Vet on Call: Don’t mess with the vet

Friday June 01 2018
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Bishop Dr Kamuri Muya feeds dairy cattle at Talents Children's Mission Centre in Elburgon. In livestock keeping one must realise that human beings share many disease-causing organisms with livestock, including worms such as tapeworms, bacteria such as anthrax and viruses. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG


Human beings share many disease-causing organisms with livestock, including worms such as tapeworms, bacteria such as anthrax and viruses such as Rift Valley Fever.

Together with our animals, we feed parasites such as fleas, ticks, flies and mites. Therefore, I view veterinary medicine and human medicine as congenital twins joined at the hip.

However, one thing I find interesting is that animal owners always fail to appreciate the same processes that a human doctor takes to diagnose or investigate a disease are very similar to the ones taken by a veterinary doctor.

While a human patient will make several trips to the doctor if the treatment is not working well, a farmer is very quick to change the veterinary doctor if treatment appears not to be working.

Unfortunately, medical treatment does not work that way. Just the same way a human patient will visit the same doctor several times before seeking a second opinion, farmers should allow a veterinary doctor to treat their animals over a period of time if the original treatment appears not to be effective.

This allows the doctor to progress up the hierarchy of diagnostic and treatment protocol from the lowest to the highest level. The doctor is then able to manage both the cost of treatment and the effect on the animal.


The only caveat is that the veterinary doctor must provide clear notes on the diagnosis, treatment and expected progress towards healing.

While the doctor may not exactly predict the duration it would take for a certain disease situation to resolve, he should be able to give the farmer some timeline and favourable indicators of progression towards recovery.

The doctor must also tell the farmer what further investigations may be required if the initial or subsequent treatment does not appear to be effective.

Farmers need to know that diseases are destructive processes in the body. They take time to establish and disrupt normal processes and structures in the body from the organ down to the cell level.

They also interfere with the chemicals that drive normal body function. For healing to take place therefore, the treatment given must be able to reverse the destructive process all the way back to normal or to a level that is able to support close to normal body function.


In some cases, diseases do not come singly. Additionally, the occurrence of one disease may trigger a destructive process that is more difficult to cure than the initial disease. Like it happens in East Coast Fever infection.

I call this the “conspiracy of diseases”. It can be very frustrating to the farmer particularly when the diseases come in multiples; and it happens that some are in the incubation period while others are evident visually or on laboratory examination.

The doctor will treat the diagnosed diseases but the animal will continue being sick when the diseases in incubation show up.

Diseases in incubation are not visible from clinical examination and some may not even be detected by laboratory methods because they are hidden in the organs and they have not yet released disease markers in the blood, urine or other body fluids that we normally sample to test for diseases.

In the middle of last month, Jane from Ruiru called me and said one of her pregnant heifers had stopped eating. The animal was almost due to calve. “Doctor, this heifer is very high quality and I can’t afford to lose her or the calf,” she concluded.

Jane is a paraprofessional animal health practitioner and the farm manager. In many cases, I work with her on the phone when she has cases she cannot handle or needs a doctor’s opinion.

She confirmed to me the temperature of the heifer was a bit elevated at 39.9 degrees centigrade and there was very little movement of the rumen.

The animal’s dung was very hard and coated with a blood tinged mucus layer. All other parameters were normal and the calf in the uterus moved when palpated.

“Okay Jane, it looks like we have anaplasmosis,” I told her. I advised her to treat for the disease on a short acting antibiotic that she would give for three consecutive days.

I asked her to use the short-acting antibiotic and not the long-acting form because the specific antibiotic does not work well with other drugs.

In case I needed to change the antibiotic later, I would be sure it had been eliminated from the body and would not interfere with the other drugs.

The following day, Jane told me the cow had recovered well and was moderately eating. However, on the third day after treatment, she called again and said the animal was not eating and the temperature had shot up to 40.8 degrees centigrade. That is a high fever that could even cause abortion if not promptly managed.


My colleague Dr Mwikali rushed to the farm and found the animal had developed pneumonia, which she treated with long acting antibiotics and anti-fever medicines. She confirmed the calf was still alive and the heifer did not have mastitis.

The cow appeared to recover and even gave birth the following day to a beautiful heifer calf. She produced milk at 20 litres per day.

One week later, Jane was on the phone again reporting the cow was not eating and milk production had dropped to five litres per day.

The temperature was now at 41.5 degrees centigrade. I rushed to the farm and found the cow had indications of infection with East Coast Fever and red water. I collected a blood sample before treating the heifer for the diseases.

Back at the office, I analysed the blood sample and confirmed the presence of East Coast Fever and babesia parasites in the red blood cells.

Babesia parasites are the cause of red water in cattle, a disease where the infected animal produces red urine in the later stages of the infection.

I informed Jane the diagnosis on the phone and instructed her to repeat the East Coast Fever treatment after 48 hours.

I also advised her to review her tick control on the farm and ensure the animals were washed well once per week with the correct mixing of the acaricide (tick wash chemical) in water. The animal recovered well within one week and resumed normal milk yield.

One week after the cow had recovered, Jane called me again and said the cow had just developed explosive diarrhoea that morning.

I prescribed antibiotics to be given by mouth two times daily for three consecutive days. The following day, Jane confirmed the cow was back to normal. To date, the cow has not shown any other problem.