Your calf is breathing faster than normal (over 50-75 breaths per minute), what does that mean?
The calf was just running and playing
Needless to say this is a good sign. Calves with good welfare play more and are more likely to be healthy. However, calves that stop playing quickly or don’t play when all the others in the group are playing may be sick or stressed. Calves that do not play for long or cough during exercise could have, or be recovering from, respiratory disease (pneumonia). Keep an eye out for these girls.
It is hot out
Calves (and cows) do not sweat, so when it gets hot they will increase their breathing to cool off. Typically, calves will begin to show signs of heat stress when temperatures get above 30C (90F), with humidity causing them to be more sensitive to heat. They are even more vulnerable to heat stress if it does not cool down at night. Well in this case, faster breathing does not mean the calves are sick, they will need lots of water and the environment will need to be evaluated to see if they can be cooled off. Examples include using fans, tipping huts up to increase air flow and providing extra shade. Since calves are not great at controlling their body temperature, they are at risk of heat stress so keep a close eye on them.
Calf is sleeping, it is not too hot out…
If they are sound asleep they may be dreaming and twitching in their sleep. If you can see their eye and it is twitching it may indicate they are in Rapid Eye Movement (REM) stage of sleep. If you are unsure, you can wake them up. If their breathing slows down, let them go back to sleep as growing babies need their sleep!
Calf is not sleeping or playing, and it is not hot out
This could indicate an issue. Calves breathing may be elevated due to pain, illness, or compromised lungs. Calves with active diarrhea, umbilical infection, or respiratory disease may show signs of fast breathing. Look for these signs and take their rectal temperature, a temperature over 39.9C (103.9 F) is considered a fever and a complete health exam is needed to try and determine the root cause.
If a calf does not have a fever, but has diarrhea, they may be in pain. Studies have shown that providing calves with metacam (Meloxicam) when they have diarrhea allows the calf to rest easier and recover faster. Just make sure you provide the calf with electrolytes and lots of water so it stays hydrated.
No diarrhea, no fever…
A calf may also breath faster due to prior inflammation and damage to the lungs resulting from pneumonia (bovine respiratory disease). Respiratory disease can have long term impacts on a calf’s health including slowed growth for 6 months after illness, increased risk of death, and even difficulty calving as an adult. If respiratory disease is a problem in your herd prevention is key. However, for those already affected, providing a low stress environment for calves well they recover is important. These calves will be more vulnerable to heat stress, and handling stress for several months after initial illness. Keeping stocking density low and grouping calves by disease history can help you manage these vulnerable animals.
Whether it is due to the environment, health, or just a dream - breathing rate can tell you a lot! Making this observation just one more tool in your calf management tool box.