It is finally time to share with you our journey in healing our Scottish Highland calf. The struggles and sadness have been great, and on most days we have fought to continue, but hard work is never a waste of time. We decided that if nothing else, if the end result was terrible, we would at least have learned from it. Little did we know we faced pneumonia, dehydration, paralysis and a lot of rehabilitation for this little calf.
Warning: picture below may be disturbing.
I had began to post several different times on what had happened, but never could bring myself to share it until now. Not knowing what the outcome of this would be, I didn't know if our efforts would be worth sharing. We still don't know what the final outcome will be, however, we are more encouraged than ever at this point.
In speaking with our vet recently, he wished we had video taped our process. He said it was a miracle and that he never would've believed the outcome. He has never heard of such progress before and we have struggled to not allow that to go to our heads!
This precious little calf was born on the last day of July 2012. She is a Scottish Highland calf and she is the cutest calf I have ever known. We were thrilled when her Mama brought her up out of the woods for us to see.
Over the years, we have learned how fiercely strong and durable the Scottish Highland are. Mama's have babies without help and sometimes you may not see the calves for several weeks if you have a lot of deep woods like we do. They keep them hidden extremely well. Sadly enough, this time, this calf wasn't hidden good enough.
After a few weeks, Millie (our Mama cow), brought the baby back up out of the woods. We were shocked to see the condition of the calf. It had apparently been attacked by something.
You can see her whole side has the hide stripped off. Upon closer examination, you could see gouge marks and scratches. We couldn't believe she was still alive.
Our closest neighbor stopped by to see about the calf. He has several hunting dogs and he knows this area very well. He verified our thinking, that a cougar or some big cat got a hold of this calf. Another neighbor that lives near by with beef cows told us that he loses at least two calves a year to the big cats. He believes that, because he finds the remains up in the tree branches. It was easy for us to believe this due to the trauma of the injury and because we had heard a mountain lion scream behind our house in the wee hours of the morning several months ago.
We knew that we needed to doctor the calf, but Mama wasn't about to let us go near her.
Thanks to some wonderful neighbors, we were offered a trailer load of cattle panels to set up a corral and help to round up the Mama and calf. Within minutes a large corral was in place with two sections. One for Mama and one for the calf, which allowed for them to remain next to each other.
The next task came with learning how to doctor the calf and teach her to bottle feed after being on Mama for a few weeks. Both of which was interesting since Highlands are mainly a hands off breed of cattle, we had never bottle fed before or separated Mama and baby.
I have to stop here and say thank you to my special friend and neighbor, all around farm girl and patient teacher! She came over and patiently walked us through what we needed to do. Her husband and his Amish friend had already been by earlier to set up the corral and round up the calf out of the woods too. I'm telling ya, you just can't live life without good neighbors!
After many patient attempts, the calf finally accepted the bottle and we were able to get the injury covered with medicine. This picture shows success, or so we thought, after almost a week of struggle.
Shortly after this picture was taken, we received several days of cold, damp, rain, courtesy of Hurricane Isaac. Even though we live in southern Missouri, we usually get a bit of whatever comes up through the gulf.
This was disastrous for us. We had a shelter provided for the calf, but didn't realize that she would stand out in the rain. Just a little bit after the temps dropped and the rain started, we ran out to find her soaking wet, standing in the rain. We moved the cattle panels around so she couldn't get out from underneath the shelter. Then we completely dried her off, fed her warm milk, and bundled her up in a large soft pile of straw. It wasn't enough. We continued to check on her, she seemed warm and happy laying there in the straw, gobbling up all the milk we fed her. Finally, the sun came out and the ground dried up, but the calf wouldn't get up. At first we didn't think too much of it until she wasn't even sitting up anymore.
At this point, we noticed a small amount of drainage from her nose so we contacted one of our handy dandy neighbors to see what he thought. He advised us that she needed a shot of antibiotics for possible pneumonia. Well I have given many dog and cat shots, but never one to a calf. Thankfully, he talked me through it and we thought all would be well.
That was on a Saturday. We kept watch, fully expecting her to be up and around by the next day, but Sunday came and went without her getting up. Monday was Labor Day. Monday morning came and our precious little calf wouldn't even raise her head up.
Do you know how much a farm visit is from your local vet on Labor Day? We do now and it isn't pretty. Thankfully, we keep our blessings in perspective and know that it could've been much worse.
Our vet was an angel for us that day. This whole journey so far, showed me how little I knew. The entire time I felt like we were running too far behind in knowledge and skill and we were. If it hadn't been for such great neighbors and family, we would've lost this little calf.
