Post authored by Monica Jarboe, University of Illinois undergraduate student and summer research intern
Around calving time, prolapses in cows and heifers can be major health issues. Some cases may even be life threatening. There are two different kinds of prolapses commonly associated with calving in beef cattle: vaginal and uterine. Once a prolapse has been repaired, producers may be unsure whether or not to cull that cow.
Vaginal prolapses are more common, usually occur prior to calving, and are considered less severe. A pink mass of tissue can be seen protruding below the tail, and it may only be visible while she is lying down. The mass is typically somewhere between the size of a grapefruit and a volleyball. It is due to excess pressure in the abdominal cavity as the cow nears calving. Because the tissue can be damaged due to exposure to the elements, or swell and interfere with urination, it is a good idea to consult a veterinarian and have it repaired. This usually involves cleaning the tissue, replacing it, and stitching across the vulva. These stitches should be removed prior to calving, to avoid ripping the vulva.
There is a genetic predisposition to vaginal prolapses, so it tends to be a recurring problem. If a heifer or cow has a vaginal prolapse this year, it will probably happen again, and her offspring will likely also carry that tendency. Therefore, it is usually recommended that producers do not rebreed cows that experience a vaginal prolapse, and avoid using any of her offspring (male or female) for breeding, as they may carry traits for the same structural weakness of the reproductive tract.
A few other factors can increase the likelihood of vaginal prolapses, as well. Cows that are older, are excessively fat in the last trimester, have twins, or have Brahman genetics are more prone to this condition. In addition, pastures with plants high in phytoestrogens, like clover, can increase the likelihood of vaginal prolapses.
Uterine prolapses are considered much more severe, as the blood loss and high risk of infection makes this a life-threatening situation. This problem usually occurs within a few hours of calving. It will be much larger than the vaginal prolapse, and is usually dark red. The "buttons" where the placenta was attached may be visible. Contact a veterinarian immediately. As with the vaginal prolapse, treatment involves cleaning and lubricating the tissue before replacing it. If not done properly, the cow may experience internal bleeding or prolapse again.
Unlike the vaginal prolapse, uterine prolapses do not have a genetic component. In fact, the cow may even continue to reproduce normally if the condition is detected and treated early, and the uterus is not badly damaged. However, if the uterus does suffer damage, the cow may have impaired fertility. In addition, although it is not genetic, a cow is more prone to a uterine prolapse if she has experienced one in the past. Therefore, the producer should carefully consider whether or not to cull that cow, based on how long the uterus was prolapsed, and the extent of tissue damage sustained. Long, difficult births, and thin cows can increase the risk of this condition.
Because there is no genetic predisposition, the offspring of a cow who experienced a uterine prolapse can safely be used for breeding, whether or not the cow is culled.
The most important thing to remember with prolapses is to consult your veterinarian quickly to get prompt treatment. Producers may want to cull a cow with a vaginal prolapse, and avoid using her offspring for breeding. A cow with a uterine prolapse may still be able to reproduce normally if treated quickly, and her offspring can still be used for breeding.