Water Belly

D. E. Larsen, DVM

Louie and Pansy’s place was a marvel to view. When I would drive by going up Whiskey Butte, I had often wondered if the large clear fields in the middle of forested land were a natural prairie. Those were common in Coos County and were the sites of many of the early homesteads. But I had not noticed any here in the foothills of the Cascade Mountains.

Louie had called with a sick bull.

“Doc, I don’t know what is going on with this guy, but he looks pretty sick,” Louie said. “Do you think you could get up here to look at him today?”

“I have time this afternoon, Louie,” I said. “I just want to double-check your location.”

“We’re the first ranch when you are coming up Whiskey Butte from Wiley Creek,” Louie said. “We have several nice pastures right along the road.”

“Yes, I know the place,” I said. “I can get there shortly after one this afternoon.”

“Stan suggested I give you a call,” Louie said. “My wife, Pansy, is Stan’s mother.”

“Ah, that’s right, Stan mentioned that you had a sick bull,” I said. “From what he was saying, it sounded like a water belly. Do you have him caught?”

“Doc, he is gentle as a lamb when he is normal. Now that he is sick, he hardly moves,” Louie said. “We shouldn’t have any problem working on him in the pasture.”

“I will come up and see what we can do,” I said. “But one thing you need to keep in mind, Louie, the tame bull is probably the most dangerous bull on the small farm. It is the tame bull who will kill you, maybe almost by accident. But we can talk about that after we look at your bull.”


The afternoon sun was starting to warm the spring day when I turned into Louie’s driveway. Louie and Pansy were waiting at a gate near the barn.

“I couldn’t get him to come out of the pasture,” Louie said. “He isn’t feeling too well. I don’t think you will have any problem with him.”

“That pasture looks like the ground is still pretty soft. My guess is this truck won’t do so well driving out there.”

“Doc, if you just pull through the gate, and I will go move him a little closer for you,” Louie said.

I pulled into the pasture, and my tires spun a little as I pulled away from the gate. There was no way that I was going to be able to drive out into this pasture.

“I have always admired this property, Pansy,” I said. “Was this prairie land when you came?”

“Oh no!” Pansy said. “My husband, Stan’s father, cleared all this land the first summer we were here. He had a team of horses and a box of dynamite, and he grubbed out every stump. He would dig a hole under the stump, stick a half stick dynamite into the hole and blow the stump mostly out of the ground. Then he would hook it to the team and drag it to the center of the field. Boy, did we have a bonfire that Fall.”

Louie had moved the bull close, and he had come to a stop. I gathered some stuff from the truck and walked out to look at him.

This was an older Hereford bull. He was a big boy, probably sixteen hundred pounds or more. 

I could see a tremendous swelling on his posterior ventral abdomen. The swelling was from urine under his skin. He was sick from uremic toxicity.

“Stan was pretty accurate in his description,” I said. “This guy definitely has a ruptured urethra, and that massive swelling is urine under his skin.”

“Can we do anything to save him?” Louie asked. “I mean, that is a lot of hamburger standing there. He ain’t nothing special as a breeding bull. He just gets the job done. But I would guess those days are over for him.”

“Yes, those days are over,” I said. “He is pretty sick, but we might be able to salvage him for hamburger this Fall.”

I went up and scratched the bull on his back. I was leery of working around an unrestrained bull in a pasture. One toss of his head would knock a man down. And once on the ground, it is hard to say what is going to happen.

Bending over, I examined the skin associated with swelling. There was a large patch of dead skin. It was black in color and hard, leather-like to the touch. It was going to be a few months, at least before this guy heals up. It might be hamburger next Winter, rather than Fall.

“Louie, I can make his plumbing work again, and we can castrate him so he can concentrate on healing. But he is going to lose a great big chunk of skin on his belly. That skin is dead. It is just going to fall off one day. He is going to look a lot worse before he starts looking better.”

“When do you want to do all of that?” Louie asked.

“I’m here now,” I said. “I plan to do it right now.”

“What has caused all of this?” Louie asked. “I have never seen or heard anything like this before.”

“He has a stone that blocks his urine flow,” I said. “Once that happens, his bladder breaks, or his urethra breaks. In this case, the urethra broke, and he has been peeing under his skin. Judging from the size of the swelling, this has been going on for five days or more. He is sick because that waste from his urine is just recycled into his system instead of being pissed out on the ground.”

“So, I understand the castration part, but how are you going to fix the plumbing?” Louie asked.

