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Vet's View: When to make the judgement call for a caesarean

There are many areas to consider when thinking about caesareans, from when to make the call through to aftercare of both the cow and calf. Louise Hartley talks to vet Helen Cockerill, for her advice.

Caesareans are now performed much more commonly than they were 50 years ago.


In the 1800s they were undertaken to save the life of the calf, but nowadays, farmers have much higher expectations and expect to have a live calf and cow at the end of the procedure.


Helen Cockerill, from Eastgate Veterinary Centre in Yorkshire, says: “Caesareans are often performed in order to deliver oversize calves, be it because the calf is too large or, as is sometimes the case, in small heifers with insufficient pelvic diameter to be able to calve naturally.


“Other indications include uterine torsions which have failed to untwist and delivery of dead calves when an embryotomy is not possible.”

When to make ’the call’

When to make ‘the call’ is one of the most crucial decisions as it can make the difference between life and death, adds Mrs Cockerill.


“Farmers must make the decision in reasonable time in order to allow the vet chance to get to the farm, examine the animal and then proceed as necessary. While it is common place to attempt to calve a cow before calling the vet, excess force on the skull of the calf will depress the breathing centre in the brain and jeopardises the chance of a live calf.”


“How to know when the vet is required can involve many questions but often boils down to experience. Any herdsman who knows his cows well will intuitively know when there is a problem.”


She explains: “A cow which has been straining unproductively, with a normally presented calf is often the first clue. However, often when a calf is too large to pass into the pelvic canal we see the opposite scenario, whereby there is a distinct lack of regular contractions. Calves which are presented normally but whose legs are crossing can also be a sign that the calf is large. This is due to excessive pressure on the shoulders which is causing the legs to cross.”

Signs to look out for

  1. Unproductive straining
  2. Lack of regular contractions
  3. Calf presents with crossing legs

Decision made, what do you do now?

Once the decision has been made there are several things farmers can do to assist their vet. One of the most important issues is suitable restraint of the cow.


Mrs Cockerill says: “Crushes which have been designed specifically for caesareans are very useful but it is important to remember in the worst case scenario the animal may go down and if she does there has to be a safe way of removing her from the crush, quickly.


“The surgical site will be on the left-hand side of the cow just behind the last rib. A cow positioned half-in a crush with her head tied to the very front and a gate positioned on her right side to prevent her from swinging to and fro is an adequate form of restraint. Tails should be tied out of the way so they do not contaminate the surgical site.


“Other items to have ready include adequate lighting, at least two clean buckets of water and a suitable table for the surgical instruments. There should be clean straw put down ready for the delivery of the calf, but do this well in advance so that any dust created has settled before surgery begins.”


Your vet may require assistance to aid in removal of the calf so be prepared to scrub your hands and be ready, she adds.


“If needed your vet will give you instructions on what they would like you to do. Your vet will be working in a sterile manner and although it is tempting to lend a hand, always ask first.


“Once the calf is delivered the vet will be concentrating on the cow so it is the farmer who must attend to the calf, ensure it is breathing properly, clear its nostrils and treat the navel.


“Once surgery is complete remember the calf must have colostrum. If the calf is slow to stand or the cow will not allow suckling do not leave it to chance, milk the cow out and bottle or tube the calf.”

Things farmers can do to assist their vet

  1. Provide suitable means of restraining the cow. Allow access to the left-hand side, tie the tail out of the way
  2. Ensure there is adequate lighting, two clean buckets of water and a table
  3. Put clean straw down for the calf well in advance
  4. Be prepared to scrub up should the vet need assistance, but always wait to be asked
  5. Once delivered, concentrate on the calf’s breathing and providing colostrum

Post-caesarean care

  • Keep the cow and calf somewhere where she will not catch her skin sutures, it is preferable to keep the pair separate until the wound has healed
  • Many vets will carry out a post-op check a few days later to ensure everything is healing satisfactorily and there are no complications
  • Pain relief and antibiotics will be given at the time and for several days following
  • Monitor the wound and watch for any swelling or discharge as the most common complication is wound infection
  • If you are concerned ring your vet straight away as it always easier to sort problems in their infancy rather than waiting for more serious complications to develop


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