A Cow Tail

June 7, 2010

By Eric Davis, DVM

Fallen cow
Paralyzed and scared, this heifer was left without food or water.

I was going down a windy road in California, and it was spring in the coastal range—those few weeks when the hills are green, rather than brown or golden, and the lupine and poppies are beginning to show.

As a veterinarian, I look at animals by instinct, so when I saw a cow struggling to get up in a field by the road, I stopped to see what was going on. There was nobody else around, except a few of the ever present California ground squirrels, skittering toward their holes at my intrusion.

The cow was a young heifer and grew agitated by my coming closer. She was obviously a range animal and not used to humans, except when they come bearing cattle prods, needles or other things to be avoided. Her attempts to stand showed all the signs of obturator paralysis, a condition that occurs when a large calf comes through the birth canal of a small heifer, damaging the nerves that course through the obturator foramen of the animal's pelvis. These nerves control the function of the hind legs, and affected animals cannot stand, because they cannot control their legs.

Further examination of the chocolate brown heifer and her surroundings confirmed my suspicion that she had recently calved and was paralyzed. The tire tracks in the new grass around her suggested that the calf had been pulled with some kind of motorized vehicle; this kind of forced birth crushes the nerves where they pass over the pelvis on the way to the muscles of the hind legs.

Paralyzed and unable to stand, the rancher had left her there with no water, in the off chance that the paralysis might resolve. Unfortunately, too much time had passed and we were unable to save her. I reported the incident to the local animal abuse investigators, hopeful that we could save other animals on this ranch from a similar fate.

A humane approach

On the way home I reflected on another case of obturator paralysis that I saw a couple of years ago. The heifer was in central Mexico, in the little town of Peña Blanca. It was a very hot day and we were extremely busy working on campesino's horses and donkeys, on an HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) trip.

A woman walked in to tell us that she had a cow that was unable to stand and needed help. Typically shy when confronted with a male veterinarian from the Estados Unidos, she said only that the cow no esta lejos, which meant not far away. Of course, what is far or near is a matter of one's prospective.

Unlike in California, where the heifer was in a grassy field next to a paved road, this animal was in a barren, cactus-studded desert. Although she had intended to walk back to her home with us following, she reluctantly accepted a ride in our SUV. The trip turned out to be around five miles on a dirt trail that wound through the desert. In her world this was not far, but it was definitely not a path for us gringos to walk.

On the way she told us that her husband was in el Norte trying to make some money, leaving her and her daughter to take care of the small farm, a few chickens, and the cow. When we finally reached the tiny brick building that was her home, she pointed to the thin heifer lying on the ground.

Just like the heifer we saw near the road, this poor animal had delivered a large calf and had obturator paralysis. However, unlike the situation in California—a privileged land by comparison—the owner of this heifer had provided her with water and feed; this was quite literally all they had.

We examined the heifer in the heat and dust, and gave her some anti-inflammatory drugs for pain and to decrease the swelling around the injured nerves. I told the woman to keep food and water in front of the heifer. I have no doubt that she did, though this meant hauling water from a well in a small pail, in addition to their other hardships. I hope that the heifer made a full recovery, but I take some comfort in knowing we did everything we could.

The main difference is that for this poor woman, by herself in the desert of Mexico, that heifer meant something. She cared enough to give it food and water, and walk a treacherous five miles for help. In the United States, an individual animal may not count for much to some, and the decision to treat it or not is often based on a cold economic equation.

Did it make a lot of difference to these two animals? Maybe, maybe not. But it should make a difference to our collective souls.

Dr. Eric Davis developed the HSVMA Rural Area Veterinary Services (HSVMA-RAVS) program in 1995 and has served as mentor and inspiration to hundreds of young veterinary professionals over the years. He continues his hard work in the field and is currently a consultant for the program.