“There are a couple of options,” I said. “Basically, I am going to cut off his penis above where the stone is located and bring it out the back here so he can pee,” I said. “When this happens on a steer, where we see it most often, we bring that penis out up high, just below the rectum. In this case, since I will be working on a castration, we will bring it out low, and it will be pointing down. These procedures are called a ‘high heifer’ and a ‘low heifer.’ The problem with them is it sort of makes a mess with urine splatter off the tail. Things will be better with a low heifer. It will miss the tail for the most part.”

“How do you know where the stone is located?” Louie asked. 

“I trust experience, my experience, and the experience of the profession,” I said. “It is always located at the sigmoid flexure. That is where the penis sort of folds back on itself and allows for a full extension at erection. Of course, always is a big word, but I have never seen it at another location. If we find these guys very early, before rupture takes place, we just go in and remove the stone.”

“I am going to get my stuff, and then I will lay this guy down and do the surgery,” I said.

I got my casting rope, a bucket of warm water, a surgery pack, and my emasculator. With my battery-operated clippers, I clipped an area on his tail head to do an epidural. I prepped the area and injected eight ccs of lidocaine for epidural anesthesia.

Then I applied a flying W with my casting rope.

“I usually have to have the head tied to make this work just right, but this guy is immobile enough. I’m going to try it with him just standing here.”

“What are you talking about?” Louie asked, with some concern in his voice.

“I’m going to put this guy on the ground.”

“You have got to be kidding,” Louie said.

I gave a hard pull on both ends of the rope coming out between his hind legs, and the bull strained for a second and then fell over on his left side. I took a wrap on his right hind leg, pulled it up as far as I could, and tied it with the rope. Then I tied the left leg, but I couldn’t pull it up so far with him on his side. Any struggling or kicking would place more pressure on the flying W and maintain his restraint.

“I have seen it all, now,” Louie said. “Where did you learn to do that?”

“I’ve been to school, Louie.”

Castrating a large mature bull is not something that is done very often. When I was twelve or thirteen, I watched my Uncle Duke do a bull for Gene Bartlett using a burdizzo clamp. That is a clamp that crushes the cord without an incision. In my professional experience, I have seen it used, and I would suspect it to be difficult in untrained hands. 

At a local veterinary association meeting in Enumclaw shortly after I graduated, an old veterinarian told me of his experience in castrating a large bull. He incised the scrotum and the tunics to expose the testicles and placed a large forceps on the end of the testicles, and just started twisting the testicles until they fell out. The cords breaking off, probably in the abdomen. That bull did fine, and there was no obvious bleeding.

I was always taught to stay with what I knew. I incised the scrotum on each side, incised the tunics so I wouldn’t have to deal with a large cremaster muscle, and removed the testicles with an emasculator. There was no bleeding.

Doing a high heifer is something that I did a couple of times a year. We did them more often in Colorado, where urethral calculi were more common. It was easy to find the penis as it exited the pelvis and ran down and between the hind legs on its route to the preputial orifice. Digging for the penile structure at the base of the scrotum proved a little more complicated, but I did find it. I pulled back on the structure and amputated it close to the sigmoid flexure. This would give me ample length to position the low heifer where it would cause the least amount of urine soiling for this guy.

I pulled this penile stump out and positioned it so the urine flow would miss both the switch of his tail and his hind legs. I anchored it with nylon sutures to the skin and closed the incision. 

Then I shortened it to a length with limited tissue exposure but long enough that it wouldn’t end up back under the skin. I placed several mattress sutures to prevent any bleeding from the cavernous structures of the penis. I incised and spread the urethra so it would not scar closed.

Now all I had to do was clip the hair on the dead skin of this bull’s belly. After clipping the area, I made several long slashes in the dead skin to allow the urine trapped under the skin to drain.

“Louie, I am going to give this guy some long-acting sulfa so you won’t have to worry about medicating him for a while,” I said. “He is going to pee out this rigging behind his scrotum, and this belly is going to look a whole lot worse before it looks better.”

“What do you think his odds are, Doc?” Louie asked.

“Ask me that when I recheck him next week,” I said. “To be perfectly honest with you, I have never done this on a bull. I did see a steer with his belly skin sloughed when I worked in the feedlots in Colorado. He was quite the sight for a time, but he did heal up. My guess is this guy will make pretty good hamburger around Christmas.”

I was just starting to untie the bull when we noticed Jack and Gene walking in from the gate.

“We were just driving by and wondered what you guys were up to,” Gene said. “We noticed this bull the other day. What was his problem?”

