Stories from the vet: milk fever

When I first became a veterinarian, I worked in the country as a mixed animal practitioner. I frequently was called out to farms to treat dairy cows.

Dairy cows begin producing milk after they have a calf. Calcium from the blood travels to the udder to produce milk. Sometimes, a problem occurs in which too much calcium travels to the udder and the rest of the body is deprived of calcium.

Muscles need calcium in order to function, so a cow with low blood calcium will have muscles that aren’t working, and then she can’t stand up. This disease process is called milk fever.

The solution is to give her calcium intravenously. The trick is to give the calcium slowly in the vein. If the calcium is given too quickly, it can be toxic to the heart.

I got a call at about 10 p.m. at night from Melvin, one of my dairy farmer clients. Most farmers milk their cows at about 5 a.m. and 5 p.m., but not Melvin.  He was on a 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. milking schedule, which allowed him to sleep in. So whenever I got a late night phone call, I could bet it would be Melvin.

He had a cow that was down in the field. She had recently had a calf, so I knew this would be a case of milk fever.

Another thing about Melvin was that he still used bulls for breeding. Many farmers have moved away from this practice because bulls are inherently dangerous. Most modern farmers will artificially inseminate their cows now to get them pregnant to avoid keeping a bull.

I pulled up to the farm and Melvin and two of his six kids were with him. Sure enough, he had a cow that couldn’t stand up from milk fever. I gathered my supplies and began administering the antidote of IV calcium.

Melvin was chatting about his herd and how the kids were doing in school when all of a sudden he yelled, “Here comes the bull!” and he and his two sons ran into the barn, leaving me out in the field with his cow and full liter of calcium that still needed to be administered.

Because it was dark out, I could hear the bull before I could actually see him. He was snorting and pawing at the ground, and then I saw his form emerging in the shadows.

This guy was big — probably 1,500 pounds. His eyes rolled and glinted in the moonlight. He approached me slowly, throwing his head from side to side as a form of intimidation.

I still had half of a bottle of calcium to give, and the bull was about 30 feet away from me. Clearly Melvin didn’t trust his bull, and I didn’t either.

I decided to just push the calcium in the cow and get out of the field. I squeezed that bottle of calcium as fast as I could, thinking that someone was going to die out here and I hoped it wasn’t me.

After I finished giving the calcium, I grabbed my supplies and ran as fast as I could, hopping over the fence into the safety of the barn. Melvin and his sons were there to congratulate me on my narrow escape.

I turned around to check on my patient and was relieved to see her standing up and walking towards the barn. The bull hung back, having done his manly duty of chasing away interlopers.

Near misses are fairly common when treating large animal patients. Looking back, I am glad I had the experience of being a mixed animal veterinarian, but I sure don’t mind my job now in a nice, warm small-animal veterinary clinic in Southwest Minneapolis.