Stocker cattle are uniquely susceptible to a host of circumstances that can adversely affect their health and performance. When recently weaned calves from multiple sources are commingled, health issues are bound to appear. Unfortunately, even in instances of good preventive practices, there are occasions of sudden death in feeder cattle that often go undiagnosed. “Sudden Death Syndrome is a term commonly used to describe when feeder cattle are found dead or are seen dying suddenly,” says Stuart Lincoln, DVM and honored emeritus retiree for the Caine Veterinary Teaching Center at the University of Idaho. “Unfortunately, it is an inaccurate and nondiagnostic catch-all designation for any disease that causes unexplained sudden death.”

According to an article that Lincoln wrote for the Western Beef Resource Committee’s Cattle Producer’s Library, there are several diseases that fall into the Sudden Death Syndrome category:

  • Blackleg
  • Bloat
  • Enterotoxemia
  • Malignant edema
  • Fatal hemorrhage (rupture of large blood vessels)
  • Perforated stomach ulcer
  • Injuries
  • Anthrax
  • Anaphylaxis

Lincoln also pointed out that there are several diseases that are not expected to cause sudden death, but if missed by an owner or manager, can lead to unexpected losses. These diseases can include:

  • Infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR)
  • Acute pneumonia, especially bovine respiratory disease (BRD)
  • Acidosis
  • Neurological disorders
  • Calf diphtheria
  • Water belly

According to Lincoln, probably the most common cause of sudden death is acute pneumonia, particularly the shipping fever complex. The symptoms can be easily overlooked, and as a result, unexpected losses can occur. If an animal has been dead longer than six to eight hours, then a postmortem examination may not reveal an accurate cause of death, so it is important to perform any examination as quickly as possible.