Caffeine for Newborn Calves

Caffeine for Newborn Calves

Caffeine for Newborn Calves

Here is an innovative idea for improving calf survival after birth, that I came across in an article written by Dr. Zach Janssen DVM, Zach Janssen is Bovine Technical Services Veterinarian with TechMix, LLC. Treating newborn calf with poor vitality with caffine.

While this seems to make sense because many of us rely on the benefits of caffeine (coffee, tea, soda) to get going every day, you may be asking, “Where did this idea come from and what is the science behind it?”

More than 40 years ago it was discovered that caffeine could be used to minimize the negative effects and risk of death due to apnea of prematurity (AOP) in human infants. Apnea is defined by cessation of breathing for more than 20 seconds, bradycardia (reduced heart rate), and cyanosis (turning blue). The positive benefits of caffeine in infants with AOP include reducing frequency of apnea, the need for positive pressure or mechanical ventilation and earlier, more successful extubation (removal of a breathing tube). All of this ultimately results in reduced rates of bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) which is the failure of alveoli of the lungs, the tiny air sacs that are responsible for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, to develop. 

Healthy lungs are obviously critical in the neonate as it switches from maternal oxygenated blood supply to breathing on its own, and certainly, can be important in calves that experience high rates of pneumonia. Current research on caffeine administration in infants experiencing AOP has demonstrated immediate treatment is more beneficial than later as defined by >48 hours after birth.  Another long-term study showed that infants receiving caffeine had fewer cases of cerebral palsy and cognitive delay at 18-21 months of age and improvement of gross motor skills at ages 5 and 11 years compared to controls that received no caffeine treatment. This suggests that caffeine may have an overall neuroprotective effect.

What follows are 3 scenarios where caffeine intervention might be considered:

• Within a few hours of birth for calves with slow development (delayed standing attempts, slow to stand (> 1 hour), sluggish reflexes, low heart rate (< 80/min) or abnormal respiratory rate or pattern of breathing

• Following transport – upon arrival for calves that are cold, sluggish, unwilling to eat or drink

• For calves that have apparently recovered from a disease problem like scours or another digestive upset but remain sluggish, depressed, and have no (or reduced) appetite for milk

• Hypothermic calves to temporarily elevate body temperature and stimulate the central nervous system

Now what? You have a calf that fits one of the criteria above and want to give them a boost. Where do you turn? Only products specifically designed for calves should be considered. One such product is Calf Perk from TechMix ( Calf Perk, is designed and formulated to absorb when applied across the tongue. This way, even if the calf is non-responsive the active ingredients can still be absorbed and effectively help. Check with your animal health supplier or ask your veterinarian. But having a product like this on hand is the best way to prevent a potential loss.

So, what if you do not have any Calf Perk on hand? Dr. Sheila McGuirk, Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin, suggests giving one bottle of an energy drink (such as 5-hour Energy) to calves orally, which provides between 100 to 200 mg of caffeine. More research is required on this topic, but there are many anecdotal reports of dull calves responding to caffeine and becoming alert within 15 to 30 minutes.

Calves that are born early as the result of being twins, have low birth weights, experience dystocia or are born in the cold will be at high risk. These calves are often depressed, hypoxic (low oxygen) and facing inflammation. Successful use of caffeine in infants experiencing apnea of prematurity has demonstrated benefits to lung development, neural development and has saved lives. It is logical to extrapolate these same benefits when caffeine therapy is used early in high-risk calves. Considering the value that calves represent to the future of the farm it would be advised to have a convenient, properly formulated source of caffeine readily available to support these high-risk calves.

Sources: Background and Research Supporting Caffeine for High-Risk Calves, By ZACH JANSSEN DVM  Zach Janssen is Bovine Technical Services Veterinarian with TechMix, LLC.