D.E. Larsen, DVM
I stood at the small makeshift corral waiting for Albert to make his way from the house. Albert was old and arthritic. He walked pretty slow these days.
The corral wouldn’t hold a cow if she wanted out. The posts were propped up instead of set in the ground, and the old boards used for rails were ancient. Something Albert probably found in a pile behind the barn.
The cow standing in the middle of the corral looked more concerned with her next breath than trying to test the strength of the corral.
She was standing with her head extended and lowered. The swelling under her jaw was no simple bottle jaw. It spread down her neck to a massively swollen brisket. Even from my position at the edge of the corral, I could see a bounding jugular pulse.
“How are you doing these days, Albert?” I asked as I extended my hand.
“I think I’m too old for this cow business, Doc,” Albert said. “I have enough trouble getting myself dressed and fixing something that I can call breakfast. Let me tell you, Doc, this getting old stuff is no fun. And then when Verna passed on, it got even harder.”
“I suppose that was the hardest part,” I said.
“I watched you looking at my old Sally cow,” Albert said. “What do you think is wrong with her, Doc?”
“I think she is a pretty sick cow, Albert,” I said.
“I know that, damit,” Albert said. “Why the hell do you think I called you.”
“I think she has a wire,” I said. “It is not a simple hardware disease. It has progressed to what we can call traumatic pericarditis.”
“If it is just a wire, you can go in and get it with surgery,” Albert said.
“Sally is beyond that stage, Albert,” I said. “Actually, we don’t go in and get those wires anymore. We use a magnet that pulls the wire back into the stomach. But Sally’s problem is an infection in the sac around her heart.”
“If it’s just an infection, you should be able to give her a shot and take care of that,” Albert said.
“It’s more complicated than that, Albert,” I said. “She has had that infection long enough; there is a lot of infection debris in the sac around the heart. After some time, that infection debris around the heart starts to mature, constricting the heart’s function. There is no fixing this, Albert. Your Sally cow is going to die.”
“How can you be so sure, just standing here looking at her?” Albert asked.
“I have seen it before, Albert, many times,” I said. “I do need to examine her just so I don’t miss something, but my confidence level in my diagnosis is very high.”
“You doctor guys make mistakes sometimes. I think just putting her on some antibiotics might be the way to go,” Albert said.
“Nobody is perfect, that is for sure,” I said. “I have always been cautious about saying an animal is going to die because once that is said, that will be the animal that will come back through the door for the next twenty years. But looking at Sally, I am certain that there is nothing we can do at this point that will help her.”
“It’s not that I don’t trust your opinion, Doc. It’s just that I don’t understand how you know so much,” Albert said.
“Last month, I did a necropsy on a cow up Wiley Creek,” I said. “She had the very problem as Sally. Before she died, she looked just like Sally looks. When I opened her chest, there was a piece of wire sticking through her diaphragm, the wall between her chest and her abdomen, into the sac around her heart. With all the infection debris, that sac was over an inch thick. Normally, it is thinner than the material of your shirt.”
“Okay, but how do you know that nothing can be done to help her?” Albert asked.
“When I was in school in Colorado, a cow came to the veterinary hospital in this very condition,” I said. “She was a valuable cow, and the owner wanted to save her at any expense. So the doctors at the vet school removed a rib over her heart and opened the heart sac to the outside so they could drain it and flush it daily. You could look in the hole and see the heart beating, and you could see the very thick sac around the heart.”
“So, did they save that cow?” Albert asked.
“No, that cow died,” I said. “The time to save these cows is when the wire first appears. In the old days, when I was a kid, and you were a young man, they would do surgery. Today we use a magnet. Once we reach this point, the ball game is over, and the cow dies.”
“Can I eat her?” Albert asked. “I mean, Sally is the last cow I have, and I want to save her, but if she is going to die, can I eat her?”
