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Moving In! The New Cow Arrival Guide

When a new cow arrives at your sanctuary, there are several critical steps that must be taken to ensure safety for the incoming resident, the existing residents, and yourself! Identify The Specific Needs Of Incoming Individuals While cows, in general, have certain diet, housing, and care needs, you must also consider if the new arrivals require any special accommodations based on their age, breed, health status, known history, or the circumstances of their recent living situation. Each new resident and situation will be different, but some things to consider include:
  • If you’re taking in calves, you will have to learn how to properly care for them in terms of heat, food, and shelter, if you take in a pregnant cow, you will need to learn how to offer appropriate prenatal care.
  • If you welcome a mother cow along with her nursing calf, you should not separate the two of them unless necessary for their health. If you separate them, allow them to be close enough to touch if they choose to!
  • If you are taking in a female cow from a dairy production setting, you must work closely with your veterinarian to make sure you are not encouraging further milk production while ensuring she does not develop mastitis.
  • If the new cow is from a starvation situation, you must work closely with your veterinarian to determine what to feed them. Offering unrestricted food sources to an individual who has been starved can result in serious health complications.
  • If the new resident is a mature bull (unneutered male), you should take time to closely observe his behavior before entering his living space, and make sure staff who will work with him know what physical cues to be on the lookout for that may indicate he is frightened or feeling confrontational. Not all bulls are confrontational, but they do have the potential to behave quite differently than a neutered male and can cause serious injury if they slam or kick someone, so it’s important to thoroughly assess their response to human presence and interactions.
  • Similarly, if the new cow is fearful or confrontational, be sure to keep human safety in mind when working with the cow. Being in a confined space with a fearful or confrontational cow has the potential to be quite dangerous. You may need to utilize a chute system to safely evaluate the cow. Make sure anyone working with the cow is trained in safe practices and is well-versed in cow body language and behavior.
  • If the new cow is very agile and appears to be fearful, or if the new resident is assumed to have escaped from their previous living situation, be sure to assess if your quarantine space can safely contain them. A frightened cow may try to jump a fence, and you might be surprised just how high a cow can jump if they feel they need to. Not only do you want to avoid the new resident getting loose, they could also seriously injure themselves while trying to escape. Any time you take in fearful individuals, it is important to find gentle ways to help them become more comfortable around their caregivers. They may never become cows who crave human attention (though some individuals who arrive very fearful certainly do!), but you should be able to ease their fears and hence increase their comfort, even if they choose to keep their distance from humans.
Adhere To A Quarantine Policy The new cow must be housed in a strict quarantine area on your premises away from all other residents (not even nose-to-nose contact through a fence), even if you know exactly where the cow came from! At a minimum, new cows must be kept away from other cow residents but could potentially spread disease to other residents as well. Quarantine is absolutely crucial to protect everyone from possible infectious diseases that may not be producing visible symptoms in a healthy-looking arrival; an entire herd could be easily infected, and possibly killed, by certain diseases, and some diseases can contaminate pastures and live in the soil for over a year. Even if the cow was previously healthy, a new environment can produce stress that might cause an illness flare-up or make them more likely to shed certain diseases. Reciprocally, existing residents might be carrying a disease that the new resident isn’t healthy enough to fight off yet! If you’re taking in a whole herd that was living together previously, you can probably quarantine them together since it’s likely that any diseases they have will be already spread throughout the herd, and staying together may put the new residents more at ease. However, if the herd includes a mix of females and unneutered males who are sexually mature, you will need to take steps to prevent breeding. If an individual cow seems extremely ill or behaving oddly, they should be isolated from the others until a veterinarian determines exactly what’s wrong. Monitor the herd to ensure that the current social situation is safe for everyone. Just because they came in together, does not necessarily mean they get along well. If anyone appears to be getting picked on, find a way to split the group to reduce tensions while avoiding anyone having to live alone unless necessary. Striking A Balance Companionship for herd animals such as cows is especially important to their health. Complete isolation from other residents can potentially hinder them from recovering from illness or adjusting well to a new setting. While quarantine must be given priority for new residents, is there a way that you can provide them some sense that others are nearby? Maybe it means moving them to a quarantine pen nearer to your other residents after determining they are not carrying anything that could spread. Maybe it means putting your quarantine pasture within visual distance of others. Or maybe it means using cow-safe enrichment until the new resident is able to join the herd. You must find the balance between safe quarantine for everyone in your care and the potential loneliness that it could lead to! Anyone meeting the new cow should wear gloves and full body covering or immersion suits and should either wear boot covers or use foot baths. This is true even for healthy looking cows, but is imperative if the cow is visibly