Hypothermia and frostbite can be harmful to livestock, but particularly harmful to newborns, says NDSU Extension Veterinarian Charlie Stoltenow.

Newborns often are hypoglycemic, which means they have low energy reserves and electrolyte imbalances. Animals with pre-existing conditions (pneumonia, old age) have impaired body reserves and may succumb more readily to very cold and windy conditions.

Hypothermia is a profound drop in body temp. Animals less than 48 hours old or animals with a pre-existing condition or disease are at the greatest risk for developing hypothermia.

Frostbite is the destruction of tissue in a localized area due to extreme cold. It’s uncommon in healthy, well-fed and sheltered animals, but animals less than 48 hours old or with a pre-existing condition are at the greatest risk for developing frostbite.

Areas most at risk of damage are ears, tail, teats, scrotum and distal parts of the limbs, especially hooves. Hind limbs are more likely to be affected since cattle’s normal posture is to draw its front legs under the chest while the hind legs protrude from under the body.

Treating hypothermia and frostbite is often unrewarding, so prevention is of primary importance. Do this by keeping animals, especially newborns, warm and dry. Windbreaks will counteract the effects of the wind chill.

Bedding also is essential, as it insulates the animal from the snow and ice underneath its body, preventing hypothermia and frostbite, and lowers the animal’s nutritional requirements. Bedding allows the animal to “snuggle” into it and lowers the body surface area exposed to the wind.

The final essential aspect of prevention is to increase the amount of energy supplied in the animal’s diet.
Here’s some advice for treating hypothermia:

  • Warm hypothermic calves slowly. The heat source should be 105-108°F. Warmer temps may cause skin burns or shock. Sources of heat include a warm-water bath, electric blanket, heat lamps or hot-water bottles, plus a warming box.
  • Supplying an energy source to these calves is essential. In newborns, colostrum should be supplied within the first 6-12 hours of life. Provide milk or electrolytes with an energy source such as glucose. An esophageal feeding tube works well to supply these energy sources. Without fluids, the animal becomes acidotic as it warms. An acidotic calf is predisposed to contracting scours or pneumonia.
  • Warm frostbitten areas quickly. Frostbite is the actual destruction of tissue; to prevent permanent damage, circulation must be restored as soon as possible. The heat source should be about 105-108°F. Don’t rub affected areas; they’re already damaged and fragile. As the area warms, it will be painful. Don’t let the animal rub these areas, as that will worsen the situation. In severe cases, analgesics (painkillers) may be indicated. Consult your veterinarian.
Frostbitten teats can be difficult to detect. The first sign may be a thin calf. The teat end is affected and can slough. If this happens, the sphincter muscle of the teat may be lost. This increases the risk of mastitis.

Frostbite also can cause an affected teat to dry up since the cow won’t let the calf nurse. A frostbitten teat may go unnoticed until next year. At that time, the calf is thin, and when the cow is examined, the teat is healed over with scar tissue. This teat will need to be opened.

Frostbite on bulls’ scrotums and testicles often go unnoticed, as well, but can cause transitory or permanent infertility. All herd bulls should have breeding soundness exams 45-60 days after the last severe cold spell. Ask your veterinarian to help with these exams.
-- Charlie Stoltenow, NDSU Extension veterinarian