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Vet on Call: Hey, sometimes it’s just a bark when dog bites cow

Friday March 31 2017

David Mwenda feeds a calf in his farm in Imenti South.

David Mwenda feeds a calf in his farm in Imenti South. Routinely vaccinate your domestic dog to ensure there is no transmission of rabies from your dog to your livestock especially in instances of accidental dog bites. PHOTO | PHOEBE OKALL | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Rabies or suspected rabies case reports that I always receive are in most instances dramatic, hilarious or sad. Do you remember the story of the “overheated cow” I narrated sometime back? (Seeds of Gold, January 21).

Another farmer told me recently, “My dog has a bone stuck deep in the throat but I can’t really get to remove it.”
Often, the rabies narrative assumes a life and death situation for the dog, the livestock and the members of the household.

It is a good thing that many people who keep animals know rabies is a deadly disease that has no cure.

They also know that the domestic dog, when not routinely vaccinated, is the most important player in maintenance and transmission of rabies to both humans and their livestock.

I have worked with livestock farmers for the last 29 years of my professional life and I know the panic button triggered immediately they see their animals with the slightest sign they imagine could be an indication of rabies.

This brings me to a report I received last week. I opened my email to find the message,


Hi Doctor, I am John from Mombasa. I have just killed my nice dog because it has bitten my most favourite dairy cow. What should I do next to save the cow?”

I read the message twice to confirm its content and context.

“John, why did you kill the poor dog?” I sent John a text message since he had given his phone number. He called back and said, “Doc, thank you for your immediate response. I’m very worried the dog may have infected my cow with rabies and she’s such a high milk yielder.”

I empathised with John, sympathised with his cow and put his dog in prayers. You see, dog bites are very painful because they tear the tissues and you feel like there are 1,000 needles piercing.


I have been bitten thrice in my practice life and the pain experience is always the same.

My first priority was to calm John and then assess whether his dog could have been rabid - all on the phone - before giving him any advice.

John explained to me the dog had looked normal prior to biting the cow. The cow was trying to eat some banana peels next to a bowl of water.

The dog would attempt to bite the cow’s head and the cow would chase it by lowering its head to deliver a head butt.

The dog would retreat, make some noise and attempt another bite. Finally, the dog managed to bite the cow on the nose.

John ran to the rescue of the cow and hit the dog very hard on the head with a piece of wood, extinguishing its life instantly, according to his narration.

The dog was dead but it was unlikely to have been a rabies case. The dog was most likely a victim of jungle justice where the strongest is the prosecutor, the judge and the executioner.

“John, I really do not think your dog had rabies but you appear to have overreacted from your knowledge of rabies.

Please note even with the threat of grave adversity, we should strive to live and let live,” I told him.

You see, a rabid dog does not exhibit normal behaviour. The dog appears to have a blank look in the eyes or depressed depending on whether it has the damb or furious form of the disease.


It will have no time to play around with a cow or other animals. It just bites anything that comes its way.

Rabid dogs will usually have very red eyes and produce saliva uncontrollably or foam from the mouth. The dog will have no patience to play with the cow then bite.

It will bite the cow and run off to bite the next object. The thing is, the rabies virus seems to be commanding the dog to spread the disease fast and widely before it dies.

That is why a dog with furious rabies will keep biting once as it runs until it collapses and dies.

I advised John to wear gloves and clean the bite wound on the cow’s nose with lots of water, soap and an antiseptic such as Dettol.

Thereafter, he was to call a veterinary doctor to examine the dog, check for signs of rabies and take a sample to a government veterinary research laboratory to rule out or confirm rabies.

John was also to ensure that all his dogs and cats were vaccinated against rabies once every year.

Now, all animal keepers must appreciate that, like people, animals kept together have their conflicts. These are conflicts over resources such as food, water, territory, affection and breeding opportunities.

If an animal bites another one, the best thing is to confine it and call a veterinary doctor to examine it for signs of disease instead of condemning it to death.