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Hardware Disease in Cattle: Diagnosis & Control Measures

Hardware Disease in Cattle: Diagnosis & Control Measures

Hardware disease in cattle, also known as bovine traumatic reticuloperitonitis, is one of the most overlooked phenomena by cattle farmers. Farmers are often quick to deal with bacterial, viral, or fungal diseases but ignore hardware disease, which is just as devastating. It is quite a serious disease since cattle may lack the intelligence to selectively avoid hardware in their feed.

The major route of infection is oral. Cows usually do not chew their feed properly to eliminate foreign matter. They only chew it enough to form a bolus and coat it with saliva to make it easy to swallow. This is why they are susceptible to consuming foreign matter.

Peritonitis occurs as a result of ingestion of sharp materials of metallic or plastic nature. The objects are collectively referred to as hardware, hence the name of the disease.

The hardware, after ingestion, rests in the reticulum where it can pierce the lining leading to secondary infections in the abdominal and thoracic cavity.

The effects of hardware disease

Even though some cattle do not show symptoms of hardware disease, it is interesting to note that up to 70 percent of slaughtered cull cattle have some form of hardware in their bodies (According to the University of Missouri, extension department).

In some cases, the hardware was not sharp enough and did not cause any puncturing in the stomach. In other instances, the cattle had rumen magnets that held the hardware thus preventing further damage. Such animals will live normally without showing any symptoms.

On the flip side, some animals are not quite fortunate. The sharp objects in the stomach will pierce the stomach walls and puncture vital organs such as the heart.

At the onset, you may notice quite a high load of undigested feed in the dung. You may mistake it for indigestion. The animal will exhibit a dull demeanor and go off feed.

Organ failure may occur due to puncturing of such organs. This will most probably lead to death of the animal. Animals that manage to recover usually have complications, as the puncturing of the organs will lead to adhesion of the foreign object.

Diagnosing hardware disease in cattle

Hardware disease does not have specific signs.

Usually, the sick cow will lose appetite and show signs of pain. The animal may groan when it lies down or when it is pressed from the sternum.

Reduced appetite will lead to drop in production for the lactating animals.

If the hardware wounds the animal, secondary infections will occur. You will observe multiple organ failure as a result.

a) Wither’s and grunt test

The most commonly used test to check for hardware disease is the wither’s test. Here, you pinch the cow’s withers and observe the reaction.

Normally, a healthy cow will nudge the pinch (downwards) to avoid the irritation. However, a sick cow (hardware disease) will not nudge downwards because the pain from below is far greater.

Grunt test involves pressing the sternum upwards. The cow with hardware disease will produce a grunting sound due to the pain in the abdominal and/or thoracic cavity.


Do not confuse peritonitis/hardware disease with abomasal ulcer. A cow that is suffering from abomasal ulcer will produce dark/tarry blood stained stool, which is not the case with peritonitis.

b) Radiography and Ultrasound

Even though radiography is quite accurate, size limitations hamper its effective use. The x-ray reveals the exact nature of the object and the position.

However, non-metal hardware may not be visible, especially if they are not dense enough to block the rays.

In such cases, ultrasound is more effective.

c) Laboratory testing

Not commonly done for hardware disease. Increase in fibrinogen and plasma protein content in the blood can confirm the presence of hardware disease.

Symptoms of Hardware Disease

Symptoms of hardware disease in cattle vary depending on the site of infection. Some of the most commonly observed signs include:

  1. The cow looks depressed and loses appetite. It may have arched back, distended abdomen, and show reluctance to move. You may have to push it around but it will walk with a slow careful gait.
  2. Poor digestion exhibited as bloating and the cow has pain when lying down, getting up, urinating, and defecating. These symptoms are mostly recurrent.
  3. Fluid may accumulate around the heart as a result of infection. The brisket will be enlarged as a result of excessive fluid. The heart may also produce abnormal sounds with elevated heart rate, and shallow but rapid respiration.
  4. Perforations in the reticulum may lead to formation of abscesses and lesions between the reticulum and the diaphragm.
  5. You may find metals in the reticulum when you slaughter the affected cow. However, the digestive enzymes may have fully digested the metal with time.
  6. Dairy cows will experience a drop in milk production.
  7. If the sharp object moves to the peritoneal cavity, it will cause severe inflammation. This is easily diagnosed by a simple radiography or ultrasonography.

