Water Belly Calves
August 2023

After a relatively smooth start to my calving call outs this season I ran into a real head scratcher a few weeks ago. My patient was failing to progress with calving, with the head and front feet all present and accounted for at the vulva. The calf was deceased. Unusually, there did not appear to be any problems with the size of the calf, or with the strength of the cow’s contractions.

After administering an epidural, I gave an experimental pull to see whether we could get any movement. Despite there being plenty of room around the shoulders, the calf failed to move more than a few centimetres, even though it was certainly not far enough through the pelvis for the hips to be locked. This strange sensation of being stuck at the abdomen gave me the cause of the problem – a “water belly”!

Foetal ascites, or “water belly” calves are an uncommon foetal deformity resulting in a massive accumulation of fluid in the abdomen and intestines. It results in the unusual presentation of the head and shoulders passing easily through the pelvis, before the calf becomes stuck at the waist. The best way I have heard these calves described is “like pushing a marshmallow through a keyhole”. The calf’s distended abdomen is usually much wider than the cow’s pelvis and prevents further progression of calving.

Water belly calves usually need to have the fluid in their abdomen released before they can be calved. This can sometimes be achieved by passing a tube down into the stomach, but in already dead calves the abdomen may need to be cut. These calves can sometimes be born alive, but rarely live longer than a few minutes once calved. If you suspect you may have a waterbelly calf, the best thing to do is call your vet for assistance.

Water Belly (Aborted, Full Term, Twin)