Vet on Call: Beware of the sweet toxins on your farm

Friday July 20 2018
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Silas Kinyua feeds his sheep in Elburgon, Nakuru County. Sugar affects ruminants such as goats, cattle and sheep differently and worse than pigs because of their different digestive systems. PHOTO | JOHN NJOROGE | NMG


Most of the time, the case reports I get emanate from disease-causing germs, physical injuries or natural disease processes.

However, sometimes I get cases resulting from human behaviour due to ignorance or low awareness on the habits that affect the safety and security of livestock.

One time, I had a case of two bulls that had been fighting and one was badly cut by a machete that a worker had left perching on a pole. The machete almost pierced into the rumen of the poor animal.

Another case I recall is where a calf drunk petrol. The toxic liquid had been left in an open basin by a mechanic who was repairing the farmer’s car. He had been using the petrol to clean some car parts.

The animal died after five days after I unsuccessfully tried to save it. Petrol belongs to the hydrocarbons group of chemicals, many of which are toxic to animals when ingested in large quantities. Their toxicity is very difficult to treat.

The good news is that hydrocarbon toxicity is rare due to the chemicals’ offensive smell, which puts off animals.


However, some killer toxins, especially for the ruminants, are the sweet food items that we humans cherish every day. The way we handle such items may prevent or exacerbate the opportunities to poison livestock.

Three weeks ago, I had a case at Garden Estate where Jack, the farmer’s worker, reported that their prized ram was having episodes of listlessness and drowsiness.

Jack told me the ram had been earmarked for a family event later in the month. “Doctor, Mzee will be very disappointed if we lose this sheep or if he cannot slaughter it for his guests,” he said.

By the time I arrived on the farm an hour later, the ram was lying down and had placed his head against the chest. The animal looked sickly but was in very good body condition. It was a half breed of a Red Maasai and Dorper sheep. I mentally noted it would have provided very high quality meat when slaughtered.

I checked the sheep’s temperature and found it within the normal range. However, the heart and breathing rates were very fast.

The rumen movement was very slow and weak. I also noted the ram had voided fresh dung instead of the usual pellets.

A waft of fermented sugar emanated from the dung. The mucous membranes of the eyes were reddened.

In this case, I broke my usual protocol of taking the history first because Jack was not giving me information that could facilitate diagnosis.

He had said he left the sheep well in the morning but around 2pm, he had seen it taking an unusually large amount of water. The ram had taken water frequently initially but had stopped feeding.

“Could it be that someone poisoned Mzee’s ram?” Jack wondered aloud.


I explained that the ram appeared to have eaten a large amount of highly digestible and fermentable starch. I had picked this from the sweet fermentation smell of the dung. Such starch could come from grain cereals, wheat products such as bread or even sugar.

“We have to investigate and see if there was any indication of the ram having accessed these products without your knowledge,” I told him. Jack went into the house and I proceeded to give the ram supportive treatment in an attempt to counter some of the effects of the poisoning.

There is no specific antidote to treat this kind of poisoning. I gave antihistamines, anti-inflammatory and antibiotics injections.

The aim of the treatment is for the first two groups of medicines to arrest the disease process long enough to allow for the digestive system to remove the offending material. The antibiotics protect the body from bacterial invasion. The condition is called lactic acidosis or grain overload.

The surest way of treating grain overload is to operate on the animal and remove the material from the rumen.

Unfortunately, this ram was meant for slaughter for human consumption and also the cost of surgery heavily outweighed the value of the animal. In this situation, the best option was to institute supportive treatment and hope that the body would be able to discharge the offending material from the gut through diarrhoea.

Sugar affects ruminants (goats, cattle and sheep) differently and worse than pigs because of the different digestive system.

Molasses will have the same effect if fed in large amounts.

As I finished the treatment, Jack came out of the house surprised. He was holding a groceries’ bag containing a few grains of sugar. He told me that he had come with a kilo of sugar in the morning and left it in the kitchen but it was all gone.

All he found in the kitchen were the sheep’s pellet droppings, a clear indication the animal had entered the kitchen healthy, and devoured the sweetener.

I left the compound hoping that the ram would pull through. Unfortunately, the grain overload is a disease whose outcome is difficult to predict even when surgery is carried out.

When the animal eats an excess of cereal grains or grain products, the rumen produces various types of chemicals that are toxic to the body, chief among them lactic acid. The chemicals also damage the walls of the rumen and allow bacteria to get into the body.

Medical luck evaded Jack’s ram. It showed signs of recovery in the first two days but died on the fourth day.