Clinical Evaluation of a Cow

“It is fundamental that we must be able to observe the normal before we can observe the abnormal and also that many incorrect diagnoses are made, not because we don’t know, but because  we are not looking”

It happens from time to time that a veterinarian is not immediately available and that the stock owner is then required to examine the cow. It is important to remember that the farmer cannot take the place of the veterinarian. The following measures will only give the farmer an indication of how urgently the service of the veterinary surgeon is needed. The farmer could give his observations by telephone and the vet can then suggest preliminary steps to be taken in the time before he arrives to examine the animal.


First and foremost a complete history of the animal is needed, such as age, gender, breed, stage of lactation and level of production. This information will be readily available if the farmer has kept the relevant records up to date.

The clinical symptoms, number of animals affected, the total drop in production, recent vaccinations, recently bought animals, etc. are other important matters that should be noted.

The area where the animals are kept must be inspected for poisons, poisonous plants, etc. Check the water source as well. Have the cows been watering somewhere else than at the usual water source?

As the animals are moved to the crush, note the way they move – a sore hoof may become obvious when the animal walks. Check for a swollen abdomen, sunken eyes, and whether the animal is alert.

With the animal in an appropriate crush-pen, check the body in the following way to ensure that nothing is omitted. Five different “stations” have to be examined. Examine the hind side, left side, right side, head and neck, and the hind side again, always in the same order, to ensure that the entire animal has been covered.

Hind side

This might seem like a strange area to start, but it is, firstly and most importantly, necessary to measure the cow’s temperature. In this way contagious diseases may be differentiated from other diseases. The normal temperature for a cow is about 38,5 °C. While taking the temperature, check the colour of the mucous membranes and any discharges from the external genitalia. Usually at this stage of the examination the cow will urinate – note the colour of the urine. The colour of the skin and the condition of the hair as well as the general condition of the cow must also be noted.

Left side

Without a stethoscope to listen to the heart and lungs there is little that the farmer can do. However, count the number of breaths per minute – normal breathing tempo is between 25 -30 breaths per minute.

You may also examine the area between the posterior side of the ribs and the anterior side of the hind leg (hindflank hollow) to determine the movement of the rumen. About one contraction per minute is normal. A bloated animal will have a large bulge in this area and a drum-like sound due to excess gas in the intestines (rumen) may be detected.

Right side

Repeat the procedure as for the left side.

Head and neck

The breastbone and neck areas must be examined for any swellings. Also note the pulse tempo of the jugular vein. Your veterinarian could also show you where to locate the pre-scapular lymph node. Some viral infections are associated with enlarged lymph nodes, but there could be many other causes as well.

Check the head for symmetry, if there are any abnormal swellings. Also examine the nostrils , mouth and inside of the mouth. NEVER put your hand into the mouth of an animal if there is any possibility of rabies.

Carefully examine the eyes in detail, and especially note the degree of dehydration and the colour of the mucous membranes. Blood samples may be taken from the tips of the ears for the veterinarian to examine at a later stage.

Hind side – once more

After the four “stations” have been completed, return to the hind side. The udder and teats may now be inspected in detail for any signs of swelling, pain and discomfort, which might indicate possible mastitis. Milk samples may also be taken at this stage for later examination in a laboratory. An internal examination is also part of a clinical examination, but this has to be performed by the vet. This is the usual stage for pregnancy to be confirmed and any abnormalities of the pelvis must be noted. Also check the dung.

As is apparent, a specific method is followed to prevent the omission of any organ or system.

The best option remains to contact the veterinarian, who is a trained scientist and is able to administer the correct treatment after examining the animal.

Disclaimer: Zoetis takes no responsibility for any claims that may arise from information contained in this information sheet. Individual situations may vary from location to location and it is recommended that you consult your veterinarian before any management or treatment decisions are implemented.

Vrywaring: Zoetis neem geen verantwoordelikheid vir enige eise wat mag voortspruit uit inligting vervat in hierdie inligtingsdokument. Individuele situasies varieer van plek tot plek en dit word voorgestel dat u eers u veearts kontak alvorens enige bestuurs- of behandelingsbesluite geïmplementeer word.