When you hear “hardware disease”, the first thought that might pop into your mind is of Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor hurting himself on TV. While that might be true for humans, in cattle hardware disease is a real condition that can occasionally affect cows and bulls. Because the results are usually fatal, farmers and ranchers take extra care to prevent it from occurring.
Hardware disease develops when a cow or bull swallows a sharp object, often a nail or a piece of wire, that then punctures through their stomach. Cattle have a ruminant stomach, which is different from human stomachs in that it has four chambers. The first two chambers, the reticulum and rumen, together make a large fermentation vat where protozoa and bacteria help break down feed. In hardware disease, the sharp object that punctures the wall of the reticulum allows this microscopic life to escape into the rest of the body, where it causes an infection. Often this infection occurs near or around the heart.
The big question people have is how do cattle manage to eat a sharp object so easily? Wouldn’t it hurt in their mouth? The answer lies in the way cows bring food to their mouth. Cows use their tongue to sweep feed into their mouth. If you watch closely while they graze you can see their tongues coming out of their mouths. This sweeping action is indiscriminate, bringing in whatever their tongues scoop up. Other grazing animals, like horses, seldom have this issue because they use their lips to bring food to their mouths. Therefore they can be more selective about what they are grazing and leave sharp objects on the ground.
Since we can’t teach the cows to quit eating that way, the best means to prevent hardware disease is to keep the sharp objects away from the cattle. In the pasture, old wire, nails and staples are picked up and thrown away instead of being left on the ground. For cattle that eat out of a feed bunk, many feed delivery trucks have magnets on them that catch sharp metal objects to keep them out of the feed.
If an animal gets hardware disease, it is treated with antibiotics. My preference is a course of Poly-Flex over four days, as well as some Banamine, which is an anti-inflammatory drug. Our success rate is not fantastic with treatment, so prevention is what we strive for.