‘Hardware disease’ isn’t fun for the cow or veterinarian
April 18, 2011|Bill Croushore|The Daily American, Somerset, PA
As a veterinarian, a good portion of my time is spent diagnosing and treating diseases of cattle. One of the most interesting diseases we encounter in cows is aptly named “hardware disease.”
Being nerdy scientific types, veterinarians had to give it a Latin name: traumatic reticuloperitonitis. The English translation means that there was trauma to the reticulum that resulted in peritonitis. I know, that wasn’t much of a translation.
Hardware disease happens when a bovine eats a sharp metal object such as a nail or wire. Cattle are very indiscriminate eaters, so it isn’t uncommon for them to swallow such an object.
If the unsuspecting cow eats a nail or wire, it will end up in the chamber of the stomach called the reticulum. Unlike the big fermentation chamber the rumen, the reticulum’s function is to sort the feed. Feed that is of sufficiently small particle size can exit but larger material is retained to be regurgitated and chewed on again.
Once inside the reticulum, the metallic object could poke through the wall and wreak havoc inside the abdomen. Immediately adjacent to the reticulum is the cow’s heart, separated only by the diaphragm. One of the manifestations of hardware disease is heart involvement.
It is quite unfortunate for both the cow and the farmer to see a case of hardware disease with heart involvement. The disease is invariably fatal if it involves the heart and it also renders the animal unfit for slaughter since there is likely to be bacteria in the bloodstream.
But not all cases of hardware disease end with heart involvement. It is, in fact, uncommon. The usual manifestation is a syndrome called “vagal indigestion.” Sorry, there is no catchy English translation for this one. A cow with vagal indigestion, as viewed from her rear, looks like a “papple,” half pear and half apple. These cows have difficulty emptying the rumen of feed.
So, when we see a cow with the characteristic papple shape and other signs of hardware disease, we treat the animal with a magnet. If you’re picturing the huge electromagnet that Wile E. Coyote might use to snag the roadrunner, it’s not that type of magnet.
Actually, we get the cow to swallow a strong magnet that’s about half the size of a hot dog. Once down her gullet, it will be retained in the reticulum — the same place as the wire. With a little bit of luck, the magnet will latch onto the offending piece of steel and spare the cow further problems. It will stay in the cow for the rest of her days.
The magnet trick, while easy, is not successful every time. Sometimes the offending metal is aluminum and won’t stick to the magnet and sometimes the magnet just fails to pull it out. Those times that the magnet fails to remove the metal, we might attempt surgery to cure the papple-shaped bovine.
The surgery is really no fun for either the surgeon or the patient. To remove the piece of metal, we have to cut into the distended rumen. The stinky contents rush out under pressure and coat the barn floor, the surgeon and anything else within range. But once in the rumen, the surgeon can reach down deep inside the cow, find the reticulum and check for the wire.
As dramatic as it sounds, the recovery is even more dramatic. Sometimes, as soon as the wire is pulled out, the cow commences ruminating again, even before the hole in her rumen is sutured shut. Unfortunately, hardware disease in just one of several causes for the papple-shaped cow. None of the others respond as well to surgery.
Grazing season soon will be upon us. As you’re driving down the back roads admiring the beasts in the pastures, please don’t discard any metallic objects into the fields. Both the cows and their veterinarians would appreciate it.
(Dr. Bill Croushore is a veterinarian with White Oak Veterinary Clinic in Berlin, and services farms in Somerset, Bedford, Westmoreland and Fayette counties. If you have a question for the veterinarian, send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.)