Your Reading List

Peritonitis in cows and its causes

Health: In acute cases, a post mortem is critical to help determine the cause

Peritonitis refers to the inflammation or infection around the peritoneum which is the inside lining of the abdomen. Any infection involving the abdomen receives the nondescript description of peritonitis. This could be an infection around the intestines, stomachs, liver or uterus in cows and heifers. What is most important here is there are many causes of peritonitis and if your veterinarian can diagnose it and determine the cause it may in some cases prevent future infections. Some cases aren’t really preventable but at least you can be comforted in the thought there was nothing you could have done.

Related Articles

cow eating hay

Common signs of peritonitis are increased temperature, depression and grunting from a painful abdomen. Your veterinarian may take blood for a blood count and fibrinogen levels, which are an indication of inflammatory material collecting in the abdomen. The abdomen is painful on palpation and a veterinary test is the grunt test with a withers pinch.

The disease entity talked about most by producers is hardware disease, which is a form of peritonitis. This is caused by something sharp, mainly metal, penetrating though the reticulum (first stomach) causing leakage of contents and infection. This may even involve infection around the heart.

If more cases are noted treatment can be started earlier and your veterinarian may in certain circumstances advise putting magnets in the cattle. The magnets stay in the reticulum for the life of the animal and any iron metal compound sticks to the magnet to keep it from penetrating the first stomach.

Magnets have come down in price over the years and the good ones are very strong. Intense feeder operations, including dairies, where lots of equipment is used and silage fed has metal getting into the feed and hardware disease can be a recurring problem. If caught early anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics, which get into the abdomen, are what your veterinarian may prescribe.

A good many causes of acute diffuse peritonitis result in a fairly sudden death (over one to two days) and that is why autopsies on these cows may give you very usable information.

These deaths can be posted under the BSE testing program in many of the cases as long as they are greater than 30 months of age and meet the other criteria.

A post mortem is absolutely critical to help determine the exact cause of the peritonitis. Sometimes the history may give it away such as a hard calving or head back or a breech birth that was corrected and all these problems may lead to a torn uterus if one is not careful. Then the placenta and uterine contents leak into the abdomen and peritonitis is the result.

In major infections the whole abdomen may be infected and it may actually be very difficult for the attending veterinarian to determine the initiating cause of the infection. Cattle have an amazing ability to wall off the infection minimizing its spread, which is why they can take the most of any species when it comes to abdominal infection.

This is why C-sections can be performed in barns with surprisingly good results as long as some degree of hygiene is performed.

Peritonitis can be caused by such other things as rupturing of abscesses on the liver or the vagina of a heifer from a traumatic breeding by a large aggressive bull.

Grain overload can lead to peritonitis especially around the rumen.

The rectum may rupture at calving or another phenomena called the scissor effect when the cow’s small intestines get trapped between the pelvis and uterus. This happens more with a backward calving. As the calf is expelled the pressure on the intestines creates a cut from the cow’s pelvis. Ingesta spills out internally and the cow usually dies within 24-36 hours. These can happen from a pull or even when a cow calves naturally. Post mortems in these cases identify the cause, and while it generally can’t be prevented the PM rules out other causes of sudden death in cows such as blackleg or grass tetany, which could be prevented.

Two times in my long veterinary career I have had the rectum rip clear through from palpating. This would have caused this same death but in one instance I had the heifer emergency slaughtered and in the other instance I was able to suture the tear back up. This is why in tough calvings or when malpresentations are corrected we check the uterus after to make sure there are no tears. If you discover them have your veterinarian out, as they may be able to suture them up and save the cow.

When treating cows for milk fever and other metabolic disorders certain products are approved for intraperitoneal use but many are not, so be careful. If giving products this way, make sure the needle is new and is given into a clean area. There once was a rumen injector for administering a deworming product directly into the rumen and it was very soon pulled from the market because of the peritonitis it was causing. This could be an infectious process or a chemical peritonitis from the sensitive internal organs having a reaction to the product. Regardless, in either case you have a very sick animal. We must be careful and at first do no harm, so think twice about injecting anything into the abdomen unless advised by your veterinarian.

The newest trend in pregnancy testing is using an ultrasound with an introducer. Your veterinarian must use lots of lubricant on this tool and introduce it carefully if the cows have dry manure. I have heard of two instances where the colon has been perforated by an introducer resulting in a dead cow. Unlike when I did it manually the veterinarian had no idea this had happened. After handling, processing or preg checking it is good to get any sudden deaths posted so any injury or perforations during processing can be recorded and steps hopefully taken to prevent it from happening again in the future.

Peritonitis in young calves can result from perforated abomasal ulcers, blocked intestines, navel infections gone internal, so always keep these conditions in mind when dealing with sick calves. Many methods are used to prevent navel infections and surgery may be done on the other two problems if they are caught early enough.

Work with your veterinarian by posting unexplained deaths as the incidence of many of these causes can be reduced and you may even find a disease you never expected.

A diagnosis of peritonitis on post mortem would be very hard for trained veterinarians to miss but the key is what really caused it in the first place.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



Stories from our other publications