Displaced Abomasum – Don’t Get Your Stomach in a Twist

So I said I’d go into more detail about my earlier post. Yesterday, I drove our 3 year old Jersey cow, Buttercup, up to Gainesville to the UF Large Animal Hospital for a suspected right displaced abomasum (RDA). Those of you have been around here a little while, may remember that Buttercup was the one that had surgery for an RDA previously last April. The difference this time is that she is very heavy bred. We are guesstimating around 7 or 8 months. Because of this, none of the vets in our area wanted to attempt to do the surgery or treat her. At least those that called me back. :/

Buttercup looking pretty well and happy on Monday.

So what is an RDA? Cows have 4 stomach compartments: the rumen, the reticulum, the omasum, and the abomasum. The abomasum is also known as the “true stomach” as it’s most similar to a human stomach in that it digests food through stomach acids and enzymes. It typically sits at the bottom of the abdominal cavity under the other stomach compartments, but sometimes it can become displaced. This most commonly happens after a cow has calved. A calf being evicted from the womb leaves a lot of room in the body cavity for other organs to move around. Most commonly, the abomasum will move to the left side of the body between the rumen and body wall, known as a left displaced abomasum. Less frequently, but more serious of a condition, the abomasum will move to the right side and can become twisted on itself, and is known as a right displaced abomasum. This essentially cuts off digestive movement past the abomasum. It can also happen under times of stress or changes to routine.  So, it made some sense last time it happened to this cow. We had just trailered her to the Miami Fair and made some changes to her feeding routine.  This time it made ZERO sense. She has a pretty far along fetus in her belly. She hasn’t been moved since September and her feed, hay and water intake have been consistent. If a DA is not caught and treated fairly quickly,  it can be a death sentence. 

So how did I know that’s what was going on? On Tuesday,  Buttercup didn’t want to eat,  which is a major red flag for me.  Otherwise she looked pretty normal. No fever,  no bloat,  no abnormal discharges. I don’t like to jump to treat animals unnecessarily with meds. Between the extreme changes in weather lately and the fact she’s pretty pregnant, I decided to just keep an eye on her.  She got to stay out in the yard with her own pile of hay and water.  The next morning, I hadn’t seen her poop, I couldn’t see any rumen movements (a cow’s rumen will contract 1 to 2 times per minute; you can see these movements on the left side in the space just below the loin, a moving rumen is typically a healthy working rumen), her eyes were more sunken in (dehydration), and she was starting to show signs of bloat on both sides of her belly. Bloat, or trapped gas in the rumen, will be visible on the left side of the animal. If you start to see what looks like trapped gas on the right side of the body, it usually means something else is going on. Plus, an animal that hasn’t really been eating or drinking should have a sunken in appearance, not a bloated one. I knew I needed to check her for a DA, even though I still didn’t really understand what could have caused it to happen again. So I busted out the trusty stethoscope and there was no denying the very distinctive sound of a DA. Imagine the sound of a steel drum or an over inflated basketball bouncing on concrete. Here’s a couple of videos demonstrating how to check for a DA and a DA surgery:


Sound of a DA
TDF Honest Farming – LDA Surgery

Knowing that it was either she has surgery or she dies, I called 3 different vets. 2 of them didn’t call me back and one of them said she wasn’t comfortable doing it and I should just take her to UF. Access to good large animal vet care has long been a serious problem, not just in our area, but around the country. Although there are multiple vets in the surrounding areas, it seems like they are so overwhelmed with demand that they can’t get out to emergencies, they don’t want to work on cattle, or they simply don’t have the knowledge or facilities to work on cattle. Luckily, we have a very good, but unfortunately very expensive, large animal hospital at the University of Florida in Gainesville. I called and off we went. 

Initially, the vet at UF doubted my diagnosis because it really is so rare that an RDA would happen to a cow at this point in her gestation. And not everyone with cattle even knows what a displaced abomasum is. Part of me wondered if maybe I was over-reacting, but I didn’t see that it could be anything else. I dropped her off and on the way home they called me to confirm that it was in fact an RDA and they didn’t want to risk waiting to do the surgery until the morning so were going to perform it right away.  

The surgery went well. The vet said she was up almost immediately, “vigorously eating hay.” Yep, that’s our girl. The calf was able to be left to finish cooking, was alive, and was not showing signs of distress. As of this morning, Buttercup was stable, eating, pooping, and doing the things a cow should be doing. They are going to keep her for a couple of days to give antibiotics and for observation. Are her and her calf 100% out of the woods? No, there’s always risk of infection, stress from the surgery, and it could always happen again. Taking her to UF and this being done in a sterile environment is giving her the best chance at a successful recovery. They were also able to put in a stitch on one end of the abomasum that will hopefully keep it in place and prevent this happening again in the future.  

I wrote a longer post about this for several reasons: 

  1. It never hurts to learn something new. 
  2. I like to be completely transparent about what happens here on the farm; the good, the bad and the ugly. 
  3. I am constantly seeing people with very little livestock experience wanting to get a “family milk cow” having no idea what they are getting into. Cows are way more complicated creatures than people want to give them credit for. So instead of discouraging people from their dreams of owning a cow, I’d like to give some words of advice and things to think about:
  • Observation, observation, observation. Know what your cow looks like on a good, normal day so you can recognize abnormal behaviors. Watch them multiple times a day, not just when you’re going to dump feed. One of the first things I do every morning is look out the window and just watch the cows. I find I’m more likely to notice something is off when they don’t know I’m watching them.
  • Get a good stethoscope and learn how to use it. Learn what the heart, rumen, and lungs should sound like. Learn how to check for a displaced abomasum. When you have a vet come out, ask if they would take a couple of minutes to show you. It’s going to help them out too in the long run.
  • Identify a vet or vets in your area with expertise in cattle BEFORE you get a cow. Keep their numbers on hand. 
  • Are you willing or even capable of hauling your animal somewhere, possibly hours away, to be treated if a vet can’t come to you?
  • Are you willing to shell out possibly thousands of dollars if your animal needs emergency care? When I called UF, I was quoted $2500 – $3000. I had to put a $1500 deposit down before they would let me take her off the trailer. It’s not the kind of money we just have laying around. But, it was either figure it out, or let the cow die. I wasn’t willing to let her die or wait and hope another vet would do it and be less expensive. Maybe I should ask for an Alumni discount?
  • Do not rely on “Facebook medicine.” There are a lot of good homesteading, livestock, and/or dairy groups on social media and I love some old school remedies, but the people on there cannot make an accurate diagnosis of your animal from a picture. They are making suggestions and you may be wasting time that your animal does not have to spare. 
  • Finally, even with the best, most attentive care, things can and WILL go wrong. 

I will give updates on Buttercup and her unborn calf as I have them. I’m hoping to be able to pick her up on Saturday. These cows are going to be the end of me…

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