Home Livestock Caring for Young Animals in Trouble – Resuscitation and Tube Feeding

Caring for Young Animals in Trouble – Resuscitation and Tube Feeding

If you need specific information for lambs, Bill Fosher wrote this excellent article on saving hypothermic lambs.

While these videos and information focus on care of newborn calves, it’s helpful no matter what livestock you’re raising. As an example, the old method I was taught for getting a newborn kid goat to breath by holding it upside down – well, turns out that’s actually harmful. It would be much better to do what the folks in the first video demonstrate. In addition, there were several instances when dehydrated and scouring goat kids in my herd were saved by tube feeding with colostrum. So it’s important to know how to do it right to ensure you get the food into the stomach and not the lungs. The second video walks you through that process.

I hope this helps!

How to (and NOT to) resuscitate newborn calves

Calving is a natural process, and most cows will give birth to a healthy calf without issues. However, there are times when things go wrong and you need to know how to save a baby calf. In the video below, Dr. Claire Winderyer takes us through the basics. I’ve included a transcript, but for those of you wanting to skip to the chase, here are her main points:

Avoid hanging calves over gates or upside down.

Many of us were taught to hang animals upside down or over a gate to get it breathing. However, being upside down causes the stomach and intestines to press down on the diaphragm and compress the lungs, making it harder for the animal to breathe. Although fluid will come out, this fluid is from the stomach, not the lungs.

Put the newborn in recovery position.

Dr. Winderyer demonstrates in the video below, but it looks like this:

Calf rescue position as demonstrated in the video.

Rub the calf vigorously.

Use a towel or your hands which can often help the calf ‘wake up’ and start breathing.

Gently poke the nasal septum.

This may cause the calf to gasp and take a deep breath in, and initiate the breathing process.

Squirt a few drops of water in a calf’s ear.

This can often cause them to gasp and start breathing. Be careful not to fill the ear with water as this could cause an ear infection.

Consider giving a pain control product, such as meloxicam, to cows and calves after a difficult birth.

Recent work at the University of Calgary showed slight statistical improvements in weight gain during the first week of life. Furthermore, without being told which calves had received the pain control product, producers were able to identify calves that had received the pain control product. They noted that these calves appeared brighter, mothered up faster, and were let out of the barn sooner.

Check out the video or read the transcript for more. Scroll down for the how-to video on tube feeding.


Dr. Claire Winderyer, DVSc: The day that a calf is born is going to be the highest risk day of its entire life so it’s important that producers have some tools that they can use to help keep calves alive.

The first thing we’re going to want to do is put that calf in the calf recovery position. That means getting it up on its chest and pulling its back legs up towards its armpits. And what this does is allows both of those lungs equal opportunity to expand and fill with air. And putting those legs forward means that the calf is stable and it can’t just flop back over on to its side.

The next thing we’re going to want to do is take a clean hand and remove any fetal fluids that might be in the calf’s mouth because we don’t want anything in there that’s going to get in the way of the calf bringing in air. If it doesn’t breath right away we can then stimulate it by rubbing it vigorously, stick a finger in its ear, give it a wet willy, pinch it’s nose, give it’s head a little shake. We can also use a piece of pokey straw to poke the nasal septum which is that piece of tissue that separates the two nostrils on the inside.

We can either splash some water on the back of the back of the calf’s neck or on its face. Or we can squirt a little bit of water into the ear – not too much or too hard because we don’t want to create ear infections. But that just tricks the body into thinking that the calf might be drowning so they gasp and fill those lungs with air.

If they’re not breathing and they don’t have a heartbeat, odds are that calf’s not viable so there’s not too much we can do. But as long as there’s a heartbeat I’m going to keep trying to get them to breathe.

What we don’t want to do is hang calves over a gate. This has been something people have done traditionally because you end up getting fluid coming from the calf’s mouth. Unfortunately, this isn’t coming from the lungs like people always believed. It’s actually mostly coming from the stomach. So it’s not achieving what we think it’s achieving. The other thing that it does do though is that gravity is then pushing the abdominal contents or the intestines of this calf down on the diaphragm making it harder for those lungs to expand.

Dr. Adam Scheirman, DVM: This technique is something that’s very simple and easy to incorporate. Every once in awhile we uncover a stone and realize there’s a new, better way to do things that makes more sense.

