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Subacute Ruminal Acidosis in Cattle and Sheep

(Chronic Ruminal Acidosis, Subclinical Ruminal Acidosis)


Ingrid Lorenz

, DMV, PhD, DECBHM, Bavarian Animal Health Service

Reviewed/Revised Jun 2022 | Modified Oct 2022
Topic Resources

Subacute ruminal acidosis is characterized by intermittent, self-correcting periods of low ruminal pH. Affected cows do not show clinical signs when ruminal pH is depressed. However, sequelae due to rumenitis may follow. Diagnosis is performed at the herd level by measurement of ruminal pH in a group of high-risk cows.

Ruminant animals are adapted to digest and metabolize predominantly forage diets; however, growth rates and milk production are increased substantially when ruminants consume high-grain diets. One consequence of feeding excessive amounts of rapidly fermentable carbohydrates in conjunction with inadequate fiber to ruminants is subacute ruminal acidosis, which is characterized by periods of low ruminal pH that resolve without treatment and is rarely diagnosed. Dairy cows, feedlot cattle, and feedlot sheep are at risk of developing this condition. Cows grazing lush grass from intensively managed pasture alone are also at risk of developing subacute ruminal acidosis.

Etiology and Pathophysiology of Subacute Ruminal Acidosis

Ruminal pH fluctuates considerably during a 24-hour period (typically varying by 0.5 to 1) and is determined by the dynamic balance between the intake of fermentable carbohydrates, buffering capacity of the rumen, and rate of acid absorption from the rumen. In general, subacute ruminal acidosis is caused by the ingestion of feed high in rapidly fermentable carbohydrates or deficient in physically active fiber. Subacute ruminal acidosis is most commonly defined as repeatedly occurring, prolonged periods of decrease of the ruminal pH to between 5.6 and 5.2. The low ruminal pH is caused by excessive accumulation of volatile fatty acids (VFAs) without persistent lactic acid accumulation and is restored to normal by the animal’s own physiologic responses.

Overview of Metabolic Acidosis

The ability of the rumen to rapidly absorb organic acids contributes greatly to the stability of ruminal pH. It is rarely difficult for peripheral tissues to use VFAs already absorbed from the rumen; however, absorption of these VFAs from the rumen can be an important bottleneck.

Ruminal VFAs are absorbed passively across the rumen wall. This passive absorption is enhanced by fingerlike papillae, which project away from the rumen wall and provide a massive surface area for absorption. Ruminal papillae increase in length when cattle are fed higher-grain diets; this increase in papilla length presumably increases the ruminal surface area and absorptive capacity, thereby protecting the animal from acid accumulation in the rumen. Dairy cows are especially at risk in the period of transition to a higher-grain diet, because the ruminal mucosa needs several weeks to adjust to high-grain diets; and in peak lactation, when high concentrations of easily fermentable carbohydrates are fed to avoid excessive negative energy balance.

One mechanism by which affected animals resolve ruminal acidosis and return ruminal pH to normal is to select long forage particles, either by choosing to preferentially consume long, dry hay or by sorting through a mixed ration in favor of longer forage particles. Another mechanism is to decrease overall feed intake. Decreased dry-matter intake becomes especially evident if ruminal pH falls below ~5.5. Reduced intake may be mediated by pH receptors or osmolality receptors in the rumen. Inflammation of the ruminal epithelium (rumenitis) could cause pain and also contribute to reduced intake during subacute ruminal acidosis.

Absorption of volatile fatty acids (VFAs) inherently increases as ruminal pH drops. Volatile fatty acids are absorbed only in the protonated state. Because of their acid dissociation constant (having a pKa of ~4.8), the proportion of these acids that is protonated increases dramatically as ruminal pH decreases below 5.5. Lactate concentration in the ruminal fluid of cattle with subacute ruminal acidosis, if measured, is usually not increased; however, the pathogenesis of excessive lactate production in the rumen is well described. Ruminal carbohydrate fermentation shifts to lactate production at lower ruminal pH (mostly because Streptococcus bovis proliferates and shifts to lactate instead of VFA production); this shift can offset gains from VFA absorption. Ruminal lactate production is undesirable because lactate has a much lower pKa than VFAs have (3.9 vs 4.8). For example, lactate is 5.2 times less protonated than VFAs at pH 5. As a result, lactate stays in the rumen longer and contributes to the downward spiral in ruminal pH.

