Main content area

Clarifying dairy calf mortality phenotypes through postmortem analysis

McConnel, C.S., Nelson, D.D., Burbick, C.R., Buhrig, S.M., Wilson, E.A., Klatt, C.T., Moore, D.A.
Journal of dairy science 2019 v.102 no.5 pp. 4415-4426
animal diseases, cross-sectional studies, dairy calves, death, diarrhea, enteritis, genes, inflammation, mortality, necropsy, phenotype, pneumonia, Washington (state)
Health problems can be thought of as phenotypic expressions of the complex relationships between genes, environments, and phenomes as a whole. Detailed evaluations of phenotypic expressions of illness are required to characterize important biological outcomes. We hypothesized that classifying dairy calf mortality phenotypes via a systematic postmortem analysis would identify different cause-of-death diagnoses than those derived from treatments alone. This cross-sectional study was carried out on a dairy calf ranch in the northwestern United States from June to September 2017 and focused on calves ≤90 d of age. Comparisons were made between causes of death based on 3 levels of information: on-farm treatment records alone, necropsy-based postmortem analyses in addition to treatment records, and Washington Animal Disease Diagnostic Laboratory (WADDL) results in addition to all other information. A total of 210 dairy calves were necropsied during this study, of which 122 cases were submitted to WADDL. Necropsy- and WADDL-derived mortality phenotypes were in almost perfect agreement (Cohen's κ = 0.86) when broadly categorized as diarrhea, respiratory, diarrhea and respiratory combined, or other causes. The level of agreement between on-farm treatment records and postmortem-derived results was low and varied by the level of diagnostic detail provided. There was just fair agreement (κ = 0.22) between treatment-based and necropsy-based phenotypes without WADDL input and only slight agreement (κ = 0.13) between treatment-based and corresponding necropsy-based phenotypes with WADDL input. Even for those cases in which causes of death aligned along a comparable pathologic spectrum, the lack of detail inherent to standard treatment-based causes of death failed to identify meaningful target areas for intervention. This was especially apparent for numerous cases of necrotizing enteritis and typhlitis (cecal inflammation) that were variously categorized as diarrhea and pneumonia by treatment-based diagnoses. The specificity of these lesions stood in stark contrast to the otherwise generic cause of death diagnoses derived from treatments. The findings from this study supported the hypothesis and highlighted the value of on-farm necropsies and laboratory-based diagnostics to (1) detect antemortem disease misclassifications, (2) provide detail regarding disease processes and mortality phenotypes, and (3) direct disease mitigation strategies.