Dear Daktari

In 2020, I lost one of my best and healthiest bulls. The vet told me Black Quarter was to blame. What surprised me was the short duration of the disease. If I was not a Christian, I may have assumed it was witchcraft. Kindly educate me on this disease. [Wycliffe Oduori, Matayos, Busia County]

Happy New Year Mr Oduori and many thanks for reading The Smart Harvest. 

What is Black Quarter?

This disease goes by many names – Black leg, Quarter Evil, Quarter ill, Clostridial myositis. All these names describe an aspect of the disease. Black Quarter is a highly fatal and acute bacterial (Clostridium chauvoei) disease that has a liking for the healthiest cows in a herd. It affects cattle and sheep. The disease is characterised by a short course and will have a swelling of the muscles especially the hind quarters without any prior history of a wound or injury in cows. But in sheep, it is always a result of a wound infection after shearing, tail docking, castration or injuries.

What causes Black Quarter

The bacteria that cause Black Quarter are natural habitats of the intestinal tract of animals, they can also be found in soil where they can remain infective for years. Outbreaks may follow recent mass opening up of land or soils. The bacteria are normally ingested, enter the blood stream and cause infections. Excess exercise like walking for long distances or working the cow precipitates the infection. The disease is common in beef animals and prefers the healthiest adult cows in a herd or the thriftiest calf.  

Clinical signs of Black Quarter

If you suddenly see lameness in an initially healthy animal; you are most likely staring at Black Quarter. Affected animals will have an initial high fever transient fever. On palpation with your hand you will feel crepitant swelling on the hip mostly but this might also happen on the shoulder, chest, back and neck. Later on, the animal will fall down and may have tremors. Death occurs within 12-48 hours after the onset of the clinical signs. When postmortem is done, you will notice affected muscles are dark red to black and are dry and spongy.

How to Control Blackleg

Treatment of black quarter is only possible in the very initial stages of the infection. This involves wound dressing and administration of antibiotics. As the disease advances treatment is of little value. There is a very effective and affordable vaccine against black quarter. In Kenya this is distributed by Coopers and Highchem companies. The vaccine is given annually. In outbreaks vaccinations are normally done accompanied by preventive administration of antibiotics. Restricted movements should be practiced to avoid spread of the disease. Carcasses should be destroyed by burning or deep burial in a fenced area to avoid animals from coming into contact with such heavily contaminated soils. Lime or a disinfectant should be sprinkled on the carcass before burial.

[Dr Othieno is a veterinary surgeon and the head of communications at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) Kenya. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of FAO]

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