Caffeine may help stimulate at-risk calves that are the result of dystocia (difficult birth), hypothermia from being born in the cold, or being run down from a stressful event such as disease or transport. 

Photo Credit: Farm Journal

By now you have probably heard about the idea of using caffeine to stimulate at-risk calves that are the result of dystocia (difficult birth), hypothermia from being born in the cold, or being run down from a stressful event such as disease or transport.  While this seems to make sense because many of us rely on the benefits of caffeine (coffee, tea, soda) to get going every day, you may be asking, “Where did this idea come from and what is the science behind it?”

More than 40 years ago it was discovered that caffeine could be used to minimize the negative effects and risk of death due to apnea of prematurity (AOP) in human infants.  Apnea is defined by cessation of breathing for more than 20 seconds, bradycardia (reduced heart rate), and cyanosis (turning blue).  The positive benefits of caffeine in infants with AOP include reducing frequency of apnea, the need for positive pressure or mechanical ventilation and earlier, more successful extubation (removal of a breathing tube).  All of this ultimately results in reduced rates of bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) which is the failure of alveoli of the lungs, the tiny air sacs that are responsible for oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, to develop. 

Healthy lungs are obviously critical in the neonate as it switches from maternal oxygenated blood supply to breathing on its own, and certainly, can be important in calves that experience high rates of pneumonia.  Current research on caffeine administration in infants experiencing AOP has demonstrated immediate treatment is more beneficial than later as defined by >48 hours after birth.  Another long-term study showed that infants receiving caffeine had fewer cases of cerebral palsy and cognitive delay at 18-21 months of age and improvement of gross motor skills at ages 5 and 11 years compared to controls that received no caffeine treatment.  This suggests that caffeine may have an overall neuroprotective effect.

One question I often get is: “How much should I give to my calf?”  In neonatal therapy it is standard to administer a loading dose.  This is a higher initial or first dose that is often used in medicines that are cleared from the body slowly because they have a long half-life.  Then a maintenance dose is given which can be 25-50% of the original dose for weeks to months.  Research has been done on increasing both doses in premature infants.  While no harmful effects were seen, no additional benefits were observed either. 

Extrapolating the common loading dose of caffeine used in the NICU to a 70-pound calf would be near the recommended maximum daily consumption for an adult human.  Keep in mind that the lethal dose of caffeine in humans is about 20 times the recommended daily dose.  Although, additional studies may be necessary to determine the optimal dose, considering other possible treatment options, caffeine administration is actually quite safe in the neonate.  Commercial formulations specific to calves have taken this into account and provide the appropriate levels compared to a “gas station supplement.”

Caffeine citrate administration in human infants has proven safe and effective.  Therefore, it is one of the top five treatments given to newborns.  Here are the established benefits that we see in human infants that would also be expected to be seen in high-risk calves given caffeine.


  • Increased respiratory neural output by blocking the effects of adenosine – a neurotransmitter that causes generalized depression
  • Neuroprotective anti-inflammatory effects
  • Healthy formation of nerve fibers
  • Reduces cell death


  • Improves diaphragmatic contractility
  • Reduces pulmonary inflammation
  • Induces surfactant production to protect airways
  • Diuretic effect can remove excess fluid and facilitate breathing


  • Increased pumping ability by contraction and volume
  • Increased blood pressure

The above changes are quickly seen, as another benefit to caffeine administration is that it takes effect rapidly (typically less than 30 minutes).  While caffeine citrate has proven so effective in humans, we are not able to feed this synthetically produced compound to animals due to AAFCO (The Association of American Feed Control Officials) regulations.  I often heard of veterinarians telling a farmer to brew up a pot of coffee to warm and stimulate a calf after a hard pull in cold winter conditions.  This would work; however, it may take that whole pot of coffee to be effective and consider the room it would occupy in the calf’s stomach that also needs four quarts of colostrum ASAP!  Concentrated green tea extract meets the requirements of being all-natural, effective and is a Generally Regarded As Safe (GRAS) feed ingredient by AAFCO.

SOURCE: January 13, 2023 – Zach Janssen DVM, Bovine Technical Services Veterinarian with TechMix, LLC.