 You can watch this video. It illustrates how to insert the rumen magnet.

Treating Hardware Disease in Cattle

Hardware disease in cattle is a serious condition that will lead to eventual death if not treated in time. It is hard to diagnose conclusively and may call for advanced procedures such as radiography.

To prevent the rumen content from pushing against the diaphragm, you may need to elevate the cow’s forelimbs using an appropriate platform. Your vet will advice accordingly.

The elevation is quite slow a process and will take up to 20 days to effectively stop the forward movement of the hardware from the reticulum. Apply antibiotics during this time. Again, your vet should advice.

i) Rumen Magnets

The most inexpensive treatment method involves administration of rumen magnet. The magnet traps all the magnetic metals and immobilize the mass hence reducing chances of injury.

The magnet may eventually fill up if the cow continually swallows metals in the feed. You will need to administer another magnet if the observable symptoms of hardware disease persist.

ii) Antibiotic treatment.

In some instances, the infestation may be so extensive that the animal suffers from punctured organs and consequent bacterial infection.

In such cases, you may confine the animal and limit feed intake while applying a broad-spectrum antibiotic. Even though this may work, animals with extensive organ injury and poor prognosis will succumb to the infections and organ failure.

iii) Surgical option.

If the animal is highly valued (high producer or excellent breeder), you may need to consider surgery for the animal. The attending veterinary surgeon will be able to physically remove the objects from the cow’s stomach.

After the surgery, the cow will need close monitoring and control of infections to fully recover.

Control / Prevention Measures for Hardware Disease in Cattle

The best and surest method of controlling hardware disease in cattle is prevention. It is best if the dangerous solids do not find their way into the stomach of the cow in the first place.

Here is what you need to do to control hardware disease in cattle:

i) Monitor the feed quality and hygiene.

Keep the pastures clean by removing abandoned items like old tyres, nails, fencing staples, wires, plastics, and other dangerous items. Some cattle may eat these when they have pica or accidentally pick them up with forage material.

You should observe high standards of feed hygiene. Remove sharp and/or indigestible objects like plastics and metals from the feed by using magnets, sieves, and other available means.

To remove magnetic metals, you can pass a  general purpose magnet  in the feed during mixing to trap the nails and needles.

There are several domestic feed mixers and processors in the market today but their design do not facilitate efficient removal of hardware. We only hope that something better can be developed soon, and going by this article, the prospects are promising.

ii) Use  rumen magnets

Another common method of preventing hardware disease in cattle is through the use of cow magnets. Cow magnets are veterinary recommended treatment and prevention methods  for hardware disease in cattle.

The rumen magnets are made of rare earth metals or ferrite metals encased in stainless steel or plastic to prevent rusting.

They are administered using a  bolus gun  (preferably before the cow turns one year old). The administration should be done after starving the cow for about 20 hours.

The magnet remains in the cow’s stomach for the rest of its life and will trap all magnetic metals that the cow swallows accidentally. This reduces the movement of these hardware and their damaging effects.

Healthy Cows Eat Magnets

Rumen magnets may help avoid many problems associated with accidental consumption of hardware. You may not be able to always watch your cattle every time they feed, but you can give your cow the rumen magnet and rest assured that it will prevent serious damage.

You should, however, note that the magnets will not trap non-magnetic metals the animal may swallow by accident. The best way to avoid hardware disease is to ensure that the animal does not come into contact with metals. Make sure to remove all metals and physically inspect their feed to remove any pieces of metals that may be present.

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