I finished releasing the bull’s legs and kicked him on the rear so he would start getting up.

“This guy is a water belly,” I said. “We had to rework his plumbing a little, but he should be fine after some healing time.”

“What did you give him to get him to lie down like that?” Jack asked.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” Louie said. “He just walked out here and put the rope trick on him, gave it a tug, and the damn bull just laid down.”

“Where did you learn all these tricks to handle cows, Doc?” Jack said. “I never saw any of those Albany vets do anything like this.”

“I went to school, Jack,” I said. “You just never gave those guys from Albany a chance to show you what they know.”

“Well, you sure in the hell got that right,” Jack said. “And I ain’t going to give them another chance.

The bull stood up, and I finished removing the rope. I sprayed him with fly spray, even if we were a little early. Then I grabbed his now nose with my nose tongs. Gene was quick to give me a hand by holding the rope on the nose tongs while I stuffed a handful of Albon SR boluses down the bull.

“This guy is not feeling too well today, Jack,” I said. “Putting him on the ground and medicating him just now probably wouldn’t be so easy if he was well. I am generally pretty cautious about handling bulls. They can be dangerous.”

“Louie, I will get back up in a couple of days just to check on him,” I said. “I will give you a call before I come, but you probably don’t need to be here. There are a couple of sutures in that high heifer, but I might just leave those in place since this guy is destined to be hamburger.”

I gathered my stuff up and headed to the truck with Louie, Jack and Gene following.

“The guys in the Skyline aren’t going to believe this story, Doc,” Jack said.


The bull was feeling much better when I checked him three days later. He had a skin flap hanging from his belly where the dead skin was starting to slough off, but the swelling from the urine was almost gone. It looked like he was peeing okay, and he was not soiled from urine.


Louie stopped by the clinic at the end of August to say that the bull looked good and was all healed up.

“When do you think I can send him to the butcher, Doc?” Louie asked.

“If he is feeling well and that skin on his belly is healed, I think you send him to slaughter any time,” I said.

“Do you think I should cut steaks from him?” Louie said.

“I am no expert, Louie, but some of the best hamburger I have had came from salvaged bulls where they just ground the entire critter. Steaks, Roast, and everything all go into the burger, leanest hamburger around. I don’t think you can go wrong that way.”

“You are probably right, Doc, and we have a big enough family, we won’t have any problem getting rid of eight or nine hundred pounds of hamburger.”

Image by Roni Gilpin from Pixabay.

Published by d.e.larsen.dvm

Country vet for over 40 years in Sweet Home Oregon. I graduated from Colorado State University in 1975. I practiced in Enumclaw Washington for a year and a half before moving to Sweet Home to start a practice.

3 thoughts on “Water Belly

  1. I had two pet wether goats who had high heifers. The first lived for several years before having another blockage that ended his life. The problem for both, and for the second one especially was the urine splatter. In addition to making them dirty and stinky, the ammonia seemed to burn their skin. I spent a lot of time cleaning and treating to try and help them, but eventually the second one just refused treatment and was so miserable that I ended up putting him down. If I had another goat with this problem, I’m not sure what I would decide to do. It seems like a great treatment for an animal headed to slaughter, but for a pet it’s problematic. I’d sure like to know if others have had better long-term outcomes than I did. In addition to treatment, I tired several things to reduce the potential for calculi. Maybe there was something more I should have been doing.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Kathy, this was the only low heifer procedure that I did. The incidence of stone in Sweet Home was low, less than one per year. I never ft the trouble and expense of addressing a cause was justified. I always removed the stone if possible. If not, I would do a high heifer. The heifer procedures were all done for a salvage procedure. The low heifer, done on this bull, was far superior to the high heifer procedures. This bull had no urine scald or soiling. As for a pet, the pre-pubic urethrostomy that I did on Snookie, (called Somba in the story) in ‘One Wrong Step’ published here on August 4, 2020, was the closest. That was done in the 1970’s and will be in book 4, The Daughter’s Horse. We had lunch with Debbie a few years ago when she was in town for a class reunion. She reported that Snookie lived to an old age, into his twenties, and had to problems until he was arthritic enough that he couldn’t keep himself clean.
      One thing important with any of those procedures is the flaring of the urethral orifice so that it isn’t closed by scarring.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. My cousin had two cats – and one, a tom, had urine crystals. They amputated his penis, so he’d be able to pee out the crystals (and she changed diet, of course) , but in the end it did not help forever. She had to have him put down after 2 or so years.

    Liked by 2 people

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