Hardware disease is the term used when complications occur after an animal consumes objects such as nails, wire, or even tin cans. This condition is particularly associated with bovine due to the fact that cows have been known to make a lunch of steel or tin objects. Renowned veterinarian C.E. Spaulding states, "Why bovines like the taste of steel and tin, I'll never know; but I've seen a cow happily munching down 16-penny spikes as her owner patched a barn wall."
Hardware disease is not limited to cattle and it is not restricted to animals simply grazing on these metal objects. Commercial feed producers go to great lengths to keep foreign materials out of their products but objects have been known to slip in unknowingly including metal materials. When hay is cut and baled, debris in hay fields can also be trapped in the bales and innocently fed to livestock. Once these materials enter the animal's system, a wide range of troubles can occur which can lead to the death of the animal.
In cattle, these metal materials can accumulate in the cow's reticulum or a chamber of the animal's digestive tract. As this chamber churns food, sharp points of the metal objects can breach the wall of the reticulum. These pieces can then migrate to other organs inside the cow's body including the liver, spleen, or the heart.
Diagnosing hardware disease is not a simple process since the symptoms are not always the same with each animal and the symptoms can mimic other diseases. The clinical signs of this condition will vary depending upon where the metal is located within the animal's body. Signs that a cow may be having complications from consuming metal include lack of appetite, loss of weight, abnormal stools, or a lower milk production. The cow may move slower, make a "grunting" noise as it breathes out, or stand with its left elbow angled out. The animal may have an elevated temperature or the cow may not exhibit any of these symptoms and will only appear "unwell".
Often times, diagnosing hardware disease is simply an educated guess. Cattle owners can utilize hospital techniques that include having x-rays performed and metal detectors have also been used to locate metal inside an animal's body but neither of these techniques are fool-proof. It is important to contact a veterinarian immediately if hardware disease is suspected. If the reticulum is pierced, antibiotics can be administered to fight infection. Valuable cattle can have a rumenotomy but when this is not an option, the cow is generally shipped to market.
When caught early, a vet can feed a bolus-shaped magnet to the cow. This magnet will collect any metallic pieces and hold it in the reticulum preventing the debris from traveling throughout the cow's system. Cattle owners can also feed these magnets to their stock to prevent hardware disease from occurring. The average cost of these magnets is inexpensive compared to the cost of veterinary care or the cost of the cow.
Hardware disease is not limited to metal objects. Any foreign object that a cow consumes which leads to complications is referred to as hardware disease. Plastic can also lead to problems especially hard plastic objects which have sharp edges. Prevention is key in keeping a healthy herd. Cattle should be kept away from old buildings, wire should not be left lying on the ground, and trash and debris should be removed from the herd's environment. Cows are not discriminate with what they consume so cattle owners should take preventative measures to keep their livestock healthy and safe.
VETERINARY GUIDE FOR ANIMAL OWNERS, by C.E. Spaulding, D.V.M. and Jackie Clay, copyright 1998.