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Peritonitis more than hardware disease

Animal Health: Understanding the cause can often prevent it from happening again

cattle in a fenced pasture

Peritonitis refers to the inflammation or infection around the peritoneum, which is the inside lining in the abdomen of cattle and other species. Any infection involving or in the abdomen has the nondescript term peritonitis to describe it. This could be infection around the intestines, stomachs, liver or uterus in cows and heifers.

What is most important here is there are many causes of peritonitis. If your veterinarian can diagnose it and the cause, often measures can be taken to prevent future infections. Some cases aren’t really preventable, but at least you can be comforted in the thought there is nothing you could have done.

Signs of peritonitis

Increased temperature, depression and grunting from a painful abdomen are common signs of peritonitis. Your veterinarian may take samples for a blood count and check fibrinogen levels, which indicate that inflammatory material is collecting in the abdomen.

The abdomen is painful on palpation and a veterinary test is the grunt test with a withers pinch.

The disease entity talked about most by producers is ‘hardware disease,’ which is a form of peritonitis. This is caused by something sharp, usually a metal object, penetrating though the reticulum (first stomach) and causing leakage of contents and infection. This may even involve infection around the heart. This is a very good example of finding the cause and learning early treatment options. Your veterinarian may in certain circumstances advise putting magnets in the cattle.

The magnets stay in the reticulum for the life of the animal. Any ingested iron metal compound sticks to the magnet and prevented from penetrating through the first stomach. Magnets have come down in price over the years and the good ones are very strong.

Intensive feeder operations, including dairies where lots of equipment is used, have an increased risk of metal getting into the feed sources and hardware disease can be a reoccurring problem. If caught early anti-inflammatory drugs and antibiotics, which get into the abdomen may be prescribed.

A good many other causes of acute diffuse peritonitis result in a fairly sudden death (over one to two days). That is why autopsies on these cows may provide very usable information. These deaths can often be posted under the BSE testing program provided the animal is more than 30 months of age and meets the other criteria.

A post-mortem is absolutely critical to help determine the exact cause of the peritonitis. Sometimes the animal’s history may point to the cause, such as a hard calving or head back or a breech birth that was corrected. All these problems may lead to a torn uterus if one is not careful. Then the placenta and uterine contents leak into the abdomen and peritonitis is the result.

In major infections the whole abdomen may be infected and it may actually be very difficult for the attending veterinarian to determine the initiating cause of the infection. Cattle have an amazing ability to try and wall off the infection, minimizing its spread, which is why they can handle abdominal infection better than many other species. This is why C-sections can be performed in barns with surprisingly good results as long as some degree of hygiene is performed.

Several causes for infection

Peritonitis can be caused from other things such as abscesses on the liver rupturing or the vagina of a heifer rupturing from a traumatic breeding by a large aggressive bull. Grain overloads can lead to peritonitis, especially around the rumen.

The rectum may rupture at calving or another phenomenon called the scissor effect can occur if the cow’s small intestines get trapped between the pelvis and uterus. This happens more often with a backward calving. As the calf is expelled the pressure on the intestines creates a cut from the cow’s pelvis. Ingesta is spilled out internally and the cow usually dies within 24 to 36 hours. These can happen from a pull or even when a cow calves naturally. Post-mortems in this case identify the problem. These injuries generally can’t be prevented. Knowing the cause helps rules out other causes for sudden death of cows such as blackleg or grass tetany, which can be prevented.

I have actually twice seen in my long veterinary career a cow’s rectum rip clear through from palpating. Both damages would have caused the animals to die. In one case, I had the heifer emergency slaughtered and in the other instance I was able to suture the tear back up. This is why in tough calvings or when malpresentations are corrected we later check the uterus to make sure there are not any tears. If you discover them call your veterinarian, as they may be able to suture them and save the cow.

Treatment and prevention

When treating cows for milk fever and other metabolic disorders, certain products are approved for intraperitoneal use but many are not, so be careful. If administering a product, make sure the needle is new and is given through a clean area. At one time there was a rumen injector on the market for giving a deworming product directly into the rumen. It was very soon pulled because of the peritonitis it was causing. This could be an infectious process or a chemical peritonitis from the sensitive internal organs reaction to the product. In either case you have a very sick animal. We must be careful and at first do no harm, so think twice about injecting anything into the abdomen unless advised by your veterinarian.

The newest trend in pregnancy testing is using an ultrasound with an introducer. Your veterinarian must use lots of lubricant on these and introduce it carefully if the cows have dry manure. I have heard of two instances where there has been a perforation of the colon by the introducer ,resulting in a dead cow. Unlike when I did preg checking manually, the ultrasound method provides no clue of similar damage. So after handling, processing or preg checking it is good to have any sudden deaths posted. If an injury or perforation during processing or treatment occurs steps can be made to hopefully prevent it happening in the future.

Peritonitis in young calves can result from perforated abomasal ulcers, blocked intestines, or navel infections that develop internally. Always keep these in mind when dealing with sick calves. Many methods are used to prevent navel infections and surgery may be done on the other two problems if caught early enough.

Work with your veterinarian by posting unexplained deaths. The incidence of many of these causes can be reduced or as already mentioned you may even find a disease you never expected. A diagnosis of peritonitis on post-mortem would be very hard for trained veterinarians to miss, but the key is what really caused it in the first place.

About the author


Roy Lewis is an Alberta-based veterinarian specializing in large-animal practice. He is also a part-time technical services vet for Merck Animal Health.



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