ill, has diarrhea, or is producing undiagnosed discharge. These protective coverings should not be used outside of this quarantine space or you will defeat the purpose of wearing them in the first place! The new cow should remain in quarantine for a minimum of 30 days, and until all blood work and fecal exams come back with a clean bill of health. Make sure any external parasites have been eradicated before discontinuing quarantine, considering the life cycle of the parasite to ensure enough time has passed since the last instances of live parasites being found. Ideally, you should have designated tools used only to clean the new cow’s space that are not used in other living areas. If this is not possible, all tools and cleaning supplies must be thoroughly disinfected before being used in other areas. It’s best to keep all bedding from quarantined areas away from other residents and their living spaces, especially if the arriving cow seems to be in poor health, has unexplained discharge, or diarrhea. If you typically spread old bedding on your sanctuary’s pastures, wait to do so with bedding from quarantined spaces until new residents have been evaluated by a veterinarian. Depending on their evaluation and any testing they recommend, they may advise you continue to keep bedding separate pending certain test results. Evaluating A New Cow’s Health When welcoming a new resident to your sanctuary, it is imperative that you assess their overall health to ensure you are addressing any issues as soon as possible. This is accomplished through initial observations, an intake examination, diagnostic testing, ongoing observation, and possibly a veterinarian’s assessment of the individual, especially if the new cow shows any signs of concerns. Initial Observations Whenever you welcome a new resident to your sanctuary, it is crucial that you spend some time observing the individual upon arrival to determine any immediate needs they may have. If you or your staff picked up the individual and transported them back to the sanctuary, this observation process will begin before the new resident sets foot on sanctuary grounds. Through thoughtful observation, you may be able to identify signs of concern that warrant immediate veterinary care or further assessment on your part. This part of the intake process will also help determine if an intake examination must happen immediately or can wait for the new resident to settle in a little bit. In instances where you are taking in multiple new residents, this process will also help you prioritize individuals who appear to require more urgent assessment. If you are taking in cows who look very similar, you must have a system of identifying and documenting individuals while you are getting to know who is. For more docile individuals, the use of properly fitting collars with name tags can be helpful for staff or volunteers who are working on learning everyone’s name and can also be a good way to make sure information is being recorded for the correct individual. Collars do come with potential risk if residents get them caught on something, so if you can find a breakaway style, that would be your safest bet. Regardless of the style, collars may not be a good option for a more skittish or confrontational cow, as it may be difficult to safely put on and regularly check the collar. Be careful using collars on cows who are still growing. They will need to be checked often and refitted as needed. Every individual will have their own unique characteristics, so if collars are not an option, you could take lots of pictures and write out thorough descriptions for staff and volunteers to refer to while learning everyone’s names. If a cow arrives with an ear tag, record their tag number if applicable (and consider taking a photo as well), and as long as it is not causing issues currently, we recommend you not remove it for at least 30 days and until you are sure you won’t be adopting the individual out of your region (to avoid having to ear tag them again in the future). Keep any removed tags with their records. Prioritizing An Intake Examination It’s important to perform an intake examination on all new residents, ideally within 24 hours of arrival, though some may need more immediate assessment. An intake exam includes conducting a full health examination to evaluate their overall health and to learn more about the individual, as well as gather important information for their permanent record. Be sure to follow quarantine procedures while conducting the intake exam. To learn more about the intake examination process, including how to prioritize assessing and addressing a new resident’s needs, check out our resource here! If, for whatever reason, you are unable to perform a full health examination shortly after their arrival, you will need to closely observe new residents for signs of concerns and take steps to address those concerns appropriately. An intake examination is conducted in much the same way as a routine health examination- you should check every inch of the cow, looking for any signs of concerns, and providing any necessary treatments. Be sure to consider the individual when conducting the exam. Depending on the cow’s age, breed, and previous living situation, they may be more likely to arrive with certain diseases. For example, cows rescued from a dairy production setting should be thoroughly evaluated for mastitis, since they are more likely to have or develop this condition than cows who were not recently exploited for milk. Calves also have their own set of common health challenges. You can find more information about health challenges that commonly affect calves here. Other conditions that are common in newly rescued cows include:
  • Hoof Issues– Because sanctuaries often take in individuals who may have had their needs neglected, very often new cows arrive with overgrown hooves. Be sure to evaluate their feet and check for any signs of hoof rot, hoof abscesses, or other abnormalities. Schedule a visit from your farrier or veterinarian to trim their feet and address any issues. Some types of bacterial hoof rot are highly contagious and must be aggressively treated. Be sure to work with your veterinarian to diagnose any issues and establish a treatment plan.
