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One of the five most economically important cattle diseases in the industry, coccidiosis is a costly parasitic disease, primarily in young calves.
A calf with coccidiosis occasionally shows nervous signs that can vary from twitching to incoordination, loss of balance, and even seizures.
“This syndrome isn’t completely understood,” says Gary Zimmerman, veterinary researcher in Livingston, MT. “Some researchers believe it’s not due to the coccidia themselves, but mineral depletion from the damaged and compromised intestinal tract. Neurotoxins have also been suggested as a cause.”
Such nervous signs occur in 10%-30% of calves with coccidiosis. Joe Dedrickson, Merial’s field director of veterinary services, says parasitologists and diagnostic labs use the term “nervous enteritis” for the condition, since it’s associated with enteritis, which is inflammation of the intestines.
The condition can be difficult to treat. “Calves may respond and look better, and you think the drug worked, but it’s probably the supportive treatment – intravenous (IV) fluids, dextrose, etc., – that helped,” Dedrickson says. Traditional drugs may help, however, by removing coccidia.
Some animals in a coccidiosis outbreak may be weak from diarrhea, dehydration and anemia. If they stagger or go down and have trouble getting up, this may be mistaken for nervous coccidiosis.
“Actual nervous coccidiosis syndrome is dramatic, however,” Dedrickson says. “If these animals become excited, they go into convulsions, drop to the ground and kick; muscles become rigid. If a calf goes down, and you give him thiamin and dextrose IV, oral electrolytes, get him upright so he won’t bloat, and leave him alone – he’s usually gotten up and rejoined the herd when you come back an hour later.”
You may think you did a miracle cure, but the calf simply got over the seizure.
“The convulsions may be dramatic, but if you let them be calm and quiet for awhile, they become normal again. The death rate when you see nervous signs is fairly high, however; more than half generally die in the next few days. They get up and look good, but the next morning you find them dead,” probably of another seizure, Dedrickson says.
Heather Thomas is a rancher and freelance writer based in Salmon, ID.
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