Clinical Examination of the Cow

Clinical Examination Routine

University of Glasgow crest

The Tail End

Most cattle (especially dairy cattle) are used to being approached from behind, and are less likely to object to this than examination of the head. However, bear in mind that the animal cannot see directly behind them - so if you are first making contact with the animal from the tail end, make sure that you talk to the animal and gently place your hand on the rump before starting the examination so the animal knows that you are there.

General appearance

Before going in to start the hands-on examination, take a step back and look at the animal. Is there any evidence of assymetry in the abdomen that might indicate a bloat? Does the abdomen appear apple shaped, which might indicate a bilateral dorsal distension? Is there any faecal staining on the animal's hindlimbs?

Faecal staining of the hindlimbs Faecal staining down the hindlimbs indicates a degree of diahorrea
Evidence of bloat on the right hand side (notice the swelling ventrally) Bloat

Rectal Temperature

An elevated rectal temperature may indicate an active systemic infection. Remember to hold your thermometer against the wall of the rectum so that you get an accurate reflection of the animal's true temperature, rather than measuring the temperature of the faeces. It is essential that you take a rectal temperature prior to any rectal examination![Temperature reference ranges]

The Male Reproductive Organs

Examination of the male reproductive organs is usually performed during a fertility examination, which is not covered here. If you are going to examine the testicles or penis, ensure that the animal is adequately restrained and that there is a bar behind the hindlibs to prevent you being kicked. A fertility exam will also involve rectal examination to palpate the relevant structures, and a semen evaluation.

The Female Reproductive Tract

If the animal has calved recently, then an examination of the female reproductive tract is essential. Carefully examine the udder, feeling for heat or swellings in any of the quarters. It may be beneficial to strip some milk out of each quarter to perform a california milk test more information, but it is best not to do this as part of a routine examination because of the risk of allowing bacteria into the teat canal.

Gentle stroking of the skin underneath the vulva is likely to prompt the animal to urinate which can be useful if a sample is needed watch video. It is far more difficult to do this successfully if she has recently urinated, so it is wise to collect a urine sample at the start of the clinical examination - a urine disptick test at the start may also reveal information that will guide the rest of the clinical examination. You should also insert a gloved hand inside the vagina, and examine for signs of 'whites' - this may either be an abnormal smell, consistency or colour of the mucous - however this may be done when returning to the tail at the end of the clinical examination (see later).

Circulatory System

In female animals, make a note of the mucuous membranes in the vulva. Do they appear congested, or cyanotic? The coccygeal artey is a good place to take a peripheral pulse - lay the tail across your fingers and feel for a pulse but don't grip the tail too tightly. Make a note of the quality of the pulse.

Coccygeal pulse

Condition Score

Make sure you assess the body condition score of the animal that you are working with. For cattle, the most reliable way to do this is assessment of the thickness of the fat covering the tailhead area and the transverse processes of the sacrum. We use a scoring system between 1 (a very thin cow) and 5 (a very fat cow) with half point intervals, but other clinicians use a 1-9 scale. The most important thing is that you are consistent in your own scoring system. [more information on BCS]

BCS scoring - tailhead BCS scoring - loin

Personal Safety Concerns

Although it is more difficult than for a horse, it is very much possible for a cow to kick backwards - especially if it is a younger animal that is not properly restrained. If you need to perform a rectal examination on a fractious animal, then it is best to turn sideways to the cow and get in close to reduce the potential impact of being kicked. Make sure that there is no bar between you and the floor to cause you damage if the cow goes down while you are rectalling her, and never lean down with your head near the legs or feet - even with a calm animal.


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