Item for “Living the Lifestyle” June 2006

Aren’t we having lovely weather? Rain, snow and strong winds. Spare a thought for your outdoor animals, which must live out in these cold damp conditions day and night. They are very resilient and will do well as long as they are provided sufficient food for energy to keep themselves warm. But make sure the food is healthy and safe. This is the time of year when animals may eat poisonous plants or spoiled hay that they wouldn’t normally touch, because they are cold and hungry.

The old adage goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a ton of cure” and this is very true with some of the common illnesses that can affect grazing animals. Many of these can be prevented entirely by vaccinations, which are small, almost painless injections of a modified form of a disease, given to a healthy animal. When that healthy animal next is exposed to the disease, it’s immune system is all ready to react and prevent the infection. A very similar philosophy to homeopathy in a way, for those who are organically inclined.

In New Zealand we are very fortunate to not have many of the nasty animal diseases present overseas, such as bird flu and rabies. This is why it is so important that you don’t smuggle animal products into New Zealand, and that you declare everything at customs!

One disease we do have to deal with, is leptospirosis. This is a bacterial disease that is transmitted in urine, during wet conditions. All the grazing animals except horses can be affected, as well as pigs, rats, hedgehogs, possums and people. If you keep cattle or pigs especially, you should discuss a vaccination programme for them with your vet. Because the control of this disease depends on many aspects of animal management, a vaccination programme needs to be individually tailored to each property. The basics involve vaccinating all young cattle and pigs twice, about four weeks apart, and thereafter yearly (cattle) or twice yearly (pigs). Unvaccinated animals brought on to your property should have a course of treatment for leptospirosis, as well as being vaccinated. The disease in people causes jaundice, blood in the urine, fever, muscle pains and headaches and is very debilitating. Well worth avoiding in fact.

Another disease familiar (in name anyway) to most is tetanus. Tetanus is very fatal to horses, although any animal, and people, can contract it. Contrary to popular belief, you can not catch tetanus from horses. All tetanus infections come from soil borne bacteria, which get into a wound. The bacteria then releases a toxin which causes muscle spasms. The most common wound to be affected in the farm situation is the open navel of a newly born animal. All horses should be vaccinated against tetanus. This consists of two injections four weeks apart, followed by a booster one year later. The horse will then have several years of protection against tetanus.

Tetanus is one of a big happy family of bacteria called Clostridia, which cause significant diseases in farm animals that can kill them very suddenly indeed. These diseases have the common names of ‘blackleg’, ‘black disease’, ‘swelled head’and so on, but basically if your sheep, goat, cow or alpaca gets one of these bacteria causing an infection, you will go out in the morning and find them dead. So vaccination is certainly the way to go. Same basic programme for all animals: a first injection around 8 to 10 weeks old, follow up in 4 weeks, and then annual boosters. The timing of the boosters is quite important. If pregnant cows, sheep, goats and llamas or alpacas are given a booster in the last month of their pregnancy, the level of antibodies (protection against the disease) in their milk, is quite high. This means that the lambs, kids etc are protected against the disease for the first 8 weeks of their life, even though they have not been vaccinated themselves. So the lamb/kid/calf born on a cold wet night into a puddle of mud, as long as it gets up to drink from mother within 6 hours of birth, will avoid getting tetanus through its open navel, and when you come to put rubber rings on the tails or testes, again the offspring will be protected against tetanus. By about 8 weeks old, this immunity from the mother will be wearing off, and the young need to have vaccinations to keep the immunity going all the time.

For those rearing calves, rotavirus can be a huge problem. This is a virus which causes dramatic diarrhoea in calves. Because it is a virus, there is no specific treatment to kill the virus. Calves need to be fed large amounts of electrolyte solutions to survive, so once again, prevention is much the better option. If cows are vaccinated against rotavirus prior to the last month of pregnancy, their colostrum will contain antibodies against rotavirus, and as long as calves are fed this colostrum, they will be protected against the disease. It is important to note that once calves start drinking other milk eg calf milk powder feeds, protection is no longer there.

Some of the vaccines mentioned above can be purchased for you to give yourself, others are usually given by a vet. If you have never vaccinated animals before, it may be wise to get your vet to show you how the first time. Never vaccinate wet animals, as abscesses are likely to form, and always keep all the equipment clean, storing vaccines according to the instructions on the packet.

Once your animals are protected by vaccination against preventable disease, it is time to start thinking about preparing for the unexpected! More on this next time, but it is a good idea to have a few first aid supplies on hand, and a plan if disaster does strike! Think about a covered or sheltered area to keep a sick animal, and yards so that you can give medicines if needed. Talk to your vet about what you should keep as a first aid kit. If you have it ready, that’s the best way to ensure you won’t need it!!