Back to our vet though, he was extremely gentle, kind and patient. He helped us move the calf from her shelter in the field into our front yard so we could keep a closer eye on her. He assessed her condition and diagnosed her with pneumonia and dehydration, not to mention her injury. We hung an IV from a tree branch, and began to run several bags of fluid into her. He stayed for a very long time to make sure she was stable and asked that I let him know how she's doing later.
We followed his directions for changing the IV solution bags and were able to get three whole bags into her before she tried to get up and pulled the catheter out of her neck. It was after 9 pm at that point . She needed one more bag according to our vet and we didn't know what to do so we called him. He answered our call right away and counseled us for quite a while as to what we should do, what we should expect and what our options might be. I can't say enough good things about this vet.
Here she is sitting up on Tuesday morning after her IV's. Notice how her back legs are straight out? We soon learned this was a big problem.
We thought all was going in the right direction because she was sitting up and trying to get up, getting stronger.....
We moved her back into her shelter and watched for her to get up. The weather really warmed up. It got down right hot and she still wasn't getting up. We called the vet.
They suggested we bring her in so she could be examined again and be kept for a few days in a controlled environment temperature wise. After the expense on Labor Day, I was very hesitant, knowing that a vet stay could be extremely expensive.
Solution? Well.....one thing about homesteading, you make do with what you have.
The basement of our house is unfinished. Bare concrete floors and cool. A perfect place to move the calf to, or so I thought.
We made a large, thick bed of straw for her and moved her into the basement. It eliminated her heat stress. We continued to struggle with feeding her though because she just didn't want to eat. We could only get a half pint or less down her at a time. Can you imagine? We literally spent all day trying to get her required daily amount down her. Our daughter spent hours with the calf's head in her lap trying to coax her to eat. We couldn't get her to drink any water at all so I began to google for information. I found a great recipe that I feel saved her life. It consists of a can of broth, a box of pectin, 2 teaspoons baking soda and 2 teaspoons of salt, then fill the bottle with warm water. I used chicken broth even though the recipe called for beef broth.....just didn't seem right to me. Here is the link where I found their story and Broth Recipe.
Before bedtime that evening, Wednesday evening, I went down to check the calf and to try to get her to eat some more one last time. She was struggling to get up and she was soaking wet.
In the dark with a flashlight, I ran out to get fresh straw, made her another dry, warm, soft bed and moved her over to it. I couldn't figure out why she was so wet! Later, when we were told her back end was paralyzed, we learned she had lost control of her bladder.
The next morning, Thursday morning, we took her to the vet. There was nothing else we could do for her at home. As a family, we discussed the expense, we discussed the options and our conclusion was we would do what we could within reason for her.
To make a very long story a bit shorter for you.... she spent almost three days at the vet's office. There they gave her several cortisone shots and kept working with getting her up on her feet and working her back legs. They had almost given up when they discovered that she had recovered control of her bladder and that she was responding with her back legs in small ways.
We went to pick her up on Saturday, of that same week, and we received a full report, cautious optimism and counseled on what to look for in the next few days. We talked in great length about why she lost function of her back end. The vet was unsure, but thought it was a delayed reaction to the trauma of the initial injury. He explained that sometimes, trauma doesn't swell immediately and he has seen it take up to a week to show those signs. The longest and deepest gouge runs down the length of her spine to past her tail. We began to study the nervous system of a cow. There is a huge gathering of nerves at the base of their spine before their tail. Any trauma to that area would greatly affect all of those nerves. Now the question was... will the nerves completely heal?
We began by getting her up every time we fed her. The idea was to encourage the use of her back legs. We had no idea what to expect, but were extremely encouraged by the end of the first week. She was pushing up on her back legs and balancing herself over the bin. During this time, when she was laying down, I constantly worked her back legs. The vet had shown me how to fully extend each leg in a circle to encourage blood flow to the muscles. I also kept her hooves flexed so the muscles wouldn't tighten up allowing her to only stand on her knuckles.
Soon, she tried more and more to move off the bin, so we rolled up a towel and held her up with it by placing it beneath her just in front of her back legs. We were excited to see her increasingly use her legs and put more weight on them.
It didn't take very long before she got too heavy for me to handle her in that manner though. A few weeks went by and I knew we had to come up with something different. At this point, the vet encouraged us to keep up whatever it was we were doing, "it sure couldn't hurt" he said.
My dear husband's father came up with a brilliant plan. He put up a thick yellow tow rope, one of those with a ratchet thingy on it.....as you can see, I clearly don't know what it's called, but he hooked it onto one cattle panel and then another on the other side of the pen. We then took one of our girth straps, for our saddle, and got a large D ring to go over the strap. The idea was to get the calf up in this homemade sling in order to save our backs, and to allow her room to move. It served it's purpose beautifully!
