Does dex "breed infection"?

Help Support CattleToday:


Well-known member
Apr 16, 2008
Reaction score
I'd like to hear some comments here, just out of interest. I have a six week old black angus calf with joint ill. He is very well in himself, drinking and eating, full of beans. His offside front knee is the worst and is chronically swollen. The condition was caught early in the piece but, despite every care, it has not resolved. He did not receive colostrum and we had no access to the frozen or powdered form, so were on the lookout for navel ill and joint ill straight away - of course, it did occur and, as I said, despite courses of antibiotics and anti-inflammatory injections, it is still bad. The vet had no more ideas and said it was the end of the road, which was fine. However, he had not been prescribed any dex so I decided to inject a couple of ml into the bad knee last night. Not expecting any change, I was amazed to see him flying about this morning at the gallop, about 90% sound. I had to call and see the vet today about another matter and mentioned, as an afterthought, that I had given the calf a dex shot in the knee.....I didn't even get to tell him the outcome before he began berating me, saying that "Dex breeds infection!" and was lectured on using drugs indiscriminately. Now I don't expect for a minute this is a miracle cure but the calf was still strutting about well when I got home. Does dex breed infection??
Dexamethasone suppresses the immune system, and I suspect that is what your vet was referring to.
Dexamethasone is a wonder drug, it's function is to relieve inflamation, which it does very well .The problem is that when it wears off,all too often we still have the original problem . As I stated before dexamethasone is a wonder drug, but like most drugs there are side effects that must be weighed against the benefit . When I need immediate relief from symptoms I use dex, knowing that there is a trade off .

In my opinion your vet was a bit harsh with you, a detailed explanation of his position would have been better and to say that dex breeds infection is an abstract concept .

Finally, one of the primary causes of joint ill is an untreated navel infection . These are difficult to handle in a pasture situation, since the calves are hard to catch and check . The navel infections are so tricky because the original problem is gone by the time they start having joint problems .

Dex is a naturally occuring hormone in the body of animals and people. In fact for the dex used in cows they get it out of the adrenal gland of pigs if I am not mistaken. Anyways it is an anti-inflammatory and pain relieving agent. However, it does suppress the immune system. I have found though that used in conjunction with antibiotics and probiotics given after the treatments are over that it has indeed been a wonder drug much like larry suggested. I have seen animals turn around over night. It can mask symptoms sometimes though but if you got an animal with swelling or pneumonia dex and antibiotics are the way to go in my opinion and in my vets opinion.
First of all, if your vet didn't have the answer, he shouldn't have jumped you for using it. I've had some experience with good and bad vets. It's just like everyone else. Some people are very good at their jobs, and some would be better off in another profession.

If the calf didn't get colostrum, I would definately be giving it whatever I could. One thing I always do when dealing with infections, whether my own or livestock, is to take vitamins and get plenty of water. It helps fight the infections.

BTW, dexa.. may be an immuno suppressant, but so are most every antibiotic. That's why it's important to finish with probiotics and vitamins.
Many thanks for the informative replies. I felt very chastened and small indeed when I left the vet's. I thought he was a very cranky and unfair considering he had no other alternatives to offer other than destroying the calf. The moment the calf is depressed or unwell, he will be shot but while he is capering about and feeding greedily, we'll keep on trying. I know its financially unviable as he's on milk replacer, but that's my problem - I don't drink or smoke and do my share of work, so I can waste a bit of money on a calf if I want to. We keep a small number of friesian cows to rear calves and supply colostrum - one of them calved yesterday so we have a fresh batch of colostrum for future use and, if the calf keeps okay, I can put him on to her. He's such a greedy guts, I'm sure he'll take to any source of milk available! I still give him only a 40% chance of making it, to be realistic.
As for "using drugs indiscriminately", I also felt this very unfair. We run about 3,000 cattle in total and I would use a 50ml bottle of dex every two years, an oxytet in a year or more, and some broad spectrum penicillin as required. I might use dex once or twice a year to induce a grossly swollen overdue heifer if I'm going away and can't check her. Hardly throwing the stuff around with gay abandon. It's just not the done thing out here where we are to "manage" your herd to any extent. We also want to needle heifers which are a bit bigger at weaning to eliminate unwanted pregnancies, but its hard to get any help there either. I'm also made to feel like a criminal wanting the drug to do that! Surely that is good management, rather than pulling calves out of too-small heifers.
He also commented (relating to drug use) "No wonder you have so much trouble". Huh? One calf with joint ill that I gave a needle he didn't approve of? Can't think of anything else much that has happened lately....
That's why I like this website - you can identify with like-minded people and look at ways of improving herd management - but sometimes its an uphill battle!
So now its six days since he had the dex injection and he has worsened again. His knee is very sore.
I have him on the cow now and he's fat and shiny. He has not had any antibiotics for the last three weeks as the vet said don't give him any more. I have nothing to lose - should I try say 6ml of oxytet and another dex?
Otherwise, my son is visiting and he could probably shoot him for me which would save having to ask my husband who has also been helping with him.
I suppose in his case I would tend to give him the dex every once in a while, to keep him going and I would see if I could inject penicllin somewhere close to that knee . Don't know if any of that will work, but if you want to try I'm sure not going to be critical of you . Sounds like a healthy calf otherwise . Those joint problems are very difficult to clear up and require extended antibiotic treatment .

Is there fluid on the knee that can be drawn off? For joint/navel ill a couple of the vets I've talked to about it (father and son with separate practices) both recommend long acting pen given in high doeses every other day for several weeks.
No, there does not appear to be any great amount of fluid to be drawn off his knee. The other front knee is larger than normal also but he's not lame in it - perhaps it's now scar tissue. He's not buckled out at the knee like they can get. Once they get like that, I know its game over. He's standing straight.
I'll keep after him with penicillin and occasional dex as required and see how he goes. Will try and get a photo of his legs one day soon and post it if I can. Thankyou.
Any change? Personally, I've had more luck with Nuflor than penicillin or any other antibiotics. I've also noticed that if it is a front leg, most can get up and down, which will allow them to eventually get over it.
Update - the calf is having one 4ml injection of dex a week and regular penicillin and is doing fairly well on that. (Don't tell the vet!!!) I am sure his worse knee has reduced in size a little. He is still stiff and sore looking, but leaps about awkwardly headbutting his mate and has got even fatter and shinier - like a keg on legs - thanks to all the good milk from the dairy cow. However, I am keeping him and her calf penned as I don't think he would keep up with them out in the paddock, even a small one. What would our Australian equivalent of Nuflor be? Will try and get some pics this arve so you can see those knees.
Thanks for that, Dun. I will try and get my hands on some, not sure how though.....
The swelling in his knees has gone down a lot today and yesterday - unless you knew the problem, you wouldnt notice. This is a huge improvement! I'm hoping he will maintain now, although relapses can occur I know.
I finally remembered to take the camera over but the knees are not worth photographing and posting now. Today, each time I passed the cattleyard, he was on his feet and eating - before, he has spent most of his time lying down, front legs stuck out in front of him. Perhaps the good milk from the cow has boosted him along too?
So glad I gave him the dex - I feel he would be in the bone pit now otherwise. Anyway, I won't be skiting about it to the vet. In the unlikely event he asks, I'll just say he's doing okay!

Latest posts