Extension and Ag Research News


Watch for Hypothermia, Frostbite in Livestock

Livestock producers need to protect their animals from hypothermia and frostbite.

Hypothermia and frostbite can be harmful to livestock.

“Hypothermia is a profound drop in body temperature,” says Charlie Stoltenow, North Dakota State University Extension Service veterinarian. “Animals less than 48 hours old or animals with a pre-existing condition or disease are at the greatest risk for developing hypothermia.”

Newborns often are hypoglycemic, which means they have low energy reserves, and have electrolyte imbalances. Animals with pre-existing conditions (pneumonia, old age, thin, emaciated) have impaired body reserves and may succumb more readily to very cold and windy conditions.

Frostbite refers to the destruction of tissue in a localized area due to extreme cold. It is uncommon in healthy, well-fed and sheltered animals, but animals that are less than 48 hours old or animals that have a pre-existing condition are at the greatest risk for developing frostbite.

The areas most likely to be injured include the ears, tail, teats, scrotum and distal parts of the limbs, especially the hooves. Hind limbs are more likely to be affected in cattle since the animal’s normal posture is to draw its front legs up under the chest while the hind legs protrude out from under the body.

“Treating cases of hypothermia and frostbite is often unrewarding,” Stoltenow says. “Prevention is of primary importance.”

Prevention consists of keeping the animals, especially newborns, warm and dry. Windbreaks must be provided to counteract the effects of the wind chill.

Bedding also is essential. It has two functions: It insulates the animal from the snow and ice underneath the body, which prevents hypothermia and frostbite, and lowers the animal’s nutritional requirements. Bedding allows the animal to “snuggle” into it and lowers the body surface area exposed to the wind.

“The final essential aspect of prevention is to increase the amount of energy supplied in the animal’s diet,” Stoltenow says.

He has this advice for livestock suffering from hypothermia:

  • Calves with hypothermia need to be warmed slowly. The heat source should be about 105 to 108 degrees Fahrenheit. Warmer temperatures may cause skin burns or shock. Sources of heat include a warm water bath, electric blanket, heat lamps or hot water bottles, plus a warming box. Supplying an energy source to these calves also is essential. If the calf is newborn, colostrum should supplied within the first six to 12 hours of life. Stoltenow recommends milk or electrolytes with an energy source such as glucose. An esophageal feeding tube works well to supply these energy sources. Without fluids, the animal becomes acidotic as it warms. An acidotic calf is predisposed to contracting scours or pneumonia.
  • Areas suffering from frostbite should be warmed quickly. Frostbite is the actual destruction of tissue. To prevent permanent damage, circulation needs to be restored to affected areas as soon as possible. The heat source should be about 105 to 108 F. Do not rub affected areas. They already are damaged and quite fragile. As the area warms, it will be painful. Do not let the animal rub these areas; that will only make the situation worse. In severe cases, analgesics (pain killers) may be indicated. Consult your veterinarian.

Frostbite in teats and scrotums also could be a problem. However, frostbitten teats may be difficult to detect. The first sign may be a thin calf. The actual teat end is affected and can slough. If this happens, the sphincter muscle of the teat may be lost. This makes mastitis a possibility. Also, an affected teat may cause that quarter to dry up since the cow won’t let the calf nurse. In addition, the frostbitten teat may go unnoticed until next year. At that time, the calf is thin, and when the cow is examined, the teat is healed over with scar tissue. This teat will need to be opened.

Bulls’ scrotums and testicles can suffer frostbite as well. Often these lesions go unnoticed. These lesions can cause transitory or permanent infertility. All herd bulls should have breeding soundness exams 45 to 60 days after the last severe cold spell. Your veterinarian can help you with these exams.

NDSU Agriculture Communication

Source:Charlie Stoltenow, (701) 231-7522, charles.stoltenow@ndsu.edu
Editor:Ellen Crawford, (701) 231-5391, ellen.crawford@ndsu.edu
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