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Dealing With Those Chronic-Bloating Cattle

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A chronic bloater is by definition a free gas bloat which keeps reoccurring.

Every cattle producer is plagued by the odd chronic bloater and the dilemma is often what to do with them. A chronic bloater is by definition a free gas bloat which keeps reoccurring. The gas can readily be let off with a tube but reoccurs within a day or so. The cattle always do poorly which is why treatment of some form must be initiated.

The rumen microflora (micro-organisms or protozoa) may have been altered or killed so excessive gas is produced. The calf’s ability to eructate or belch up the gas may also have been altered. All these factors come into play when we decide treatment. The microflora (rumen bugs) can be killed by sudden changes in feed or sickness of some type and especially when cattle go off feed.

Treatment involves treating the primary sickness if there is one, and re-establishing these microflora. If bloating still continues the decision is made whether to do a minor surgery called a rumen fistula.

The ideal way to re-establish the rumen microflora is with rumen fluid from a healthy animal on similar feed. This may be tried if you have a packing plant close by or are doing your own butchering. The rumen contents are essentially squeezed or filtered to get a gallon or so of rumen fluid. This is then pumped in utilizing a larger-bore stomach tube. Some pumps are better able to handle larger particulate matter.

Take care not to chill these rumen juices, as their own environment is body temperature so they are very sensitive to chilling. It is best to pump the juices in as soon as possible and repeating the procedure may be necessary in some advanced cases.

Teaching colleges have a fistulated animal with a large plug in them. The plug is simply taken out and rumen contents are removed. I wish every large animal practice had access to one of these fistulated animals, as they would be extremely useful for treating both chronic bloaters and grain overloads.

If rumen contents are not available, many probiotics or rumen stimulants can be tried depending on what your veterinarian has in stock and the products they have had the most success with. These products come in powder, paste or bolus form. Again this may need to be done several times to turn the condition around.


If these treatments fail the decision is made to have a rumen fistula done. This involves very minor surgery creating a hole from the rumen to the outside. The area over the left flank is clipped and frozen. The internal rumen wall is then sutured to the skin. This creates a tooniesized hole directly into the rumen which is permanent or gradually fills in over several months. This is a quick and relatively inexpensive procedure with very good results. The rumen gases will continually escape and because there is no pressure the animal does better. Over time the rumen microflora re-establish themselves. I have never read anything on this but I suspect a certain percentage of these cases occur after a growth spurt and anatomically the calf is unable to eructate the gases quick enough. These specific cases make a dramatic improvement with a rumen fistula. If the bloat is caused by a primary disease, one must assess the cost of the treatment and fistulation and the odds of the calf recovering from the primary disease. For example, chronic BVD cases can become chronic bloaters and if we suspect this we will simply euthanize the animal.

In determining whether it’s economic to do a fistula I look at the calf’s demeanor. If it is extremely rough haired and been a poor doer for a very long time, probably a fistula is not warranted. All other cases warrant a fistula and can go on to be normal productive animals in the feedlot.

The final thing to consider is marketing the fistulated calf. If you are rail grading then no problem. Otherwise often these do get discounted if the fistula is evident so local butchering may be in order. These calves create quite a sight in the winter as you can see the steam rising out of the fistula site. We once had to do this to a 4-H calf and at achievement day the member smartly glued a patch of blue jean over the fistula. Once recovered there would be no reason to keep, for instance, a purebred heifer calf The fistula could easily be closed at a later date.

You should only experience these chronic bloaters once in a while. If too many are experienced go through your feeding program with your veterinarian or nutritionist, as cattle may be being brought onto feed too quickly or there may be some other underlying health problem. Hopefully chronic bloaters will then be a very infrequent problem in your operation.

About the author


Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.



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