  • Mobility or Joint Issues– You should assess the cow’s mobility by watching them walk and looking for any abnormalities in their gait or shifting of weight when standing. When checking their legs, pay extra attention to their joints, looking for any swelling and listening for crepitus (popping or crunching). If safe to do so, you can feel the joint for heat as well. Mobility and joint issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian to determine the cause and appropriate treatment plan.
  • Respiratory Issues– Watch closely, both during the intake examination and during the quarantine period, for any signs of respiratory illness such as nasal discharge, coughing, an elevated respiratory rate, fever, or breathing that sounds wet, raspy, or wheezy. Your veterinarian can evaluate the cow’s lungs, recommend diagnostic testing, and ultimately offer treatment options.
  • Pinkeye– If the cow arrives with eye issues, especially during fly season, be sure to consider if it could be pinkeye, or infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (IBK), which is highly contagious. All eye issues should be evaluated by a veterinarian as soon as possible, as early treatment of many issues is important to prevent permanent eye damage. Because pinkeye is contagious and is often spread by flies, be sure to use proper fly mitigation strategies as well as following quarantine procedures to prevent spread to other residents. Some cows may arrive with scarred eyes from old pinkeye infections.
  • External Parasites– Checking for external parasites should be a part of all resident health examinations, but it is especially important for incoming cows. Lice infestations are especially common in cows, and new cows can easily spread these parasites to other residents.
In addition to looking for signs of concern, you should determine the following information. In some cases, this will require veterinary involvement:
  • Assess spay/ neuter/ pregnancy status: New males should be evaluated to determine their neuter status, though in some cases you may need a veterinarian to help with this if you are unsure. Intact males should be scheduled for castration as soon as your veterinarian deems appropriate. They will need time to recover after the surgery, which could delay their introduction to other residents if done towards the end of their quarantine period. Females who are sexually mature should be evaluated for pregnancy through an ultrasound and/ or BioPRYN blood testing. If laparoscopic ovariectomies are part of your cow care practices, work with your veterinarian to determine if they are healthy enough (and mature enough) to undergo the procedure. If an incoming resident is early on in their pregnancy, some sanctuaries choose to administer Lutalyse (or a similar product) to induce miscarriage. This decision ultimately depends on an individual sanctuary’s Philosophy of Care.
  • Approximate their age by looking at their teeth: We are not talking about evaluating their dental health here- that definitely requires an experienced veterinarian. However, by observing how many adult teeth a cow has, you can estimate their age. For some individuals, it may not be safe to put yourself that close to their head, in which case you will need to skip this step for now. If you have never done this before, there are plenty of resources online that show how, but you should work with your veterinarian and have them show you how to to do so safely. While calves may be easy to restrain safely, it can be difficult to prevent a mature cow from swinging their head and being hit in the face by a large cow’s head can be quite dangerous. A veterinarian may also be better able to guess the age of a cow who has all their adult teeth by looking at how long or worn they are. Having a general idea of their age can be very helpful when considering their needs. When examining their teeth, never put your hand inside a cow’s mouth as they have extraordinarily strong jaws and could seriously injure a hand or finger.
  • Consider placing a rumen magnet: If you haven’t already, talk to your veterinarian about using rumen magnets to help prevent hardware disease, and work with them to establish an appropriate protocol for your residents. Depending on your protocols and the age of the new cow, either have the magnet placed during the intake process or schedule placement for a later date.
Incoming Testing If you have not already done so, work with your veterinarian to determine appropriate incoming testing protocols for new cows you welcome to your sanctuary. While individuals showing signs of concern may require additional diagnostics, there may be certain tests your veterinarian recommends for all incoming cows. At a minimum, all new residents should have a fecal sample submitted to check for internal parasites and, if the cow is old enough, to test for Johnes’ disease. If they have diarrhea, you should also test for Salmonella. If the cow has internal parasites, your veterinarian will be able to recommend deworming treatments based on the fecal results. Be sure to submit another fecal sample 10-14 days after any deworming treatment to evaluate its effectiveness. In order to help prevent the ever-increasing resistance to available deworming medications, it’s important to only use dewormers when necessary and to work closely with your veterinarian if resistance to certain dewormers seems to be an issue. If the cow tests positive for Johne’s disease, but is not clinical, they can often go on to have a good quality of life for many years but can shed the disease in their feces. Younger cows seem especially susceptible to the disease, so you should house them away from Johne’s positive cows and the pastures they have been on. Work with your veterinarian to determine appropriate protocols to keep everyone safe.