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Cow laying in field

Clostridial diseases

Clostridial diseases are fatal diseases that strike cattle and sheep suddenly, often causing death before any clinical signs are seen.

The bacteria that cause these diseases create very long lived spores that are found everywhere in the environment and can easily be picked up by grazing cattle or enter the body through a wound.

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  • Clostridial diseases are caused by bacteria of the genus Clostridium.

    • Clostridia are widespread in the environment and are normally found in soil and faeces. They form highly resistant spores that can survive in the environment for very long periods.
    • They are also present in the gastro-intestinal tract and as spores in tissues of healthy animals.
    • Contributing factors are necessary to allow the clostridia bacteria to multiply and cause disease.

    Not all species of clostridia cause disease, but those that do are usually fatal.

    Clostridium species include:

    • Cl. septicum (malignant oedema)
    • Cl. chauvoei (blackleg)
    • Cl. sordellii
    • Cl. novyi type D
    • Cl. novyi type B (black disease)
    • Cl. perfringens Types A, B, C and D (enterotoxemia)
    • Cl. tetani (tetanus)
    • Cl. botulinum (botulism)

    Healthy animals with no previous outward signs of disease are often affected.

    Contributing factors are necessary to allow the clostridia bacteria to multiply and cause disease e.g.:

    • Injury or invasive procedure such as surgery, birth or puncture wounds creating an opportunity for these bacteria to invade the body and release toxins.
    • Diet changes, overeating and acidosis resulting in clostridia bacteria in the gut multiplying and causing disease.
    • Black disease: Liver flukes migrating through the liver
    • Botulism: in this case toxin may be ingested after multiplication of the clostridia bacteria in the environment (e.g. chicken litter spread on the field).
  • Clinical signs will differ depending on the type of bacteria:

    • Sudden death in apparently healthy animals
    • Lethargy or depression, with death occurring in 6–24 hours
    • High fever
    • Anorexia
    • Localized stiffness
    • Muscle spasms
    • Port-wine-coloured urine
    • Blackleg: Acute lameness and swelling in hip or shoulder with a “crackling” sensation when skin is pressed
    • Botulism: flaccid paralysis is the main presenting sign (Inability to retract the tongue in a recumbent case)
  • Diagnosis may be made on clinical signs and epidemiology but for a definitive diagnosis post-mortem examination and laboratory confirmation are usually required.

  • Clostridial infection progresses so quickly that it is rarely possible to treat this disease successfully.

    For some clostridial diseases antitoxins may be available to help in treatment and rarely in some very early cases antibiotic treatment may be beneficial.

  • Vaccination is a safe, economical and reliable strategy for preventing clostridial disease.

    Various combinations of clostridial vaccines are available to help protect against these deadly bacteria.

    As with other vaccines it is essential that the clostridial vaccines are used exactly according to the data sheet.

    Clostridial vaccines usually require a primary course of 2 doses of vaccine separated by several weeks to be effective.

    Always consult the product data sheet before use.

  • Since clostridial disease often affects the healthiest, fastest-growing calves or lambs and highest-producing cows, the economic impact can be high.

    Blackleg, Black disease or other clostridial diseases can steal your investment in a promising replacement heifer or a reliable mature cow.

  • When do most cases occur?
    While clostridial disease can occur at any time of the year, most cases of clostridial disease occur during the grazing period.

    Are two injections necessary for a primary course?
    While some clostridial vaccines licensed in other countries are single shot vaccines (e.g. botulism vaccine in Australia), yes the clostridial vaccines currently licensed in the UK require two injections 4-6 weeks apart.

    How long do the vaccines last?
    Up to 12 months, but this varies by disease so animals may require boosters before subsequent risk periods e.g. at turnout the following year.

  • 1Clostridial disease control in sheep  Vet clinics of North America Volume 27 Issue 1 Chris Lewis