“She is not fit to eat,” I said. “Maybe if you were starving, you could eat her, but you would have to be pretty hungry to choke the meat down. There is not a slaughter outfit around that would hang her carcass in their cold room.”
“I don’t understand how a wire that the cow swallows can get from her stomach to her heart and cause all this problem in the first place,” Albert said.
“The cow is not very discriminating when they eat,” I said. “So if there is a piece of baling wire in the hay, they will just swallow it down with the hay. The second stomach, or compartment, is called the reticulum. It catches all of the foreign material. Suppose that material happens to be a wire. In that case, it can punch through the wall of the stomach, pass through the diaphragm, and into the pericardium. The way things are put together, the wall of the reticulum and the tip of the heart are separated only by the diaphragm. So that is a very short distance for the wire to travel. That injects a lot of infection from the stomach into the chest and the sac around the heart. When it first happens, the cow will be painful, not eating, and have a bit of a temperature. At that point, we treat her with antibiotics and a magnet. The magnet will attract the wire and pull it back into the stomach. Often times we just put a magnet into every cow. That is especially done in dairy cows. And, just a point of interest, the reticulum is sold in the grocery store as tripe.”
“So I would guess that is one reason they no longer use wire to bale hay,” Albert said.
“Baling wire was always around when I was growing up, but I would guess that hardware disease was much less common before the days of baled hay,” I said.
“So what are we going to do with Sally?” Albert asked.
“In my view, you have two choices,” I said. “You can put her down, or you can let her die. It won’t be a pleasant death if you let her die.”
“I think I would like you to give her some shots for a few days,” Albert said. “Just in case you are wrong.”
When I first started practice in Enumclaw, Washington, Don Henricksen, the older associate veterinarian in the practice, had warned me to always give a cow a shot before leaving her, even if it wasn’t indicated. If you don’t give her something, you will be accused of not doing anything, and you will be a villain if the cow dies. You will be a hero if you give her a shot and she gets well.
“I can give her a big dose of antibiotics,” I said. “But I want you to remember, this cow is going to die. I don’t want to hear any stories about how the antibiotics didn’t work. There is no chance of saving this cow.”
“Okay, but I just want to try, just to make sure,” Albert said.
I gave Sally forty ccs of Combiotic, a large dose.
“It will be interesting to see what morning brings,” I said. “I will be back right after lunch tomorrow to give her another dose.”
The following morning, Albert was on the phone a few minutes after eight.
“Doc, I just wanted to thank you for trying to help Sally,” Albert said. “She was down this morning and struggling to breathe. I looked her in the eyes, and she asked me to put an end to my foolishness. So, Doc, I went and got my rifle and shot the old girl. That was the hardest thing I have had to do in a long time.”
“It is always hard to do,” I said. “But it was the right thing. Do you want me to come out and show you inside of that chest?”
“No, you explained things pretty well,” Albert said. “I have the neighbor coming with a backhoe, and we will bury her out under the old maple tree. I thought about calling the rendering company to pick her up but decided that she had earned her hole in the ground.”
“That’s a good thing, too,” I said. “Have you given any thought about what you are going to do with your pasture land now?”
“No, I haven’t thought about it,” Albert said. “I don’t want any more cows at my age.”
I know a couple of young guys who would jump at the chance to rent it from you,” I said. “They are hard workers and trying to get a herd started. I could send them your way if you would like.”
“That would be good, Doc,” Albert said. “Thanks again.”
Photo by Harry Dona on Pexels.
3 thoughts on “Albert’s Last Cow”
Ah, dang mortality. I wonder how long Albert made it after he had to bury his last cow. It seems he and his late wife did not have any children. And now that his last cow was gone, there was no reason for a regular life anymore …
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Not long if I recall. I don’t think I saw him again after his cow was gone. The young guys did rent his pasture, but I think Albert was gone in a year or two.
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He sounded pretty frail from what you write about him. So maybe it is better his cow was gone just before him.
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