A disease that puzzles and stresses most farmers these days is the ‘Three-Day Stiffness’. This disease is caused by a virus and is transmitted by insect bites onto cattle, the way malaria moves into the human body after a mosquito bite.
Ardent readers of this column will notice that for the past month or so, we have been discussing diseases and problems caused by insect bites, such as mosquitoes, ticks and other flies. The reason is because we have been deliberately focussing on diseases that occur during spring and the rainy season and therefore appropriate for times like these.
Recently, a farmer called me from Gobabis area, saying that ‘my’ disease is apparently back on his farm. I remembered that I attended to a Three-Day Stiffness disease case on his farm some five years ago, hence they refer to it as ‘my’ disease. This disease is locally known by its Afrikaans name, Drie Dae Stywe Siekte but the real name is Bovine Ephemeral Fever (ephemeral means short-lived or transient). For our convenience, let’s just refer to it as 3DS.
For some reason, it is usually the bulls and high producing cows that show severe signs of 3DS. The signs may vary in individual animals but what farmers usually notice is the short duration of high fever, depression, stiffness and reluctance to move or they just lie down (recumbent). These recumbent animals may be bloated, constipated, or they may lose their swallowing reflex. In addition, animals lying down often may develop pneumonia (lung infection) as a complication and this can result to death. A small percentage of recumbent animals may not recover from the lameness due to damage that occurs to their muscles.
In Namibia, these clinical signs can be exacerbated by severe environmental stress or excessive handling of sick animals. But, the one positive thing about this disease is that there is usually a complete recovery within a few days, hence the name Three-Day Stiffness. However, bulls will often suffer temporary infertility lasting 3-6 months and pregnant cows may miscarry due to the high fever. On the second day of the illness, which may coincide with a rise in temperature, the symptoms are more severe. Animals usually become depressed, with an increased heart rate, difficulty in breathing, yellowish discharges from the nose as well as watery discharge from the eyes. Some of the severe cases that I have seen include profuse salivation, muscle twitching and shivering. By the third day, the affected animal is usually standing and will begin to eat again. However, lameness and weakness may persist for another 2-3 days.
An earlier indication among milking cows is the sudden and drastic reduction in milk production, which usually doesn’t return to normal.
To confirm 3DS, if a number of animals in a herd are taken ill with the variety of these signs, a provisional diagnosis can be made according to the symptoms and the season. However, in the case of a single animal, it is difficult since the symptoms may readily be confused with other conditions, such as milk fever, plant poisoning, botulism (lam siekte, ombindu), or a phosphate deficiency. Definite diagnosis can be made at the laboratory if blood from sick animals is tested.
There is no specific treatment for 3DS, however, plenty of rest, food and water as well as protection against sun, rain and wind is of benefit for recovery. The important thing is not to administer or force anything by mouth as the animal has difficulty in swallowing and the medicine may end up in the lungs or the animal can choke. The recumbent animals should also be rolled over several times a day to help avoid loss in blood circulation, which can lead to permanent muscle damage.
The usual antibiotic will also help with secondary bacterial infection although it is often not necessary. However, I would advise that bulls and high producing cows or those important sacred cows that you have “inherited from your grandparents” be treated promptly. A veterinarian can also prescribe an anti-inflammatory injection to reduce fever and aid in the speedy recovery of animals. Death is rare from this disease but 1% may die if not treated well or are manhandled.
The best control method for 3DS is by annual preventative vaccination. The immunisation should be done preferably in spring (September and October) from six months of age and repeated four weeks later. Similarly to treatment, I would advise farmers to at least vaccinate their bulls and valuable cows in case they are unable to vaccinate the whole herd.
In conclusion, 3DS has a fairly high economic impact in terms of loss in production, such as in decreased milk yield, loss of body condition, miscarriage, temporary infertility in bulls and prolonged recovery period in some animals. So, don’t get puzzled and confused when you hear cases of 3DS but vaccinate! Vaccinate! Vaccinate!