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Vet on Call: Beware these three deadly ‘musketeers’

Friday July 14 2017

Njogu Ngang'a grazes some of his 40 dairy cows in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County.

Njogu Ngang'a grazes some of his 40 dairy cows in Ol Kalou, Nyandarua County. Tick control should effectively be carried out on all animals on the farm including dogs and cats to ensure complete elimination of the parasites. PHOTO | JOHN GITHINJI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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July chill is not conducive for early morning farm animal case attendance because it is rather cumbersome for me to keep warm and at the same time wear my protective clothing.

Unfortunately, diseases do not include the doctor’s convenience in their choice of occurrence.

A farmer, who I knew to keep only chicken, called me a week ago at 7.30am to report two sick cattle. “Doctor, I have recently decided to start keeping cows and now both of them are sick. They won’t eat and the cow has produced only half a litre of milk this morning instead of her usual 10,” Juliet said with frustration evident in her voice.

I was surprised because Juliet had always told me she had never kept cattle and would not do cattle farming because it was too involving. She preferred chicken as they were easier to feed and manage.

When I arrived at her farm in Ruaka I could see right from the gate that Juliet’s cow was worse off than the bull. She kept the head down and the eyes were tearing copiously. She also preferred to keep the eyes partially shut.

She had short rapid breathing. I could also see her lymph glands below the ear were swollen.


Juliet told me she had bought the bull and cow cheaply from a friend who was quitting cattle farming. Juliet planned to keep cattle for a short while, fatten and later sell them off at a much higher price than she had bought. “I thought cows were more tolerant to diseases than chicken. I’m surprised they now look like they can die any minute while yesterday they were fine,” Juliet concluded her case history.

“Which of the two produced this scone-like dung?” I enquired as I examined the droppings which almost looked like donkey faeces.

Kimani, Juliet’s farm worker said it was from the cow. The hard dung had traces of blood and a thick mucoid lining.

I examined the two animals. Both had high temperatures of 40.5 degrees Celsius for the bull and 41 for the cow as compared to the normal dairy cattle temperature of 38 degrees Celsius to 39.3 degrees Celsius.

Both animals had rapid, heavy heartbeat that we medically term as “pounding heartbeat”. For the cow, all the external lymph glands or nodes found under the ear, between the shoulder and the neck and in the skin fold in front of the knee joint were swollen.


The rumen was not moving at all while normally it should move once every one to two minutes. There was hard donkey like faeces in the rectum coated with blood and mucous.

The mucous membranes of the tongue, gums and vulva were pale with a slight tinge of yellow colour. Both animals had a few ticks around the ears and the neck.

The bull had a weak rumen albeit moving. The external lymph nodes were slightly swollen and the animal had sluggish movements.

The faeces were normal. “Juliet, your cattle have an attack of multiple diseases, all spread by ticks,” I informed the farmer as I completed the examination.

“And what are ticks?” Juliet responded to my surprise. “If you keep cattle, you should know ticks,” I thought to myself. I explained that ticks are small but visible blood sucking parasites that feed on cattle and other animals. The ticks consider animals to be their nutritional hosts and cannot survive and breed without feeding on blood.

Unfortunately, in their quest to propagate their own species, the ticks also carry microscopic parasites inside their bodies that require animal blood and other tissues to multiply and survive.

Not all ticks are infected and therefore not every tick bite will result in infection of the host cow. Infected ticks inject the parasites into the animal’s body through the tick saliva.

The parasites multiply in the animal’s body mainly at the site of deposition, in the lymph nodes and in the blood cells and cause severe disease and death if untreated.

When ticks feed on infected cattle, they suck the parasites in the blood and the disease transmission cycle continues when the ticks or their off springs feed on healthy cows.

“So, how do the ticks themselves originally get infected?” Juliet asked me. “Sorry Juliet, that now is the famous question of the chicken and the egg – being a Christian, that is where I leave the thread to the belief in creation,” I responded.


I further explained to Juliet that as scientists, we still do not understand how the first ticks were infected. However, we know some ticks are infected and when you eliminate ticks, you minimise the chances of your cattle being infected by the parasites.

I explained to Juliet her cow specifically had east coast fever, anaplasmosis and babesiosis which is also called red water.

For the bull, I diagnosed east coast fever and early stages of anaplasmosis but could not determine if red water was also present. I took a blood sample for laboratory examination.

Before leaving, I treated the cow for all the three diseases with injections and the bull for only east coast fever, pending my confirmation of red water in the laboratory.

Fortunately, all the three diseases, if detected early, can be treated and the animals progress to full recovery. Red water and anaplasmosis can be treated with one medicine, injected once.

East coast fever is treated with two injections 48 hours apart. The medicine for red water and anaplasmosis is relatively affordable but the one for east coast fever is expensive, costing about Sh2,000 a dose for a medium sized cow.

Once in the office, I examined the blood sample under the microscope and confirmed the presence of babesia parasites in the red blood cells.

I went back to the farm and completed treatment for the bull. When I went back to give the final east coast fever injection two days later, the animals had responded very well to the initial treatment.


I call the three diseases “The Vicious Triad” because they are mainly spread by two different species of ticks common in the tropics and tend to occur together in one animal.

If not detected early and given the correct treatment, the parasites in combination, cause high and certain death of infected cattle.

East coast fever and babesiosis are bad enough as individual diseases but the combination of the three seriously compromises the animal’s chances of recovery due to the high rate of destruction of blood and other tissues.

Fortunately, cattle farmers can conquer The Vicious Triad by diligently washing their cows with the correct mixture of chemicals that kill ticks and other external parasites.

These chemicals are called acaricides. Cattle should be washed once per week with an effective acaricide by dipping, spraying, handwashing or applying acaricide on the body as directed by the chemical manufacturer.

Tick control should effectively be carried out on all animals on the farm including dogs and cats to ensure elimination of ticks.
The commonly used acaricides in Kenya fall into several groups including organophosphorus, amidines and pyrethroid chemicals.

Farmers should consult their animal health service providers for advice on the most effective acaricides in their area because ticks in some regions have developed resistance to specific acaricide groups or chemicals.