When it comes to eating, cattle don’t usually sort their food, which means they can ingest foreign matter when eating hay or processed feed. Among that foreign material can be metal objects, such as pieces of wire, nails, or metal flakes from feeding equipment. These objects generally settle into the reticulum to cause what’s called “hardware stomach.”

Once ingested the cow’s digestive contractions can push these sharp objects through the stomach wall, into the abdomen, chest cavity, even the heart. Medical terms for hardware disease include traumatic reticulo-peritonitis or traumatic reticulo-pericarditis, depending on where the object travels.

Andrew Niehaus, Ohio State University assistant professor of farm animal surgery, says hardware stomach is a continuum.

The result of ingested metal can be as benign as reticulitis if the object only lodges in the reticulum where it causes irritation, he says. Because the object doesn’t puncture the wall, these animals may have “off” days when they suffer a little gastrointestinal pain, but they aren’t sick, he says.

“The next step in seriousness is when the object pokes through the wall of the reticulum and goes into the abdomen, causing contamination and peritonitis,” he says. But it also may go farther and penetrate the heart.

“The reticulum is next to the diaphragm, and on the other side of the diaphragm is the heart. If the metal pokes through into the pericardial sac around the heart, the cow becomes very sick, with signs of heart failure.”

One of the major risks of hardware stomach comes with parturition. A piece of metal may not be problematic moving around in one of the cow’s stomachs, or walled off in a local abscess. But during late pregnancy, the distended uterus can put pressure on the reticulum or disturb walled-off infections. Once in labor, the pushing to give birth may break old adhesions loose or push a wire through the stomach wall.

The reticulum is next to the diaphragm and, as the cow strains to deliver her calf, she may push an object into the peritoneum, or through the diaphragm. “This is when a mild problem becomes a bigger problem,” Niehaus says. If a cow does poorly after calving, hardware may be the cause.