David Steffen, a DVM with the University of Nebraska’s Veterinary Diagnostic Center, says signs of hardware stomach aren’t specific.

“If the cow has a localized abscess or mild peritonitis, she goes off feed and looks dull, but these signs could also be indicative of several other diseases. By the time she shows signs of heart failure, the heart sac is severely damaged and it’s too late,” he says.

Matt Miesner, Kansas State University assistant professor of agricultural practices, says signs of hardware stomach can appear quickly, slowly or intermittently. Cattle with a foreign object poking into or through the stomach wall may be humped up from internal pain.

“The cow eats less, and drops in milk production, so her calf may not be doing well, either. In addition, we may see signs of heart problems, and the jugular vein may be distended. The cow may appear to have a respiratory problem, breathing fast and shallow,” Miesner says.

Such symptoms may be mistaken for respiratory disease, especially if she’s going into heart failure, Miesner says. In fact, some cases look like high-altitude disease because there’s so much edema in the brisket, and the jugular veins are huge.

“The animal’s fever isn’t usually very high – maybe 104-104.5 F. If a rancher treats with antibiotics, it may help for awhile, but she still isn’t doing well. By the time the veterinarian is called, signs may still be vague,” he says.

As magnets are often bolused into the cow’s stomach as a preventive measure to collect foreign metal material, an attending veterinarian may use a compass to see if the cow has a magnet, Miesner says.

“The veterinarian also may pinch the cow’s withers. Most cattle, if their withers are pinched, will sink down to get away from that irritation. But if they have lower abdominal pain, they won’t sink down because that would hurt more. Instead, they may hump up.”

Another diagnostic technique is for two people – one on each side of the cow – to press a bar or board upward against the cow’s sternum. “Sometimes you have to listen to the airway with a stethoscope while this is being done, but this upward pressure makes the cow grunt,” Miesner says.

Most veterinarians don’t x-ray a cow due to size limitations, but ultrasound can be useful, he adds.

“I place an ultrasound probe on the cow’s chest or sternum, which may allow me to see some pus around the reticulum. I can see the rumen moving or if it’s ‘sticking’ because of infection and adhesions,” he says. If there’s an adhesion, the animal may be prone to bloating, and may not be chewing her cud.