunately, not all patients are seen outside. Unlike beef cattle, which are kept outside, dairy cows, whose teats can develop frostbite or freeze after milking, are housed inside.

Even indoors, baby animals require extra care. They cannot generate as much body heat as adults and have more trouble staying warm. Calves should be given extra milk or feed, jackets, and deep straw bedding to help them make and retain body heat, Kruse said.

Veterinarians also face the secondary challenges of making sure their instruments don’t freeze en route to a call.

Veterinarian Gina Zastoupil, owner of Tomah Large Animal Vet Service, kept her truck in a heated shack overnight so her battery wouldn’t die. She also installed a box heater in the back of her truck to keep medicine and equipment from freezing. It got so cold on one of her last visits that the barn door froze shut, Zastoupil said.

On rare occasions, very cold weather can put cows off their feed, Zastoupil said. And when cows stop eating, they can develop a painful condition known as a twisted stomach, otherwise known as a displaced abomasum.

The abomasum, the cow’s fourth stomach, normally sits at the base of the abdomen. When the cow doesn’t eat properly, the abomasum can fill up with gas and drift to the top of the abdomen or shift to the left side.

Once the abomasum gets to the wrong side, it doesn’t come back very easily, Zastoupil said. “It’s like moving a beach ball underwater; you can’t push it back very easily. When we use a stethoscope to listen to the stomach, it pings like a basketball bouncing.”

Surgery is required to remove the gas and return the stomach to its proper place. However, there are many reasons cows will stop eating and develop stomach problems, Zastoupil said. “They actually have a harder time with the heat than the cold.”

In fact, veterinarians said they might find themselves busier once temperatures warm up over the weekend.

“The biggest issue I foresee coming is pneumonia,” Kruse said. “It won’t be right after it warms up, but five days to a week later.”

A rapid warm up means extra moisture trapped in the barn: the perfect environment for respiratory illnesses.

Meanwhile, fluctuating temperatures are a stress for animals, Huston said. “It still gets cold at night, and that results in a wet animal that’s more stressed.”