Pneumonia in calves: Plan to protect your dairy herd

Pneumonia can have one of the biggest effects on the productivity and profitability of dairy and beef herds.

According to Defra, the disease is responsible for the death of some 160,000 calves in the UK each year with a market value of £99m.

Typically triggered by stress, which reduces the animal’s ability to fight off the viruses and bacteria that are present in most cattle herds, pneumonia inflames the lungs, affecting health, welfare and production.

Vaccination tips

  • Plan your control programme before the pneumonia season begins.
  • Identify potential stressors and environmental factors which precipitate the disease.
  • Take advice from your vet about how best to deal with the issue on your farm – depending on your operation, vaccination may be a priority over tackling issues with housing.
  • If you vaccinate, ask your vet for a written vaccination and treatment programme and rigorously stick to it.
  • In younger calves BRSV is one of the most important pathogens, so should be included in any vaccination programme. In older calves, IBR should be considered.
  • When it comes to selecting a vaccine, think, for example, about whether the priority is protection which lasts through the winter, or a vaccine which works quickly to protect livestock (for example if buying in animals).
  • With young calves under three months old, the priority is usually to get them vaccinated quickly, often making an intranasal vaccine the most effective option.
  • For bigger, spring-born calves, farmers have more time to plan a disease-control strategy.

It leads to reduced growth rates in cattle, increased herd mortality and implications for the running of the farm because more labour is required to look after them and it can be costly to treat.

And even when animals do survive an outbreak, pneumonia can cause long-term effects because lung function is impaired.

Understanding the factors that initiate the disease and putting a plan in place to protect youngstock will give producers a fighting chance in preventing pneumonia, says Carolyn Hogan, Zoetis national vet manager.

What causes pneumonia?

“Pneumonia is a multifactorial disease and there’s no one thing that can control it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to take steps against it,” she says.

“No farmer can say ‘I don’t get disease’, as any number of animals can be carriers of the pneumonia-causing pathogens.

“It just takes a single change or stress in the farm to potentially result in serious problems.”

There are a number of viral and bacterial causes of pneumonia, with viral infection most commonly occurring first, followed by secondary bacterial infection (see table below).

The viruses can cause disease in their own right, but they also impair the animal’s ability to get rid of the bacteria they are exposed to, allowing the bacteria to further damage the lungs.

With BRSV and Pi3V always present in groups, it takes just a single trigger to create an environment where disease can thrive, says consultant Basil Lowman of Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC).

“Pneumonia is typically caused by a combination of factors such as stress, housing and ventilation.

“It most commonly affects calves when they are weaned and housed for the first time as it puts them under stress.”


Ensuring a smooth transition from outdoors to indoors is important, as once disease gets into a young herd it poses problems for the rest of the winter, he says.

Weaning earlier in the year to give youngstock a chance to adjust to a new diet will help reduce the chance of animals becoming unsettled.

Sheds with poor ventilation or dusty bedding are other potential pneumonia triggers, as are sheds which are under- or overstocked, resulting in huddles of animals with poor immediate air flow.

Talking to your vet now to assess your farm’s situation and come up with a pneumonia prevention plan is vital, says Ms Hogan, as priorities can be different for different farms.

While some units might prioritise making changes to buildings, if a business is not in a financial position to make substantial alterations then the prevention plan for that farm will be different, with other elements such as changes to management, or vaccination strategy become the priority.

Different vaccines can be administered at different ages so it’s vital to work with your vet to establish the most appropriate vaccination programme for your herd.

   Causes of pneumonia
Virus  Description  Age it affects
Bovine respiratory syncytial virus (BRSV)  Present in many cattle herds, even those which don’t currently report a pneumonia problem  Younger calves
Parainfluenza type 3 (Pi3V)  Present in many cattle herds, even those which don’t currently report a pneumonia problem  Younger calves
Bovine herpes virus 1 (BHV-1)  Cause of infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR)  A problem seen more commonly in older calves and store cattle, and which can also affect the adult breeding herd.  Can less commonly have a role in young calves
Bovine viral diarrhoea (BVD)  Does not cause damage to the lungs and airways, but it can impair the disease resistance of the group, leading to more serious infection  All ages

Find out more about pneumonia with our Winter Health academies

Sponsor’s message

Sponsors“The Farmers Weekly survey predicts that about one in three pneumonia outbreaks this coming winter could occur on farms that have not seen the disease for at least three years.

Today, we know that even mild infections can affect lifetime performance in both beef and dairy calves. But quite how serious this may be has been open to conjecture. The launch of a “what-if” planning tool eliminates guesswork and shows you the potential financial hit on your farm. Test it out at

This series is sponsored by Zoetis, maker of Rispoval4 and Rispoval IntraNasal vaccines. For advice about an effective vaccination programme for your farm, please ask your vet.