How to tube feed newborn calves (esophageal feeding)

While the goal is to always have vigorous calves that nurse right away, and maternal cows that bring them up right, illness and suckling issues can be a reality. Esophageal feeding, also known as “tube feeding” or “stomach feeding,” is essential when a calf requires colostrum or if you are treating dehydration in a sick calf. Knowing how to properly tube feed a calf is critical to help support calves when they are at their most vulnerable. This video goes over the steps of esophageal feeding calves including the “two-tube rule” and ways to prevent aspiration.


Knowing how to use an esophageal feeder, or stomach tube is vital to supporting calves in their most vulnerable state. Whether you’re providing colostrum to a newborn or treating a calf for dehydration, proper esophageal feeding technique can save lives on your operation and improve the overall health of your herd.

To get stated it’s important to have your supplies clean and ready to use. To begin, we first need to choose what type of feeder to use. There are two standard types of feeders. The most commonly used esophageal feeder its he McGrath Feeder. This feeder is a sealed unit that is most practical when handling calves by yourself.

The second type of feeder commonly found is a bag feeder. This setup allows for fluids to be poured into the top of the bag and hung from a height to allow the fluids to flow slowly via gravity.

In order to prevent aspiration or fluid in the lungs, we need to ensure the calf is in the proper position. In a perfect world we would always have the calf standing while delivering fluids. However if the calf is sick and too weak to stand, we can tube them in a sitting position or even lying down. Regardless of how the calf is positioned, it must be properly restrained. If standing, back the calf into a corner for better head control. Never tip the calf’s nose upward while tubing. This will change the angle of the entrance into the trachea and make you more prone to pointing the tip of the tube feeder down and entering the trachea.


Leave the calf’s head in a neutral position that it above the level of it’s stomach.

A calf’s mouth can be opened by gently squeezing the corners of its mouth or by grabbing its head over the bridge of the nose and putting slight pressure on the upper palate or gums. Once the mouth is opened, the empty tube should be passed slowly along the tongue to the back of the mouth. Once the tube reaches the back of the tongue, the calf will start chewing and swallowing. At this point the tube is passed down in to the esophagus. If the tube is not advancing easily, then slowly pull it out an try again. Never force the tube down. The esophagus is slightly to the left of the trachea and once placed, the tube should be easily palpated next tot the trachea. If it’s properly positioned, the rings of the trachea or windpipe and the rigid enlarged esophagus can both be easily felt. If you can’t feel both of these remove the tube an start again.

Remember the two tube rule. You should be able to feel the trachea and the stomach tube!

Thanks to The Beef Cattle Research Council for this excellent information. BCRC is Canada’s national industry-led funding agency for beef research. You can learn more on this topic here. Or visit their home page to learn more about what they offer.

Once proper placement is confirmed, the tube can be unclipped and the container can be tipped up to allow liquid to flow down into the stomach. Ensure the liquid is at body temperature (38C or 100F) to prevent shock to an already weak calf. Allow the feeder to empty slowly. This could take upwards of three minutes. The calf will regurgitate less with a slower flow rate. When feeding is finished, clip or kink the tube to ensure no left-over fluids can drain out as the tube is slowly pulled out. This prevents aspiration into the lungs. The tube should be cleaned and sanitized and then allowed to drain and dry.

It’s crucial to have two esophageal feeding tubes – one for tubing sick or scouring calves, and one for giving colostrum to avoid disease and pathogen transfer between calves.


When newborn calves don’t get off to a healthy start, it can be stressful. However, these techniques will help you respond quickly and provide timely care and attention to newborn calves that need resuscitation. For more information visit the BCRC Calving and Calf Management webpage.

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Kathy Voth
I am the founder, editor and publisher of On Pasture, now retired. My career spanned 40 years of finding creative solutions to problems, and sharing ideas with people that encouraged them to work together and try new things. From figuring out how to teach livestock to eat weeds, to teaching range management to high schoolers, outdoor ed graduation camping trips with fifty 6th graders at a time, building firebreaks with a 130-goat herd, developing the signs and interpretation for the Storm King Fourteen Memorial trail, receiving the Conservation Service Award for my work building the 150-mile mountain bike trail from Grand Junction, Colorado to Moab, Utah...well, the list is long so I'll stop with, I've had a great time and I'm very grateful.