One of the unpredictabilities of having guests visit your farm, is you never quite know what questions they're going to ask. I had a visitor ask once, "What's the worst thing that can happen to a cow?"
It was a great question, but it took me a while to answer. I've watched cows die from heart attacks. We had a cow with a twisted uterus that ruptured. I've seen cows who drowned in ponds. And we had a cow who managed to completely fracture both back legs while standing in her stall. But which of these was the worst? It's hard to tell, because cows normally hide their pain and discomfort to some degree. Most of the time, we can only extrapolate how bad a cow's condition or calamity is by comparing it to something we have experienced with our human bodies.
We had a calf this fall who baffled us with a mysterious condition. Her name was Drop. She started out like an ordinary calf, but then her jaw started to swell a little. The swelling turned into a lump, but it didn't seem to bother her. Then, Drop started having trouble suckling. She would come into the calf feeder stall and try to suckle, but the milk would just dribble right out of her mouth. She visited the calf feeder over 20 times one day, but didn't consume any milk. I took her off the calf feeder and tried bottle feeding her. That didn't work, either. She would try to suckle, but the milk just ran out of her mouth. It was like she couldn't swallow. The same thing happened when she tried to drink water. We looked in her mouth but couldn't see anything wrong. We tried a couple suggestions from our vet, but nothing helped.
We decided to have our vet euthanize Drop. It was obvious that she wasn't going to survive long without being able to swallow. We also opted to do an autopsy, in hopes of figuring out what was wrong with Drop and, more so, making sure it wasn't something that could happen to other calves.
Our vet started the autopsy by examining the thoracic cavity. Drop's lungs looked fine, but her heart didn't. Her heart was enlarged and our vet said she probably had some sort of congenital heart defect. We had one other calf born with a defective heart valve, so this wasn't terribly surprising.
But what was surprising was the rest of the autopsy. Our vet opened up Drop's jaw to find out why she couldn't swallow. The back half of Drop's tongue, the part past the back of the mouth, was swollen, necrotic and half rotted off. Aside from being seriously grossed out - and we've seen a lot of gross things in farming - we were bewildered. Our vet said he had never seen anything like this and was going to consult with another vet at the university's diagnostic laboratory.
Within a couple hours, we had a probable explanation. Drop's heart condition likely caused a blood clot that got lodged in one of the blood vessels that supplied her tongue. Without a blood supply, that part of her tongue died.
We were glad for an explanation, but we still felt bad for Drop. I thought of our visitor's question and decided that wanting to eat, but not being able to eat because your tongue was rotting off might be one of the worst things that could happen to any creature.
But, after what happened to Dazzle last week, I think I've seen the worst thing that can happen to a cow.
It all started when Dazzle stepped on one of her front teats and damaged the teat end. Glen carefully bandaged the teat after each milking to help it heal and it was healing up nicely. But, then, on Christmas Eve, some opportunistic organism took advantage of Dazzle's damaged teat end and she came down with mastitis. By Christmas morning, the quarter was hard and swollen, and we knew Dazzle was fighting an infection caused by a gram negative organism.
Dazzle went outside with the rest of the cows that afternoon and seemed to be doing fine. But, half-way through milking on Christmas night, Dazzle was not so fine. She was laying in her stall shivering. I kept milking while Glen immediately started an IV. Usually, we have pretty good luck treating cows with gram negative mastitis using a combination of IV and oral fluids, calcium (as needed), aspirin and other supportive therapies. But Dazzle didn't improve after the IV. Instead, she was now seriously shaking.
Glen called our vet. In the meantime, Dazzle stood up, and our hopes rose with her. Our vet arrived and quickly diagnosed Dazzle with something we hadn't expected: gangrene mastitis. He amputated her teat to allow the quarter to drain and keep the quarter from exploding (yes, exploding; he said the infection would soon start producing gas and with no outlet, well ... ).
Our vet prescribed a combination of treatments for Dazzle and said we'd know within a couple days if she was going to survive or not. We did everything we possibly could for Dazzle to help her fight the infection and keep her comfortable. But her infected quarter kept swelling and swelling and turning purple. I've never seen a cow in such obvious pain. Amazingly, she kept eating, but when she wasn't eating, she just laid there and moaned. It was heartbreaking.
Even more heartbreaking was having to put her down when it became clear that she wasn't going to recover. The best cows always seem to have the worst luck. Dazzle was one of the gentle cows we let the kindergartners and preschoolers pet and milk when they visited our farm last spring. We will miss her.