Additional adaptive responses are invoked if lactate production begins. Bacteria that use lactate, such as Megasphaera elsdenii and Selenomonas ruminantium, begin to proliferate. These beneficial bacteria convert lactate to other VFAs, which are then easily protonated and absorbed. However, the turnover time of lactate users is much slower than that of lactate synthesizers. Thus, this mechanism may not be invoked quickly enough to fully stabilize ruminal pH. Periods of very high ruminal pH, as during feed deprivation, may inhibit populations of lactate users (which are sensitive to higher ruminal pH) and make them more susceptible to severe ruminal acidosis.

Besides disrupting microbial balance, feed deprivation causes cattle to overeat when feed is reintroduced. This compounds the effect in lowering ruminal pH. Cycles of feed deprivation followed by overconsumption greatly increase the risk of subacute ruminal acidosis.

Low ruminal pH during subacute ruminal acidosis also decreases the number of bacterial species in the rumen, although the metabolic activity of the bacteria that remain is very high. Protozoal populations are particularly limited at lower ruminal pH; the absence of ciliated protozoa in ruminal fluid is often observed during bouts of subacute ruminal acidosis. When fewer species of bacteria and protozoa are present, the ruminal microflora are less stable and less able to maintain normal ruminal pH during periods of sudden dietary change. Thus, periods of subacute ruminal acidosis leave animals more susceptible to future episodes of ruminal acidosis.

The pathophysiologic consequences of ruminal acidosis have been described mainly in feedlot cattle and in cattle surviving acute ruminal acidosis. Low ruminal pH may lead to rumenitis, as well as erosion and ulceration of the ruminal epithelium. Once the ruminal epithelium is inflamed, bacteria may colonize the papillae and leak into the portal circulation. These bacteria may cause liver abscesses, which may eventually lead to peritonitis around the site of the abscess.

Caudal vena cava syndrome is caused by the release of septic emboli from liver abscesses; this septic material travels via the caudal vena cava to the lungs. The bacteria proliferate in lung tissue and may ultimately invade pulmonary vessels, causing them to rupture, which manifests clinically as hemoptysis and even peracute death due to massive pulmonary hemorrhage.

Subacute ruminal acidosis has historically been associated with claw horn lesions, assumed to be caused by subacute laminitis Overview of Lameness in Cattle Lameness is a painful condition that affects the locomotor system of cattle and has a detrimental effect on health, welfare, and productivity. It is caused mainly by hoof lesions; it can also... read more . However, this pathophysiologic mechanism has not been experimentally characterized or reproduced. Alternative explanations for the development of claw horn lesions have been suggested.

Clinical Findings of Subacute Ruminal Acidosis

The main clinical signs attributed to subacute ruminal acidosis are decreased or cyclic feed intake, decreased milk production, poor body condition score despite adequate feed intake, and unexplained diarrhea. High rates of culling or unexplained deaths may be noted in the herd. Sporadic cases of caudal vena cava syndrome may also occur. The clinical signs are delayed and insidious. Actual episodes of low ruminal pH are not identified; in fact, by the time an animal is observed to be off its feed, ruminal pH has usually been restored to normal. Diarrhea may follow periods of low ruminal pH; however, this finding is inconsistent and may be related to other dietary factors.

Diagnosis of Subacute Ruminal Acidosis

  • Measurement of ruminal pH in a group of at-risk cows

  • Evaluation of pH testing results in the context of other factors, such as herd health problems and ration formulation

Subacute ruminal acidosis is diagnosed on a group rather than individual basis. Measurement of pH in the ruminal fluid of a representative portion of apparently healthy animals in a group has been used to help make the diagnosis of subacute ruminal acidosis in dairy herds. Animals from the highest-risk groups should be selected: cows between ~15 and 30 days in milk in component-fed herds and cows between ~50 and 150 days in milk in herds fed total mixed rations. Ruminal fluid is usually collected by rumenocentesis. In rumenocentesis, the ventral ruminal sac is punctured at the level of the stifle joint with a 1.2-mm-diameter needle about 10 cm deep into the rumen. One milliliter of ruminal fluid is aspirated, and its pH is determined immediately or after anaerobic storage. Twelve or more animals are typically sampled at ~2–4 hours after a grain feeding (in component-fed herds) or 6–10 hours after the first daily feeding of a total mixed ration. If >25% of the animals tested have a ruminal pH of < 5.5, the group is considered to be at high risk of subacute ruminal acidosis. This type of diagnostic tool should be used in conjunction with other means of diagnosis, such as ration evaluation, evaluation of management practices, and identification of health problems on a herd basis.

