What would you think if I told you that today, I shoved a speculum into a moaning cow and got soaked in the process ?

Please allow me to introduce the Frick Speculum.

The Frick oral speculum is a piece of veterinary equipment for use in cattle. It is a hollow metal cylinder with ferruled ends. These caps help to make sure the instrument is less abrasive and sturdier. The speculum is commonly made of stainless steel, and is around twenty inches in length, with a diameter of about 1.5 inches, and a cost of about $20 each.

Speculums provide access to the pharynx of the animal, allowing veterinary procedures to be performed. Pills can be administered in this manner, though there is another pill-provisioning tool available that seems much more intuitive, having an actual handle and dispensation mechanism. Generally, the speculum is used for the protection of a gastric tube as it is being passed down the esophagus and into the rumen. Though cows have no upper teeth, they have a hard dental pad and teeth along the front of the mandible, the set-up of which is designed for shearing. When these components are introduced to a relatively thin piece of plastic, the results are fairly predictable. Tubing is probably not expensive, but the surgery to retrieve the other end of your equipment from inside the rumen most certainly is.

Tubes are placed in to the rumen for several reasons. The most innocuous of these is to supply fluids to the animal by placing them directly in the gastrointestinal tract. Fluid provision to the rumen can be achieved quickly and with minimal invasiveness, unlike administration of IV fluids. The more critical usage of tubes is to facilitate release of gas during such gastrically distressing events as bloat. Because bovines base their entire nutritional profile on the super-society of bacteria, protozoans and fungi growing in their rumen, they are quite gassy. If the gas cannot be released by normal mechanisms, the cow is said to be suffering from bloat.

Bloat is a very serious condition in most animals, but for those that produce large amounts of gas in a short amount of time, it can be catastrophic. The sounds associated with a gas-filled rumen are often described as those you would hear when striking a balloon. Just like a balloon, an overly gas-filled stomach can pop. Bloat can occur from a torsion or displacement of the rumen or other portions of the stomach, some other physical problem inhibiting eructation, or due to an increase in tiny trapped bubbles in the rumen fluid, resulting in a “frothy bloat”.

Though torsions must be repaired surgically, other bloats can be partially or fully relieved by tube placement through the speculum. When the tube is placed, it can be moved around to find pockets of gas and release them, immediately relieving pressure. When the bloat is frothy, the tube may have to be cleared of froth, and instead used as a means of administering surfactants, such as mineral oil, to help break up the emulsions present in the rumen.

Placement of a speculum is not a complicated procedure. If you find yourself in a situation where it's necessary to use one, just follow these steps to success. Please do not attempt if you: cannot gauge force, have a weak grip, or cannot abide being covered in viscous drool.

  • Hopefully, the cow will be placed in a chute for ease of handling. Facing the same direction as the cow (that is, with your back to to the chute), wrap one arm around the neck of the cow. This will place your hand near the cow's mouth. This should be done with your non-dominant hand, to allow the dominant hand to handle the equipment.

  • Place your fingers in the commisure between the lips-- this is the angle of the lip, where there are no teeth. Remember what they can do to GI tubes. Using your fingers, push the upper and lower jaw apart to open the mouth. The cow will probably begin chewing and licking as its mouth is forced open, much like a dog. Don't get bitten!

  • Using the dominant hand, place the speculum into the oral cavity. The cow will naturally try to push it to the side of the mouth. You will know this has happened when you hear loud clanking, grinding noises, as if a cow was chewing on a large piece of metal. Guide the speculum over the tongue and into the back of the throat. Go gently. It is entirely possible to punch through the back of the pharynx due to excess force, and that won't end well for anyone.

  • When the speculum passes over the hump at the back of the tongue and enters the pharynx, the cow will begin to reflexively swallow. The speculum will move easily into the area, and you can secure it with your non-dominant hand, pressing it to the roof of the mouth. This allows your other hand to begin feeding the tube into the rumen. This can be done without assistance if you have fed the first 15-20 inches of tubing into the speculum before placement. You will know it's arrived when you can hear the gurgling sounds of a big fermenting vat of grass and grain bits, though these noises may be impaired in the case of bloat. It is easy to lose a speculum at this point. You wouldn't think an animal would be able to just swallow a piece of metal nearly two feet long, but there it is. In this instance, the instrument is generally not retrieved. It's just left in the rumen, where it will sink to the bottom and generally cause no problems. It will be removed when, as my professor phrased it, “the dairy cows become beef cows”.

  • When all procedures are complete, the tube is removed, followed by the speculum. The animal may reflexively cough or gag for a few moments after placement or removal. However, the placement of the speculum is generally harmless, and a much less painful way to go than, say, a rumenotomy.

So those are the basics on a basic veterinary instrument. Hopefully the next time someone tells you they've had a particularly messy speculum-based encounter, your mind can jump somewhere else entirely.

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