When disease strikes!

A true case, and general advice.

Some-time in 2016/2017, I became friends with a certain guy based in the UK who had livestock projects in Zimbabwe. We got into an arrangement where I would make monthly farm visits and report to him about the state of his project. One day he called me with an urgent request: his sheep were dying from a mysterious ailment. Could I investigate?

I arrived at the farm and talked to his attendant/manager. The history was: 3 sheep dead, nervous signs (attacking others, unsteady on their feet, restlessness, salivating etc). The red flag in my mind flashed: rabies!

So I asked him: were the sheep ever attacked by any dog in the immediate past? No. I was baffled: I could not find anything wrong with the surviving sheep. Of course I thought about possibilities and probabilities: heart water chiefly, but…my guard was up.

Luckily, they had spared the head and feet of the latest dead sheep, so I suitably wrapped the head and sent it to the Central Veterinary Laboratory in Harare. Following day I had the results: positive for rabies.

You can imagine the chaos that happened! The manager/stockman had eaten and shared with the family all the previous dead carcases!

Later when everybody had sobered down, the manager recalled that they actually had a dog sometime back that had died and left young puppies. I also then remembered seeing the puppies on the yard, but I was so focused on the sheep, I hardly noticed them! Piecing together the story, I realised that the dog had been attacked by another rabid dog/jackal. Then in the “furious” stages of the disease, it had attacked or its saliva somehow got into contact with the sheep. Meanwhile, the dog died abruptly, without the manager noticing anything untoward. It was scary.

Animals will fall sick from time to time. If you have access to professional assistance, that’s your good fortune. For the majority, when your animals fall sick, you are the primary carer. What do you do?

To be fairly honest, every cattleman fancies himself to be a vet! And in most cases, through experience, cattlemen do get many things correct. But for the sake of the new players, and some old ones too, here is food for thought.

General signs of illness:- so you woke up in the morning and your animal is off feed, dull, slow to move, perhaps showing breathing difficulties if overworked or exercised; dull coat; loose/hard faeces.

What I have just outlined are classical general signs of illness, present to some extent in all illness. So what to do?

The first thing is to provide tender loving care. Good feed, fresh clean water, observe. DON’T overwork a sick animal. If possible, keep it penned where you can feed and observe it.

The second thing is to try to diagnose what is wrong with your animal. When investigating for disease, professionals will basically look at three things:

 1. Clinical signs:- how does the disease present itself? What is the temperature? It is known that some diseases cause a fever, others do not. How is it moving, is it limping? What about the colour of the lining of the mouth (mucous membrane): is it moist pink or another colour, maybe yellow-tinged or bluish. Etc etc. Breath rate, type of breathing,  pulse all are checked.

The idea is that knowing the full clinical picture gives a clue about various disease possibilities.

2. Examine the environment:-Is the environment conducive for health? Is there any feed (grazing) that you can see? What is the condition of the feed? What about water? In housed animals, check for overcrowding, ventilation (any ammonia smell?). Any poisonous chemicals/plants that you can see? Anything that is there but should not be there?

3. History-: This is probably the most important. Because animals can not speak, history becomes critical. For example, if a sick goat broke into the maize shed the previous day, knowledge of that fact significantly narrows down the disease probabilities.  Animal attendants can be evasive/defensive or simply forget about certain details, which may actually be the key clue.

The take away from this post is: be vigilant. Be observant. Observe all your animals in the morning and evenings. If abnormalities are noticed on time, it is easier to treat or prevent further damage. It is good animal welfare too.

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