Milk fat depression is a poor and insensitive indicator of subacute ruminal acidosis in dairy herds.

Treatment and Prevention of Subacute Ruminal Acidosis

  • No specific treatment for subacute ruminal acidosis; sequelae treated as needed

  • Correct feeding management and diet formulation as preventive measures

Because subacute ruminal acidosis is not detected at the time of decreased ruminal pH, there is no specific treatment for it. Secondary conditions may be treated as needed.

The key to prevention of subacute ruminal acidosis is allowing for ruminal adaptation to high-grain diets, as well as limiting intake of readily fermentable carbohydrates. This requires both good diet formulation (proper balance of fiber and nonfiber carbohydrates) and excellent feed bunk management. Animals consuming well-formulated diets remain at high risk of subacute ruminal acidosis if they tend to eat large meals because of excessive competition for bunk space or after periods of feed deprivation.

Field recommendations to feed component-fed concentrates to dairy cattle during the first 3 weeks of lactation are usually not indicated. Feeding excessive quantities of concentrate and insufficient forage results in a fiber-deficient ration likely to cause subacute ruminal acidosis. The same situation may be evident during the last few days before parturition if the ration is fed in separate components; as dry-matter intake drops before calving, dry cows preferentially consume concentrates instead of forage and develop acidosis.

Subacute ruminal acidosis may also be caused by errors in delivery of the rations or by the formulation of rations that contain excessive amounts of rapidly fermentable carbohydrates or a deficiency of fiber. Recommendations for the fiber content of dairy cattle rations are available in the National Research Council report Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle (see Nutritional Requirements of Dairy Cattle Nutritional Requirements of Dairy Cattle During lactation, dairy cows have very high nutritional requirements relative to most other species ( see Table: Feeding Guidelines for Large-Breed Dairy Cattle). Meeting these requirements... read more Nutritional Requirements of Dairy Cattle ). Dry-matter content errors in total mixed rations are commonly related to a lack of adjustment for variation in the moisture content of different forages.

Including long-fiber particles in the diet decreases the risk of subacute ruminal acidosis by encouraging saliva production during chewing and by increasing rumination after feeding. Providing adequate long-fiber particles decreases the risk of ruminal acidosis, but it cannot eliminate the risk. If a total mixed ration is fed, it is important that the long-fiber particles not be easily sorted away from the rest of the diet. If they can be easily sorted, their consumption could be delayed until later in the day, or they might be refused completely. Sorting can be prevented by providing long-fiber particles less than ~5 cm in length, by having adequate (~50%–55%) moisture in the mixed ration, and by including ingredients, such as liquid molasses, that help ration ingredients stick together.

Ruminant diets should also be formulated to provide adequate buffering, through appropriate feedstuff selection or addition of dietary buffers such as sodium bicarbonate and potassium carbonate. The dietary cation-anion difference (DCAD) is used to quantify the buffering capacity of a diet, using the following formula:

DCAD = ([Na+] + [K+]) – ([Cl] + [S–])

where the ion concentrations of sodium, potassium, chloride, and sulfur are measured in mEq/kg of dietary dry matter. Diets for animals at high risk of ruminal acidosis should be formulated to provide a DCAD of >250 mEq/kg of dietary dry matter.

Supplementing the diet with direct-fed microbials that enhance lactate use in the rumen may decrease the risk of subacute ruminal acidosis. Yeasts, propionibacteria, lactobacilli, and enterococci have been used for this purpose. Ionophore (eg, monensin sodium) supplementation may also decrease the risk by selectively inhibiting ruminal lactate producers.

Key Points

  • Subacute ruminal acidosis is diagnosed and prevented at the herd level.

  • Results of ruminal pH measurement must be considered in the context of other management factors and overall herd health.

  • Proper feeding management is the mainstay for prevention of subacute ruminal acidosis.

For More Information

  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Nutrient Requirements of Dairy Cattle. Eighth Revised Edition. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press, 2021.

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