Age Is No Protection for Cattle Pneumonia


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Disease in older cattle can lower performance and future potential. 


Younger calves are known to be at risk for developing pneumonia, but there’s no aging out of the disease. Even in older animals, pneumonia can still cause problems for producers.

The disease can be caused by either viral or bacterial pathogens, making it challenging to prevent and difficult to treat – especially in lactating dairy herds. In fact, USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) data show pneumonia causes up to 11% of deaths in adult dairy cows.

The typical signs of pneumonia in older animals are similar to those seen in calves: nasal discharge, fever, and difficulty breathing.

“When a cow is struggling with pneumonia, I often tell my clients that the animal is having to make a decision between eating or breathing,” said Jen Roberts, DVM, DACT, Boehringer Ingelheim. “When they are really struggling with the disease, they can’t do both at the same time because they are so sick.”

Unlike younger animals, there is rarely death loss in older cattle. However, the illness can knock cows off feed. The temporary losses are largely from reduced milk production. Longer term, cattle may have reduced lung capacity and be lower-performing animals in the herd.

“Lung tissue does not heal very well. There’s a tendency to scar, and there’s a long-term impact on that animal’s performance now that we have decreased lung capacity,” Dr. Roberts explained.


Cattle in feed lot
Pneumonia challenges most often occur during periods of weather transition.

Encountering pneumonia

The effect of the disease also may depend on when cattle encounter it during their lifetime. Adult cows challenged with pneumonia for the first time often have better outcomes than those that struggled with the disease as calves and recovered.

“Respiratory disease in adult animals can occur if there’s not good herd immunity or if producers in expansion mode are bringing in lots of animals from multiple sources,” Dr. Roberts said. “Animals with respiratory disease as a young calf may have reduced productivity when they enter lactation. These animals are more at risk for struggling from a respiratory health standpoint because of the lung scarring.”

Prevention tips

Pneumonia challenges most often occur during periods of weather transition, which can make it hard for producers to maintain ventilation. The best way to prevent performance losses from pneumonia is to:

    • Employ good biosecurity measures – quarantining new animals if possible
    • Maintain adequate nutrition to optimize immune function
  • Vaccinate cattle for the major pathogens, including infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR), bovine viral diarrhea virus (BVDV), Mannheimia haemolytica and Histophilus somni


Dr. Roberts typically recommends focusing on vaccination for viral pathogens and adding in bacterial components where warranted. She advises getting the herd veterinarian involved as soon as respiratory problems are identified. Prevention is far easier than treatment – especially for lactating dairy cows where limited antimicrobial options are available.

“Pneumonia can be a significant loss in adult animals because we’ve invested so much in getting them to the adult herd,” Dr. Roberts added. “Maintaining adequate nutrition and keeping a good vaccination program are important pieces of managing adult cow pneumonia.”


Predisposing factors for developing pneumonia may include 1:

  • Dry and dusty conditions can irritate the lining of the respiratory tract and facilitate the entry of resident pathogens
  • Large daily temperature ranges (hot days and cold nights)
  • High humidity because moist air supports more pathogens than dry air
  • Inadequate nutrition
  • Poor environmental sanitation
  • Poor ventilation, including hot and still air


1 Kerr, S.K. Pneumonia – in the Summer?! Washington State University. Accessed April 10, 2023. Available at:


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