Over a period of several weeks, she began to walk back and forth, the length of the strap. To begin to get her to do this, we simply encouraged her with her bottle of milk. We soon learned that we could encourage her to do almost anything with that bottle of milk, however, once the milk was gone, she got real lazy. Her bottles of water were somewhat helpful with motivating her, but nothing like the milk.
We ran into a bit of a dilemma when she began to need much more time on her feet than laying down. She still couldn't stand on her own, and we couldn't supervise her all day.....every time I tried to leave her up in her sling for a bit, this is what I came back to...
This was not helpful in any way and could've been very dangerous for her. Our time spent in her pen with her, increased greatly because she had to be kept up yet supervised.
There were SO many days where we felt nothing was improving. How much longer should we continue our efforts? The option was extremely difficult to look at, especially as attached as our family had gotten with her. However, even though she wasn't suffering, her quality of life needed to be considered. On those days when we began to think about other options, we would continue on due to habit (and procrastination). Usually within a few days of not seeing any improvement, by God's grace, we would see a hint of improvement.
She began to move forward very well. Side to side, not so much, in fact, not at all. I researched more on the nervous system of a cow and learned that they have two different sets of nerves for their back legs. One set runs down the backs of their legs and the other is for their thighs. She was having no connection between her brain and her thighs for the most part it seemed, especially her right side. We knew we needed to begin to concentrate on working those muscles and try to encourage healing of those nerves.
When she would be up in the sling, I would use the bottle to move her forward and then get her to turn to go the other direction. Most of the momentum was coming from her front end, so that when we turned, she would kind of fall over in her sling, like the picture above, until we lifted her back end up again. I began to move much more slowly, allowing her time to try to make the moves herself. It seemed that if I walked fast, she just came after me as fast as she could for her milk, but when I slowed down, she was making the brain connections she needed in order to tell her legs what to do.
It was incredible! Once I learned patience, I learned to watch for her body language and we began to see much more progress. She began to use her left, rear leg in turning and also throwing it out to the side to catch herself when she got off balance. The right leg took many more weeks, but we continued to see great improvement. A little trick I learned was that when she was laying down, if I scratched her under belly down by her tiny little udders, she would lift her leg up to the side, working those muscles and nerves! The motion of it is similar to women's thigh tightening exercises, remember those horrid things??
Here you can see our makeshift accommodations for the calf. Our little tent suffered much damage throughout several storms until we finally decided we needed to move her to my husband's parent's barn. That was a great decision and a great blessing, even though it wasn't extremely close to our house.
Every day we continued to bring her milk and water. We had introduced hay and grain to her several weeks earlier and also provided a water bucket for her to learn to drink from. Once we turned her Mama loose to go be with the other cows, our little calf didn't have anyone to imitate and she stopped drinking from the bucket. That was frustrating, however, after we moved her up to the barn, the other cows stopped by to visit her more often and she was able to watch them be cows.
It was at that time we realized that she was becoming too reliant on the sling and simply not trying. If we put the girth under her, but didn't hang her on the strap, she tried much harder and worked her legs much more in order to stay on her feet. We soon stopped putting her on the strap all together and within a few weeks, we began to take her out into a corral for her to graze. During this time frame, she actually began to get up on her own! Talk about rejoicing! We had worked for weeks for this accomplishment.
We noticed she had gotten into a feeding routine, wanting her milk bottle first, then nibbling on a bit of grain and I knew that if I wanted to take her off the bottle, I needed to get that switched over fast. Each morning, I would hide the milk bottle and offer her grain. At first she would only eat if from my hand, but after a few days, she began to eat it right out of her dish by herself. I was still hesitant to not give her any milk, but decreased it to only half a bottle each day. She began to put on so much weight, we could tell she was having trouble getting up. The sweet, kind lady at the feed store told me flatly "stop giving her the milk". So, I stopped. Of course I felt this was harsh, but necessary. It was the best thing I ever did. She now is simply grazing, drinking from her bucket and enjoying a bit of grain and hay.
Every day that goes by, we don't know if she will continue to improve, but so far....it has been worth our time for the experience and education alone.
Below is a video we took of her last week while she was still on the bottle and here are some pictures of her in the corral. You can still see where her wounds were, there are still a few little scabs healing, but see how big she is? And standing and walking on her own!!!
This video shows her walking ability at this point and a close up of what is left of her injury.
I am sure that I have left out several details and different steps of things we tried, attempts of things that have succeeded and failed. Please feel free to ask any questions whatsoever. Our hope is that this post will encourage others that are having calf problems like the posts we found online that encouraged us!