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Weak Calf Syndrome and the Madigan Squeeze

Updated: Sep 3, 2020

If you’ve ever experienced the great sense of relief that follows delivering a calf after a difficult calving, you may have also experienced the disappointment and frustration when that calf is dull, lethargic, and refuses to stand and nurse. We refer to this behavior as neonatal maladjustment syndrome, or “dummy calf” / “weak calf” syndrome. These calves are weak, aimlessly wander, refuse to suck, and fail to find the udder.

Some possible causes or factors contributing to weak newborn calves are:

  • Dystocia (difficult calving)

  • White muscle disease (selenium deficiency)

  • Calves born to heifers or very old cows

  • Calves born to thin cows

  • Hypothermia during cold and wet weather

  • Infectious causes such as BVD or leptospirosis

  • Trauma (if the calf is laid on or stepped on)

Many of these causes can be prevented or successfully treated. The explanation for a weak calf is not always obvious, and may require evaluation by a veterinarian within the first 24 hours of life in order to determine the cause and a treatment plan. There is however one treatment that involves no needle, bottle or special skill. A maneuver called the Madigan Squeeze has been developed to simulate pressure from the birth canal, and helps to “reboot” the calf’s brain. Here are the steps to the procedure:

Photos 1 and 2: The method involves threading a rope in fixed loops around the neck and chest of the calf.

Photo 3: With the calf laying down, apply gentle tension on the rope and then squeeze the calf for 20 minutes.

Photo 4: When released, the calf may spring to life, having more energy and motivation to stand and nurse. The calf pictured here stood and began to nurse immediately after the procedure.

The maneuver may need to be performed several times throughout the first few days of life. The Madigan squeeze may not save every calf, but it’s an excellent tool to keep in mind especially after a long delivery or C-section.

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