Rural Notes 17

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Most vets greet autumn with a slight sense of trepidation. The passing of summer ends a relatively long and stable season of benign weather and generally low environmental health risks. With dropping temperatures, the provender of nature’s larder becomes scarcer, and stock rely on preserved feeds rather than fresh grass. Many disease carrying organisms fare better without high summer sunshine drying them out or forcing them to damper retreats. Rather, populations of many micro-organisms as well as larger fauna such as slugs and snails, start to rise and seem to become emboldened by shortening daylight hours. This can impact on all of our patients, such that cats, dogs and even pigeons and game birds have autumn related challenges as well as the more obvious problems which herbivorous cattle, sheep and horses face when their main dietary component ceases growing. I suppose most of us would agree that sunshine and warmth generally relate to our feeling well. Certainly, throat & chest infections, chapped skins, stiff joints, viral infections and such like are all rarer in summer than winter. Even the names convey the message; ‘Cold’, ‘Coldsore’, ‘Winter Vomiting Virus’-they pretty much sum it up!

For stock, the obvious risk accompanying autumn is pneumonia. This is much more prevalent, especially in cattle, than many readers might imagine. It is at least as serious as with humans, and in large measure, it occurs between now and Christmas. The biggest risk factor is housing, when they are brought into sheds for the winter. This is done because of a need to protect animals from impending inclement weather, to better manage their feeding of silage or hay, and to ensure their fields are not turned from their ‘green and pleasant land’ summer condition into a battlefield like mudbath which would not then grow the same quality grass the following summer. Housing is essential in most modern farm systems, for the above reasons, and because we have tended to import breeds from Europe which whilst having advantages for our farmers, are less well adapted to our damp, wet winters. Unfortunately, housing also means animals are kept in more tightly packed groups, & there is much more exchange of breathed air and saliva between individuals where sheds exclude wind and use shared feed & water facilities.

Cats and dogs are to some extent protected from many consequences of the seasons passing on to the next, but they are not wholly immune. Recent years have seen the northwards migration from continental Europe of the lungworm, and this is now firmly established in the UK, with cases occurring in Scotland at an increasing rate since 2007. This is a devastating and often fatal disease and it relies for its lifecycle, and its transmission to dogs, on the humble snail and slug. Absent for much of any decent and dry summer, both these creatures prosper as autumn descends and damper days become the norm. Of course, pneumonia in calves following their being herded into barns for winter, is a well understood consequence, and happily it is one we can prepare for, with appropriate vaccines, well designed sheds, and education to understand symptoms and initiate rapid and appropriate treatment. The same principle applies to lungworm infection in dogs, whereby appropriate preventative measures using advance protective parasite treatments, and education around the risk posed by slug and snail exposure can completely negate the risk. Less predictable are the myriad of seasonal conditions which can occur because of any number of combinations of seasonal effects, but which we cannot plan for.

With spring being so wet but, on the lowlands at least, so temperate, and then our summer eventually turning into a bumper one for sunshine and warmth, the county enjoyed an unusually high crop of fruit. Gardens and copses across the lower parts of East Lothian which escaped a late spring frost, have fruit trees bearing plums and apples, along with bushes bearing brambles and blackcurrants to an unusually generous extent. This has undoubtedly been good news for the gardeners amongst us, and it might be assumed, that it’s been equally positive for those animals who find themselves well placed to take advantage of nature’s bounty.. However, it seems not to be so simple, and in recent weeks we have had to deal with several cases which appear to have a similar underlying issue. Fruits generally share a high level of sugars in their flesh. In warm and sunny conditions, yeast populations are able to rapidly multiple wherever they find a host food source to take up residence. Come autumn, if ripe fruit supplies outstrip demand from fruit pickers, there is a risk of significant ‘windfall’ and the fruit can drop to the ground and provide excellent conditions for yeast colonisation. With a bit of heat and sun, conditions can become perfect for fermentation, and for alcohol production. In the past few weeks, we have treated a couple of dogs and a horse who have all been clearly intoxicated, and we think, all from eating fallen fruit. Both dogs had similar experiences, with access to gardens which boasted various fruit trees including plums and pears. In both instances, the unusually high yield of fruit had resulted in excess fruit falling to the ground, and quickly spoiling with signs of skin mould appearing. The owners had understandably elected to spare their kitchens any fruit ‘on the turn’, instead collecting barrowfuls of the stuff and throwing them onto the compost heap. With the aid of some composting heat and continued warm weather, the fruit must have started to ferment and produce alcohol. Attracted to these al fresco breweries, both dogs had eaten significant amounts of the fruit, before becoming profoundly unwell. In each case, they were found by their owners, incoordinated and staggering, looking depressed and ultimately starting to vomit. If the immediate cause was unclear once brought to us, it became clear after only a short while in one of our consulting rooms- doors and windows being shut. Slowly but surely, a strong smell of alcohol filled the air as our poor patients panted their way through the examination.

