Vet on Call: Call that scuttled New Year’s festivities

Saturday January 13 2018

Robert Bett feeds his dairy cattle at Tergat Farm in Elburgon.

Robert Bett feeds his dairy cattle at Tergat Farm in Elburgon. Livestock farmers should be wary of salmonellosis which kills infected cattle by producing a toxin that highly inflames the intestines causing the death of intestinal cells. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG 

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My family and I had reserved this New Year’s Day for an exciting lunch so that we could reflect on the past year in a relaxed atmosphere. Everyone was eager to share their successes in the past year and lessons learned from any failures.

Our daughter-in-law looked forward to a full family gathering in her first New Year date with the family. She also was eager to showcase our grandson who had just started walking. “Dad, I hope this time you will not be on duty,” she had told me a week earlier.

Well, I was almost confident that I would be off duty having been holding the fort over Christmas.

I got a rude reality at about 7.30am on the material day when my colleague Robert, who was supposed to be on duty, called in sick.

He would not be able to come to work as he apparently had played host to some intestinal bacteria. He thought he had food poisoning.

That was bad news for me. We have a standing agreement with my wife Mwikali, my practice partner, that when we have a family function and duty calls unexpectedly, the axe falls on me.

Consequently my expectation of a free day evaporated immediately and I psyched myself to attend to any emergencies that could be reported.
The infamous Murphy’s Law did not disappoint. A call came in at about 10am when our lunch plans were in top gear.

Our daughter looked at me crestfallen as I concluded answering the call and she exclaimed, “Sounds bad and far – very untimely”. She was referring to my mention of a dead animal and Yatta in my conversation with the caller.

Let me explain a bit about Murphy’s Law since a lot of people find themselves in similar situations and some of them even attribute it to the occult or supernatural powers.

Murphy was a rocket engineer in the United States Airforce working to experiment human tolerances to acceleration in 1949.

He said that “If there are two or more ways to do something, and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will do it.”


Murphy’s supposed law has since been modified to try and explain various inopportune occurrences like mine. One of the common modifications states that “If anything can go wrong, it will, and usually at the most inopportune time.”

Personally I believe it is that we tend to try and resist acceptance of unfavourable happenings when we least need them.

Murphy’s Law is more of a belief than a scientific law but then, it is a reality we have to contend with in life – if you get fired at work, you will find yourself with a hospital bill.

Going back to the inopportune call, Ngari is the manager of Mulei’s mixed livestock farm in Yatta near Thika. The farm has dairy and beef cattle as well as goats.

He said a number of cows had been tearing profusely for the last one week and treatment for pink eye had not resolved the situation. Ngari is also a para-veterinary professional qualified to diagnose and treat some diseases.

I could have attended to the animals the following day since tearing and pink eye disease is not an emergency.

However, the manager reported that one of the cows he had treated had died three days earlier showing profuse diarrhoea.

“Doctor, this morning we woke up and found five milking cows are not eating and they have drastically reduced milk,” he paused, then concluded he was sorry to call me on New Year’s Day but he believed the situation was an emergency.

I fully agreed with him and promised to be on the farm within one and a half hours considering the unrelenting Thika town traffic jam.

It used to take me just under an hour to get to Mulei’s farm but this time I arrived there in two hours courtesy of the traffic jam on Garissa Road.


I confirmed the issue of tearing was indeed pink eye disease. Ngari had been using one of the medicines that usually works with the disease but some animals would not recover. I prescribed an alternative medicine effective against the disease but from a different antibiotics family.

Next I got the full history of the five cows that had “resisted” eating and proceeded to examine them starting with the one most affected.

The cow was very dull. It had harsh elevated breathing, very strong and fast heart beat and no rumen movement. The temperature was normal.

I put on rectal examination gloves and inserted my hand into the animal’s rear. The findings confirmed my suspicion.

The rectum was distended with fluid instead of holding the normal well-formed faeces. I scooped out some of the contents with my cupped hand taking care not to be splashed with the foul-smelling material if the cow pushed.

The fluid contained thick mucus tending towards gelatinous consistency. The intestines never moved even after I had inserted my hand in the rectum and removed it.

This meant that the intestinal tract was very inflamed and had very little movement. Little wonder the sick cows looked so forlorn.

I examined the other four cows and they all returned the same findings but with varying degrees of severity. With the findings of the last animal, I explained to Ngari he had a severe attack of bacterial infection on his herd.

The culprit was most likely the Salmonella germ which is the most common cause of bacterial diarrhoea in adult cattle. Further, the finding of heavy mucus in the rectal contents was highly indicative of salmonellosis.

I treated the three very sick cows with antibiotics injected into the jugular vein. Further, I gave all the sick cows a long-acting antibiotic injection into the neck muscle.


In addition, I gave antibiotics by mouth immediately and left enough medicine with Ngari for him to give the cows by mouth daily for three days.

I suspected the cows could have been infected by consuming contaminated water since the farm was using the heavily polluted Athi River water directly.

I advised Ngari to have the water purified and treated before being fed to the cows. He would also observe all the other cows closely and report any that showed signs of sickness.

Salmonellosis kills infected cattle by producing a toxin that highly inflames the intestines causing the death of intestinal cells.

The toxin further gets into the bloodstream and causes death of other tissues including those of the organs highly supplied with blood such as the lungs, liver, heart and brain.

Salmonella bacteria also enter the body through the breakages in the intestinal wall and are distributed throughout the body via the blood. It is for this reason that heavy antibiotic treatment including direct infusion into the blood is necessary to treat severe cases.

Ngari called the following morning and reported all the animals had responded well to the treatment and had started eating again. No other case has occurred since and the farm has started treating the water.