In both instances we were able to give medication to make them empty their stomachs, and with intravenous fluids and an overnight rest, both regained full health by the next morning, albeit wincing if the car door was slammed too loudly on their departure! My horse was similar, although this time the owner had collected the apples in a barrel with the intention of preserving them and feeding them gradually over winter. Unfortunately, the apples were not protected from yeasts in any way, and nor was the barrel adequately protected from a horse which smelled something attractive. In one eating, the barrel was pretty much devoured. By the time I was called, the smell of alcohol was evident even though the horse was in a field. Again, incoordinated and depressed, the patient was given fluids and the source of the problem was removed. A full recovery ensued.

I was left to ponder whether my fourth case within a fortnight might have been visited upon me when I was disturbed from my desk in my office at home, by a vision of the acopalypse, at least as far as my sitting room was concerned. I was in a meeting at home when a sinister rumble was heard from my sitting room across the hallway followed by the most curious of repeated and frantic scraping sounds. In many years residency of this house, I have not heard such a noise. I rose immediately and opened the door to find the room virtually unrecognisable. The main colour scheme is cream, or it was. It had become charcoal- every bit of the carpet and the furniture, the walls were darker, so too the curtains. The very air of the room was dark with soot. And, to ensure maximum dispersion of soot into every nook and cranny, there was a pigeon gamely flying into everything, creating little eddy’s of air turbulence that have kept us dusting for the last 3 weeks. I appreciate fear will have hindered this bird’s actions and exhaustion may have played a part, but it did appear unsteady on its legs when at last it took a rest from redecorating my house, and it was suddenly very easy to catch. I released it immediately, and it flew across the golf course outside my home at no more than 6 feet of height, a pigeon flight path I’ve not seen before. It certainly looked as if it might be over-refreshed, and after all, something made it fall down my chimney on a wind free day. It seems entirely possible that the accumulated soot from a year worth of fires was the consequence of a free fall chimney sweep by a drunken pigeon which had helped itself to some Chateau Watson from the fermenting plums in my garden, and then gone for a small siesta on my chimney pot.

There is an Attenborough episode which I recall from many years ago that showed a similar event on the Savannah, where a herd of elephants had ingested Marula berries and then visited a watering hole, drinking enough water to catalyse fermentation and resulting in their inebriation. I have no idea whether or not this is a common natural phenomenon, but there is a common similarity in farmed cattle. Many cattle bred for meat are purchased around this time of the year and are brought into sheds and fed on cereals- usually barley. There is a large amount of energy and protein in the barley, and the cattle do well on it. However, cattle ruminate, and as such, they ferment their feeds. It is vital that that they do not overfeed on the barley, as if so, they will ferment it and effectively ‘make beer’, in their first stomach, which they will then absorb, and will develop ‘Barley Poisoning’, with familiar signs of inco-ordination, depression etc. In this case, the main issue is one of a poison being produced as a consequence of the fermentation, rather than purely the alcohol which this bio-brewery produces; and happily, there is an effective anecdote which negates the effect of the barley poisoning. A 30ml dose is often adequate for a medium sized bullock. In a vet practice far far away, a story was once told to me by a client about a case of barley poisoning which necessitated the farmer calling the vet on January 1st. The vet was the senior partner, who had only ‘come on duty’ that morning, after a very sociable Christmas and Hogmanay break. As he drew up the medication, he was observed to have filled a 40ml syringe with the antidote. Asked whether this was a particularly bad case by the farmer’s wife, he replied, “No; it’s 30 ml for the beast and 10ml for the vet”.

 

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Glen Watson
Partner at Links Vet Group